Built over 400 years ago in 1609, the house has an amazing and long history.
When William Shakespeare was still writing his plays, Manhattan was still owned by the Canarsee Indians, and the first Europeans had only just landed in Australia … the house was being built.
Judging by it’s size, grandeur and central position in the village the property would have been commissioned by a wealthy and important individual.
It was constructed from boulders, stones and ‘tuff’, a particular kind of rock formed from volcanic ash which is highly porous and easy to cut but at the same time very strong. All the materials would have been in plentiful supply in the surrounding fields.
The house has no foundations as we would build them today, just earth. It’s enduring strength comes from its vaulted stone basement which supports the entire weight of the building and its hugely thick outside and inside walls. The external walls are 50 to 70 centimeters thick and internal walls mostly 20 to 50.
The thickness of the walls gives the property it’s strength but they also act as super efficient insulation. When the summer sun is beating down outside the house stays cool and fresh. The ground floor is a remarkable five degrees lower in temperature than the outside and the temperature drops a further five degrees in the basement. And of course the opposite holds true. When it’s cold outside the property retains its warmth.
For that reason part of the basement was used for a cuve a vin … a stone vat for storing wine. The vat, which was lined with ceramic tiles, was built to withstand the weight of the liquid with stone walls more than 50 centimeters thick.
The wood used for the supporting beams in the house is Merisier – wild cherry wood. It’s a beautiful ruddy-brown in colour and was apparently abundant at the time but is now rarely found. The trees were obviously huge because the five main beams in the salon (lounge) are seven metres long.
The beams are cut so straight and true that it’s hard to believe that they are original to the house. But apparently the impressive results would have been achieved by a two man team who specialized in such work. They travelled from village to village preparing beams for house construction. They’d dig a hole – a saw pit – somewhere near the building site, deep enough for one of them, usually the apprentice who’d get covered in saw dust, to jump into. They’d then drag a tree trunk over the hole, fix it in place, and with a double-handed saw cut their way down the length of the tree trunk.
The entrance hall of the house is 11 meters long and still has its original flagstone floor. The huge stone slabs – some of them a meter long – are the same as those that can be seen in the entrance hall to the Catholic Cathedral in the local town of Saint-Maximin-Sainte-Baume.
The salon (lounge), staircase and landings still have their original tomette floor tiles – the famous hexagonal cheery-red tiles made of local clay. At the time of the property construction, they were hand made in many of the local villages in the area, each having their own stamp of origin on the underside of the tile and varying slightly in size and colour from their competitors. Production of tomette by machine continues to today in the village of Salernes, twenty minutes drive from Varages.
In the year of construction, 1609, there were, of course, few rules and regulations to govern how or where buildings were put up. As a consequence there are a number of oddities about ‘La Maison du Faiencier’.
For example, when you take a hard look at the house from the front, it’s striking that nothing is symmetrical; the front door isn’t in the centre of the building; the first floor windows are at different distances from the centre line of the property; and the four oval oeil de boeuf (‘bull’s eye’) windows on the second floor are at odd distances from each other. When discussing this with an architect he commented, “In those days when they needed some extra light they just cut a hole in the wall wherever it suited. There was little consideration given to what would look pleasing to the eye from the outside”.
A visit to the back of the property reveals that at one time there had been another house built right behind it. The line of what was its roof is still clearly visible, as are the holes for the wooden floor beams and the remains of the stone front door frame in what is now the courtyard, albeit covered in ivy. So it seems that only a meter and a bit behind ‘La Maison du Faiencier’ there was another building which probably blocked all the light and air and view from its many windows. Why would a building of such a size be built so close to another? It seems very strange.
To the side of the house is further evidence of how the property has undergone big changes. The renovation work revealed that there had been five connecting doors between ‘La Maison’ and the property on its right side. They’re all blocked up now but on the inside of the property they still serve as characterful and useful recesses.
So, it seems that when building ‘La Maison du Faiencier’, rather than erecting a separate outside wall the builders built not only onto but into the neighbour’s property. With dividing walls 70 cms thick this was, apparently, a common practice.
We know something about the builders of 400 years ago.
Mounted into a wall on the ground floor was discovered an engraved stone square plaque which translated from the French reads ‘IHS MA 1609 & the last March FP’.
It was a custom of the time to commemorate the completion of a substantial building by having carved a plaque citing the date and the initials of the main builders (and in this case their religious affiliation). ‘IHS’ is a ‘Christogram’ or monogram for the name of Jesus Christ. MA and FP are the initials of the two builders.
The way their initials have been embellished tells us, apparently, that they were part of the tradesman’s tradition of the Compagnons de Devoir (Companions of Duty). This we know by the symbols used to decorate their initials and also the use of the three vertical dots as punctuation.
The institution of the Compagnons de Devoir was set up in the early middle ages to give a tradesman the chance to travel throughout France and join with those of the same discipline in a different part of the county. In this way he was able to broaden his understanding of his trade and learn regional ways of working. When the roving apprenticeship was successfully completed, the tradesman became a Master Compagnons and had the right to distinguish himself from his fellow builders by embellishing his written initials with the special symbols denoting his trade.
The institution continues to this day.
Huge Scofield, one of the BBC’s correspondents in France wrote about them in December 2017: “Their roots may be medieval, but today the Compagnons continue to offer apprenticeships in the trades to thousands of young French men and women. And in a direct link back to the early days of journeymen masons and carpenters – the cathedral-builders of the past – many of today’s apprentices still go on a Tour de France.