Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Versailles--perhaps not the most beautiful royal palace in Europe, but certainly the most architecturally influential. Royal families all over the continent spent billions imitating it.
Living in the year 2012, we assume an informal lifestyle so incredibly different from that of a hundred years ago, or two hundred, or three hundred years ago, that we can hardly imagine the life of the rich and powerful from those times. Consider if you can, being awaken each morning at eight o'clock, given a massage, checked by your doctor, then being dressed by a retinue of some forty courtiers, followed by a light breakfast, a shave and presumably a haircut, all over the course of more than an hour in a ceremony that varied only slightly over an entire lifetime. It was the start of a typical day if you were a king, your name happened to be Louis XIV, and you lived in a palace a quarter mile long rising three to five stories tall. Even the most decadent luxury-loving dilettante among us would shrink from such an existence...well, after the first week or so anyway. That was the life of the "Sun King" of Versailles.

The Versailles master plan, circa 1746, (the palace is to the right)
Versailles as we know it today, was begun around 1661 by Louis XIV to sustain just such a lifestyle. Located in what is now a suburb of Paris, it was then, a swamp-infested forest far enough from the big city to give the king the peace of mind in knowing any would-be rivals among the noble gentry were sleeping under the same roof as he, and close enough he could keep an eye on their every move...indeed, practically their every word and thought. His father had built a hunting lodge on the site around 1624 where the future king had enjoyed some of the happiest days of his youth pursuing his favorite sport. The woods abounded with wild boar, deer, wolves, and pheasant. Except that by the time Louis XV and his landscape architects got done with the place, much of the woods had given way to a neatly manicured, but dismaying maze of geometrical gardens that, while beautiful, would hardly be conducive to hunting wild boar.

Versailles around 1662 before enlargement, when the Sun King took a fancy to his father's hunting lodge.
For all intents and purposes various parts of the palace complex and its gardens were under construction for the better part of a hundred years. The original architect was  Louis Le Vau. The interiors were mostly by the painter, Charles Le Brun, while the gardens were the work of Andre Lenotre. Later, Jules Mansart, best known for the roof style which bears his name and dominates parts of the palace, was responsible for remodeling earlier construction and bringing the whole project to completion around 1769 (largely because funds dried up). The famous Hall of Mirrors (below) is one of his creations.

Galerie des Glaces, otherwise known as the Hall of Mirrors, undoubtedly the most famous room in the palace, was a relatively late addition, finished in 1684.
As much as Versailles had originally been built as a retreat from the intrigues of Parisian salons, the formality and intrigues were, in fact, not left behind but moved with the court to the new seat of government. As a result, smaller palaces, known as Trianons, began to spot the grounds as retreats themselves. Queen Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, even went so far as to have a small peasant village recreated in a remote corner of the park landscape, complete with quaint mill where she could play at being a peasant milk maid. In its rustic charm, it's one of the lovelier structures on the grounds (bottom). And it was little wonder a queen would seek to be apart from the ceremonial hubbub of court. Often, during the winter months, as many as five thousand government officials, nobles, their wives, and families occupied the palace complex. Add to this a sizable zoo, horses and hounds numbering close to a thousand, plus the thousands of servants, grounds keepers, and those needed to maintain the buildings in their accustomed splendor, and one could come to the conclusion the king might just as well have stayed in Paris. But then, that would have meant living in an even less hospitable old barn of a palace--the Louvre.
Hameau de Petit Trianon, getaway playhouse of Marie Antoinette, and very unVersailles

No comments:

Post a Comment