Duchess of Plaisance

In all the years I lived in Athens, Greece I knew of bus stops, streets, etc. named “Δουκίσσης Πλακεντίας” (Doukisis Plakentias) but, as most kids, never really thought much of it.

Honestly, I had not thought about it until I got into heraldry and inevitably learned about titles of nobility and other related items.

What piqued my interest was that we had a location named after a duchess when Greece did not have noble titles outside of the royal family. So, I did some research and found out that the duchess in question was not Greek but rather French!

The Duchess of Plaisance was born Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun in 1785 in Philadelphia in the United States to François Barbé-Marbois, Marquis of Barbé-Marbois (ennobled by Napoleon I) during his tenure as Consul-General of France to the United States.

The arms to the left are those of Barbé-Marbois, blazoned: Gules a Horse rampant Or, overall on a fess Argent 3 Mullets Gules, on a canton Azure 3 bendlets Or. As a Comte-Sénateur (Count-Senator) of the Empire, his arms of office had the canton of his position (a mirror with a snake curled around its handle gazing at itself) that hid the canton of his arms.

Sophie married to Charles-François Lebrun, Duke of Plaisance who was originally ennobled by Napoleon I during the First Empire and, interestingly enough, managed to retain his peerage after the Bourbon restoration, even though he supported Napoleon through the Hundred Days.

The arms of the Duke are those displayed at the top of this post in the heraldic style of Napoleonic Empire. The blazon of the arms is: Sable a Wold statant guardant Or, supported Or, surmounted by two billets Argent, a chief Azure semy of mullets Or.

It is said that the marriage was unhappy and that she lived in Italy while her husband was Governor of the Netherlands. However, the marriage did produce a single child, a daughter Eliza.

When the Greek War of Independence began in 1821, both the Duchess and her daughter Eliza were ardent supporters of the cause and contributed vast sums of money. She was living in Paris at this time, having returned from Italy, and as chance would have it, she met in 1826 the former Imperial Russian Minister John Capodistria (Ιωάννης Καποδίστριας) who had retired to Switzerland.

A few years later in 1830, when Capodistria was now the first Governor of the new Hellenic Republic, the Duchess moved with her daughter to the Greek capital in Nafplion (Ναύπλιον).

The Duchess of Plaisance continued her immense financial support towards Greece even after the country’s independence and was a major supporter and financial backer of public education. However, after a while, she grew to become an ardent critic of the Governor and his policies. Their differences were so great that she chose to leave her adopted country for Italy. When the Governor was assassinated in 1831 she appears to have been pleased that Capodistrias was finally out of office and publicly supported the assassins. She went so far as to personally distribute pamphlets in Paris, after the assassination, condemning the immoral and unjust way Capodistria ran the country.

As a side note, Nafplion was the capital of Greece until 1834 when the new King of Greece (and not “of the Greeks” as the next King was), King Otto I of Greece, of the House of Wittelsbach, moved the capital to Athens.

Later the same year (1834), Sophie returns to Greece but to the new capital of Athens where she purchased a large swath of land around Mt. Penteli (approx. 200 hectares). It is where her land used to be where all the landmarks named after her stand today.

An interesting note here is that her initial attempts to acquire the land was met with hostility by the monastery of Mt. Penteli that had placed the entire mount under it’s control. Though the monks couldn’t legally stop her, the asking price for the land was so high, nobody could afford it. Sophie had to appeal to her friend, Prime Minister Ioannis Kolletis to intervene on her behalf.

Her contributions to the young state were many and her status in the Athenian society was unique. In her later years, after the death of her beloved daughter, she became very eccentric. Some examples:

  • She had her daughter embalmed and placed in the basement of her house.
  • She would grant titles of nobility to various who would visit with her and attend her meetings
  • She dabbled in mysticism
  • It is said she maintained contacts with the various bandits that terrorized Athens

At one point, Sophie decides to convert from Catholicism, the Church she grew up in to a different one. However, what is surprising is that she did not convert to the religion of the vast majority of the populace (Greek Orthodoxy) – as one would expect – but rather, to Judaism.

As new convert, she spent a lot of time and money in helping the Greek Jewish community and in 1854 she financed the rebuilding of the Jewish synagogue in Chalkida.

Some of her other notable achievements are:

  • The financing of the publication of the Annals of Messolonghi
  • The building of her mansion in downtown Athens, that today is the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens. This structure is considered one of the most important architectural gems of the Othonian years.

After her death in 1854, at the age of 69, her property was inherited by her nephew who in turn sold most of it the Greek government. The remainder was purchased by her erstwhile banker, George Skouzes. Skouzes had incidentally been married to the personal secretary of the Duchess.

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