Wandering around Paris with her camera, the director Agnès Varda once made a short film about them, Les Dites-Cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids). Caryatids are stone statues of women which form load-bearing columns at the front of buildings. Sometimes these women appear to be supporting the lintel above an entranceway, other times they’re preventing a terrace from crumbling down. For all this arduous work, they never grimace or perspire.
According to Lauren Elkin, author of Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, ‘They’re all over Paris, these caryatids. They come in sets of two or four and sometimes many more than that, depending on the building’s ostentation.’ With this in mind, before heading off to Paris last weekend, I investigated caryatids online and found claims of over 500 of these stone women holding up Parisian buildings. The first was sculpted in 1550 by Jean Goujon and can be found in the Louvre – which having seen it years ago, is the last museum I would want to see in Paris, overrated with too many tourists ticking their bucket lists.
Walking all over the 18th arrondissement near Sacré Coeur, I couldn’t find any caryatids, not even a pair of them that I had read about online and knew which street they were on – or not, as the case may be. It wasn’t until the end of our second full day that my David spotted a couple of caryatids on the edge of the 10th arrondissement where we were staying. Typical of the caryatids I’d seen in photos, they were draped in tunics, held neutral expressions and had smooth wrinkleless even-toned skin. Idealised women.
I on the other hand am not a caryatid. In Paris celebrating my 60th birthday, I was aware of the fine wrinkles around my eyes, the patches of dark beige on my hands and those internal signs of aging – the knee that aches after jogging and feeling dozy before 10 pm among them. By the time we were in Paris, I was past the how-could-this-be-happening-to-me stage and had come to accept this milestone birthday as the start of a new, and hopefully worthwhile and productive, stage of life. It is a new stage. As much as I still feel ‘middle-aged,’ sixty has given me my ‘senior’ railcard and other discounts all over Europe. It has also made me think more about full retirement – if a writer can ever be fully retired – and how I will spend the years ahead, hoping to stay active in every sense and to experience new things, discovering writers and artists and the hidden gems – such as caryatids – in cities like Paris, Nice and London.
In the end I only saw ten caryatids (five sets of two). Agnès Varda’s film is 12 minutes long and only shows some 30 caryatids, which confirms my suspicion of the exaggerated claims of their ubiquity in Paris. The film is worth seeing for the beauty of the images and the accompanying poetry of Charles Baudelaire, a film made when Varda was 56. She continued making films well past her sixtieth birthday.