Did you know that Charles of Lorraine was an eccentric governor in the heart of Brussels?
From 1744 to 1780, Prince Charles of Lorraine, the brother-in-law of the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, ruled over the Southern Netherlands as governor-general. A man of great contradictions.
The 18th-century Place Royale in Brussels forms a kind of link between the traditional aristocratic uptown Brussels, with its palaces and former bourgeois houses, and the lower town of the more common people. Leave the furiously busy square behind by walking onto the peaceful paved Rue du Musée beneath the arches. Straight ahead on the Place du Musée below, the splendour of the enlightened governor Prince Charles of Lorraine's palace gradually reveals itself, in late rococo and fierce neoclassicism.
After the ducal palace on the Coudenberg burnt down in 1731, the Austrian governors moved into the late Gothic Court of Orange-Nassau that stood here then. Charles had it renovated and added a contemporary wing. But the duke had his fingers in more than one pie.
He was a many of many talents and interests, including cultural and other entertainment. He personally drew a plan showing his library, rooms for his archaeological and scientific collections and two laboratories, one of which was next to his bedroom with the other in the garden. There, he brewed up recipes for all manner of drinks, experimented with gold and silver and with secrets he had purloined from others. With the research material, the chemical products and the many books he consulted, his devotion to his passion for alchemy was relentless. At the same time, he was a good Catholic – he commissioned the rebuilding of the Church of St. James on Coudenberg, which had burnt down – as well as an avowed Freemason. The Burgundian Nassau Chapel from the 15th century, now fully absorbed by the Albert I Royal Library, acted as the court chapel for Charles of Lorraine. He regularly attended church services there, at least when the ruler's fondness for earthly pleasures had not left him out of action with a hangover or adding to his secret diary with the latest bits of news on his hunting parties, his wins and losses at games or the courtiers' lovers. In the evenings, he held ‘Charles' Lodge’ there with his fellow Freemason friends.
Prince Charles of Lorraine may well have inspired certain decorations in his palace that refer to Freemasonry, alchemy and his own exploits himself. Like the hero Hercules at the foot of the honorary staircase, which depicts the master of the house as a warrior and an alchemist. Or his twelve works, forged in the handrail. There are also the reliefs in plaster of Paris that depict the four elements of the Philosophers' Stone: earth, air, fire and water.
Don't forget to greet this national treasure from the 18th century, standing tall and proud on its plinth, before carrying on your way to the lower town.