One of the things that distinguish French houses from English ones is the use of shutters. This is not to say that no English houses have them; rather, that a lot of French buildings do, especially in the south of France. They are part of the charm of French architecture. As ever, when a subject interests me, I find that there is more to it than meets the eye.
Naturally, their purpose is primarily functional. Whether it’s to keep the heat in during the winter or out in the summer or to exclude prying eyes, they are there to be used.
When you drive through French villages they invariably seem to be empty of people. This is partly the illusion created by the fact that the shutters are nearly always closed. But if you stop and listen, you’ll hear a radio or a TV chattering away, or the clattering of dishes, or the low hum of conversation. So the inhabitants are there.
We are not used to closing the shutters. In fact, we have only done so when the temperatures have plummeted to minus 15. Even during the canicule (heatwave) of 2003, we preferred to leave them open, while our French neighbours resolutely kept them closed. I don’t like sitting in the dark when it’s sunny outside. Also, it is a task of some magnitude closing our shutters, so you lose the will to live.
As you might expect if you read my blog, I hunted down some of the history. What I didn’t know was that shutters were originally hung inside the windows, not on the exterior. In the Middle Ages, the windows were much smaller and the interior shutters were pierced with holes that were then covered with oiled parchment or translucent material. It let in a bit of light and kept out the draughts to a certain extent.
As building techniques and materials developed, windows became larger and more elaborate and glass was used from about the 13th century. By the 18th century, glass producing technology was superior, larger panes of glass could be used, and the interior shutters could be slid into apertures built into the woodwork beside the windows.
Exterior shutters appeared only around 1750, usually painted white, although I presume this was on the homes of the wealthy. They were called contrevents or persiennes. This, apparently, spelled the decline of the hanging balcony, presumably because you couldn’t open the shutters.
Shutters come in various different styles. We still have the plain shutters on the upper windows that were hung when the house was restored in the early 1970s. They were made of oak and almost indestructible. This type of plain boarded shutter was the most common on the farmhouses and buildings of this area.
We had new ones custom made for the lower windows, since each window is a different size. But they were in pine, which rots quickly. So the SF has become quite adept at making new ones.
A more sophisticated style is the slatted shutter, in evidence on the quincaillerie at Villefranche or at Monet’s house in Giverny, painted a rather startling shade of green.
And then there are those with a hinged opening in the lower half to let in more air without having to open the whole shutter. I’ve never seen any like that around here, but they are common in Provence and in Corsica, where I took these pictures.
Pick a Colour
If you own a listed building in France, you will have to contend with Bâtiments de France, who safeguard historic houses and monuments. They can prescribe what type of shutters you can have and what colour they should be painted. Some people I know in a plus beaux village said they could choose only between three regulation colours.
I understand that the local maire also has the power to prescribe shutter colours in some cases. Some other friends had to apply for permission when they wanted to paint theirs a different colour.
Finally, on a practical note, your insurer is likely to specify that you must close the shutters if you are away for longer than 2 hours. Otherwise your insurance might be invalidated. However, it’s a dead give-away that you’re not there.
Given that it’s such a trial closing all our shutters, we consulted our broker. He said we needed to close only those that could be accessed without a ladder. Don’t take this as gospel, though. Your small print might be different. If in doubt, consult the expert.
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