A tour de force of history and imagination, The Lady and the Unicorn is Tracy Chevalier’s answer to the mystery behind one of the art world’s great masterpieces—a set of bewitching medieval tapestries that hangs today in the Cluny Museum in Paris. They appear to portray the seduction of a unicorn, but the story behind their making is unknown—until now.
Paris, 1490. A shrewd French nobleman commissions six lavish tapestries celebrating his rising status at Court. He hires the charismatic, arrogant, sublimely talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. Nicolas creates havoc among the women in the house—mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting—before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the tapestries—his finest, most intricate work—on time for his exacting French client. The results change all their lives—lives that have been captured in the tapestries, for those who know where to look.
In The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier weaves fact and fiction into a beautiful, timeless, and intriguing literary tapestry—an extraordinary story exquisitely told.
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April 08, 2004
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Excerpt from The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier
The messenger said I was to come at once. That's how Jean Le Viste is -- he expects everyone to do what he says immediately.
And I did. I followed the messenger, stopping just briefly to clean my brushes. Commissions from Jean Le Viste can mean food on the table for weeks. Only the King says no to Jean Le Viste, and I am certainly no king.
On the other hand, how many times have I rushed across the Seine to the rue du Four, only to come back again with no commission? It's not that Jean Le Viste is a fickle man -- on the contrary, he is as sober and hard as his beloved Louis XI once was. Humorless too. I never jest with him. It's a relief to escape his house to the nearest tavern for a drink and a laugh and a grope to restore my spirits.
He knows what he wants. But sometimes when I come to discuss yet another coat of arms to decorate the chimney, or to paint on his wife's carriage door, or to work into a bit of stained glass for the chapel -- people say the Le Viste arms are as common as horse dung -- he'll stop suddenly, shake his head, and say with a frown, "This is not needed. I should not be thinking about such commonplace matters. Go." And I do, feeling guilty, as if I am to blame for bringing a carriage's decoration to his attention, when it was he who called for me.
I'd been to the rue du Four house half a dozen times before. It is not a place that impresses. Even with all the fields around it, it is built as if it were in the middle of the city, with the rooms long and narrow, the walls too dark, the stables too close -- the house always smells of horses. It is the sort of house a family that has bought its way into the Court would live in -- grand enough but poorly placed. Jean Le Viste probably thinks he has done well to be given such a place to live, while the Court laughs behind his back. He should be living close to the King and Notre Dame, not outside the city walls in the swampy fields around Saint-Germain-des-Pry's.
When I arrived the steward took me not to Jean Le Viste's private chamber, a map-lined room where he performs duties for Court and King alongside family matters, but to the Grande Salle, where the Le Vistes receive visitors and entertain. I had never been there. It was a long room with a large hearth at the opposite end from the door and an oak table down the center. Apart from a stone coat of arms that hung on the chimney breast and another painted over the door, it was unadorned -- though the ceiling was paneled with handsome carved wood.
Not so grand, I thought as I looked around. Although shutters were open, the fire hadn't been lit and the room was chilly with its bare walls.
"Wait here for my master," the steward said, glaring at me. In this house people either respected artists or showed their contempt.
I turned my back on him and gazed out of a narrow window where there was a clear view of the towers of Saint-Germain-des-Pry's. Some say Jean Le Viste took this house so that his pious wife could step across to the church easily and often.