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February 3, 2012

Chantilly-heaven on earth, if you are horsing around.

Within the town of Chantilly, twenty-five miles north of Paris, the chateau of Chantilly sits on a tiny rock island surrounded by luminous oblongs of water and bosky belts of tall pines. The star attraction, you might think. Anywhere else, it would be. Not in Chantilly, where the chateau museum, its resplendent grounds, and its marvelous collection of old masters are becoming something of a sideshow to the estate’s abiding grande passion for the horse.

Over the centuries, that passion has taken many forms, beginning with the return from court to Chantilly, his country seat, of Louis-Henri de Bourbon, seventh prince de Condé and cousin to Louis XV. Condé presided the construction of an edifice as palatial and elegant as the chateau itself-the Great Stables-which today houses the Living Museum of the Horse. The horse museum and Chantilly's famed racecourse, in front, together constitute the hub of an equine universe of unparalleled size and splendor. Some of the world's finest horses are kept in the town. Early every morning many canter along the sand alleys of the Chantilly woods. The Thoroughbreds prepare under the eyes of Europe's most celebrated trainers for such prestigious races as the Prix du Jockey Club and Prix de Diane' stakes, run here every June. Between them the two races are worth a king’s ransom in prize money.

This passion for horses and all that relates to them did not come by accident to Chantilly.  The story begins with Condé's retirement from his post as prime minister to Louis XV. Upon first returning to Chantilly, he was content simply to enjoy the exquisite eighteenth-century estate he had inherited.  He took his pleasure seriously and organized them with care.

The most polished society was invited to Chantilly to gossip, dine, dance, or love. They hunted, gambled, and staged operas. Festivities were improvised in the castle's splendid reception rooms and in the sumptuous park: on the grand canal, under the alleys of chestnut trees, or by the little water mill. Le Notre, the designer of the gardens at Versailles and St. Germain-en-Laye, created the park.

At Chantilly, a pleasing balance was maintained between nature and manmade order. There were geometric parterres and English lawns; stone temples and half-timbered cottages. A canal was dug and water from it marshaled into dancing fountains and waterfalls. The park was stocked with wild ducks, swans, peacocks, carp. Against this carefully manicured natural backdrop sported the wittiest of men and the prettiest, liveliest women in society, engaged in a round of picnics they called "fetes champetres."

Life was more fun in Chantilly than at Versailles. There were fewer civil servants, fewer parasites, and, above all, fewer responsibilities. In such an environ ment, Louis-Henri de Bourbon realized that "toujours des plaisirs n'est pas du plaisir." He sought the unpredictable through contact with horses. They introduced the elemental and the unruly into his over civilized world. When the prince did not hunt for a day, the court would say, "Today he does nothing." The speed, the blood, the screams, gave the day its color; but for him the heroic spell of the hunt came from the horse: "All time is lost," he said, "that is not spent on a horse."

And so, drawn on by this fascination, Louis-Henri de Bourbon decided to build the Great Stables. The prince, a believer in metempsychosis-the transmigration of souls-was convinced that he would return to Chantilly as a horse. Since his future quarters would have to be worthy of him in his next incarnation, he built these extravagant and majestic stables, which he insisted should be visible from his bedroom at the chateau.

Contemporaries were baffled by the project. In 1754, the prince de Ligne called this temple to the horse "ridiculously beautiful, a building superior to the palaces of many kings."  But Conde had never been happier, for every morning as he rose from his bed he could observe the comings and goings of all his horses. He could watch them galloping on the lush green that is now the racecourse; he could see the forest where they would hunt; and he could study them as they trained in the manege under the splendid pediments.

Designed and built between 1719 and 1740 by the architect Jean Aubert, the Great Stables today look exactly as they did on the day of their completion, standing some four hundred yards from the chateau. Condé installed his 500 hounds in the beautiful kennels. He put all of his carriages, sedan chairs, and berlins in the coach houses and devoted the rest of the edifice to his 250 horses, housed in their luxurious stalls and exercised in an out-door and two indoor rings. There were apartments for kennel men, pointer men, whippers-in, grooms, women, and children; about 150 people in all.

As the prince had spent his life, so, in 1740, he finished it-with his horses. One story goes that having already lost an eye in a riding accident, Condé caught pneumonia while riding in the forest; as death approached, he sought warmth and comfort among his horses in their stalls.

During the next two centuries, the stables were used as barracks and as a private riding club. Finally, in 1884 the duke of Aumale gave the entire estate of Chantilly-chateau, stables, parks, and all-to the Institut de France, an elite private organization. Being an avid collector, he continued to stock it with gifts until his death, in 1897, when the chateau was opened to the public. It proved to be a splendid museum, offering a rich and diverse collection of sculptures, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, jewelry, and paintings.

The stables, meanwhile, received little attention. Only in 1982 did they begin to recover some of their original grandeur, when Yves Bienaime, who had made a name for himself as the youngest riding master in France, arrived in Chantilly. He was smitten by what he saw. Indeed, his passion for the stables seems comparable only to Condé's own. Taking advantage of his position at the top of the French horse world, Bienaime brought his own and others' expertise and influence to an extraordinary undertaking-the transformation of Condé's Great Stables into the magnificent Museum of the Horse.

What was a long, neglected shell of a building is now a vibrant, echoing space full of the sounds and smells of horses. As the visitor passes through the huge sculpted wooden doors, he is transported by Condé's vision, implemented by Aubert the architect and resuscitated centuries later by Bienaime. Who can fail to feel the passion that went into building the 610-foot-long naves, with their cathedral ceilings, the central rotunda, topped by the 92 foot-high dome, and the continuing arches stretching endlessly beyond?  The devotion is evident throughout. No detail is too small; no greater care could be lavished on the spectacles performed under the great dome, in the open-air rings.  The museum is instructive, yet it bristles with life. 

The twentieth-century tribute-James Bond's large horse in the film A View to a Kill-looks like bronze but is polyester. The educational tour includes audiovisual displays, anatomical lessons, X rays of fractures, and analyses of foodstuffs.

To bring the museum into being, Bienaime sold his house and his three riding schools and, with the help of his wife, his eldest daughter, and nine workers, realized his dream-and Condé's. Funding the entire operation himself, he began at the beginning: sealing leaks, scraping away old plaster, applying fresh paint, working from the ground up. His success can be measured by strict museum standards: the number of visitors has increased every year since the opening, in 1982.

Once upon a time Chantilly was a swamp, a rocky island surrounded by a forest filled with wild animals. The    Condés changed all that, and after centuries their genius abides in the place and in the person of Yves Bienaime, Louis-Henri's true-albeit non equine-reincarnation.