The Maison des Musiciens, or House of Musicians, used to stand in the Rue de Tambour in Reims. Today, there is a concrete wall in its place that no one gives a second look. Yet, in the 13th century, on that very spot next to the Residence of the Counts of Champagne, there stood one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. And now, an association called the ‘Renaissance de la Maison des Musiciens de Reims’ has plans in place to rebuild the building’s façade.
In the 19th century, the Maison des Musiciens enjoyed great renown and was studied time and again by architects of the age. Its sculpted façade provided a rare example of secular imagery from the Medieval period and was even considered by French architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, as having “some of the most beautiful secular statues in Europe”.
Although the history and purpose of this house built around 1260 are unclear, it would have belonged to a merchant who made his fortune in the linen trade, at a time when Reims’s prosperity stemmed mainly from textiles. In an extravagant display of wealth, this rich trader had a house built on Rue de Tambour, in the heart of the old business quarter, and employed craftsmen to embellish it with a group of statues featuring four musicians surrounding a fifth statue, the listener – most certainly a representation of the master of the house. These sculptures are very reminiscent of the musicians depicted on Reims Cathedral. “We are almost entirely sure that these statues were made by the sculptors who worked on the cathedral. They are almost identical in terms of timeline”, Jacques Douadi, president of the association behind the façade restoration points out.
Fortunately, the statues were removed and taken to safety before the bombings of 1918 which completely destroyed the house; they are now on display at the Saint-Remi Museum in Reims. Thanks to rescued remains and a prolific amount of documentation including 19th-century illustrations and photographs, the ‘Renaissance de la Maison des Musiciens de Reims’ association, which came to own the piece of land and wall through a donation from Maison Taittinger, was able to launch the reconstruction project.
Working in close consultation with a Bâtiments de France heritage architect as well as with the association, local architect Frédéric Coqueret (from BLP agency) is at the helm of the project, together with Alice Capron-Valat (another heritage architect). For this assignment, he has lined up a cohort of experts in the field to assist him in restoring the statuary. These include Professor Emeritus of Medieval History (and association member) Patrick Demouy and the Instrumentarium de Reims, consulted for its expertise in Medieval musical instruments.
To avoid speculation in the absence of certainty with regards to the original appearance of the décor, it was unanimously agreed that the ground floor of the façade would be built in such a way that it reflects traces of the building’s architectural past with a relief-and-recess effect. The gate built into the ground floor will be intricately worked in oak and cast aluminium.
As this isn’t an ‘archaeological’ reconstruction, the original sculptures will remain on show in the Saint-Remi Museum. And so, what we will see on the façade are reproductions, created using digital modelling and the finishing touches of a craftsman. However, these copies, as the president of the association explains, will have all their necessary parts before gracing the front of the building: “We can’t just make do with a restoration of the statues as they were in 1918 as they had already suffered a lot. Except for one musician, none of the others had their musical instruments anymore. We aren’t going to heal all the wounds of time, but we can at least give them back their instruments and parts of the body to play them with. As for the listener, we are going to return the hawk that once sat on his fist. We are really trying to come up with an intelligible and meaningful restoration.”
Bringing together a small group of people eminently involved in the cultural influence of the Coronation City, the association, created in 2015, is set to lay the first stone this year. The building work, which will last for almost 12 months, is being financed by local authorities and private patrons from home and abroad, proof of the rich heritage that the building embodies for the city of Reims, of course, but also more broadly, nationally and internationally.