Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
If you didn't know that it's in a former church, you might walk right past Rouen's best-kept secret: Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, a little-known and astonishing treasury of antique ornamental wrought iron. Unique in Europe, the museum holds a huge variety of eye-catching objects and graceful architectural elements that are either suspended, mounted on stone walls and columns, set in the nave or displayed in cases.
The power of contrast lends decorative ironwork, with its inherent strength and delicacy, its enduring and universal appeal. Forged from the artisan's mix of minerals, fire and passion, its warmth, texture and varied forms stir emotions and imagination.
Ancient Egyptians deemed iron the "metal from heaven," associating it with meteorites. The Le Secq collection would seem to have landed in just the right spot, under the flamboyant gothic roof of the late 15th century church. "Flamboyant" literally means flaming or blazing, as represented in the flamelike ornamental stone openwork.
Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq des Tournelles (1818-1882), one of France's leading 19th-century architectural photographers, recognized the artistic value of wrought iron and had the foresight to amass the first methodical collection ever of ornamental ironwork. His son donated the treasure to Rouen specifically because the city offered to display the collection nearly in its entirety in the ancient church.
Essentially European, the collection ranges from late antiquity to the early industrial era. Many pieces are rarities, like a 16th-century Italian canopied bed or the finely forged partition doors from a 13th century abbey, below.
From lacy black balconies, balustrades and showy trade signs to delicate thimbles, robust andirons and airy weathervanes, every kind of artistic ironwork is represented, with the exception of arms and armor. With all of its keys and locks, three centuries of medical and scientific instruments, intricate early 19th-century Berlin cast iron jewelry, and superb household utensils, the Le Secq is more than the sum of its parts. It has something more--a special quality found only in museums dedicated to a single person's collection, the traces of the fervor and passion of a lifetime.
©2012 P.B. Lecron
The above text, with slight revisions, appeared originally in France Today magazine, June 2006, in an article I wrote, Passion Wrought in Iron. The photos were all shot this past week on a return visit to the museum. More photos to come!