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Montage | Open Book

Palace Indignities

January-February 2007

Alexis Gregory ’57 is a collector of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, a member of the Harvard University Art Museums Collections Committee, and the founder of the Vendome Press in New York City, which he now co-owns with Mark Magowan ’76. They publish about 15 illustrated art books a year, recently including one written by Gregory, Private Splendor: Great Families at Home ($50). He and photographer Marc Walter roam inside eight great European houses that have been owned by the same families since they were first built. They were permitted so close a look round not merely because the owners are friends of Gregory’s, but because, one supposes, exposure is among the economic indignities facing palace dwellers today. As Gregory puts it:

Marc Walter/From The Book
Schloss St. Emmeram, in the ancient city of Regensburg, Bavaria, is the largest private home in Europe still kept up by a princely family.
 

Owning or, even worse, having to keep up a great ancestral home has always been a difficult proposition. Enemies once attacked with armies and cannon fire, revolutionaries stormed the gates, governments confiscated land or attempted to collect taxes and inheritance duties. Families fought for control while nature waged an unending battle and acres of roof constantly needed repairing. Many gardeners, cooks, maids, and footmen are needed to maintain the style of life for which stately homes were built, and one wonders why the descendents of the original owners do not simply give up and stop sacrificing their fortunes and peace of mind to continue a lifestyle that has been of the past for nearly a century.

The answer is undoubtedly ancestor worship. Palace building is the most fundamental expression of power. It can be seen clearly in the vast houses being built today in Palm Beach, Dubai, or in the suburbs of Moscow. It was once evident on New York’s Fifth Avenue, which, in the 1890s, resembled a condensed tour through the châteaux of the Loire. But the houses of the newly rich have never been able to boast of a gloriously long dynastic history, and that is what the owners of the splendid palaces seen [here] do not want to give up. They will marry dollar or peso heiresses, dispose of the family jewels, auction off their furniture, sell entrance tickets, open zoos and cafeterias, put on pop concerts, petition ministers, beg the local government for support, rent out their rooms of state for company meetings, let in the local butcher for his daughter’s wedding.… And the visitors imagine that somewhere, in an area of the house they will never be invited to, life goes on as it once did. In some houses, it does indeed, although the footmen are now hired by the day rather than for life, and often the hosts are entertaining tycoons who have rented the stately pile for a shooting weekend.