Monday, 20 May 2013

Preview: Versailles

When I was 22, I went to a party, a really good one. In a terraced house over two floors, the soundsystem was in the living room and could be heard from the other end of the street, thump thump thump thump. The place was packed with revellers, literally spilling outside, chaotically, boisterously, with more than that hint of mania that makes a huge party. All the girls - though it was past 3am and my critical judgement may have been impaired - were supermodels. This is how it's done, I thought, this is what a party should be like. I'd never seen anything like it before. And I became determined to equal or better it: I wanted to hold the best party I possibly could. About two years later, now living within the ruins of a castle, I gave it my best shot. I think I pulled it off. A simple tale of me as a youth wanting to hold a big party; but in essence it's also the story of the origins of one of the greatest displays of ostentation the world has ever seen: the Palace of Versailles.

A symbol of the glory, magnificence, and folly of the French royalty, Versailles came about in just the same spirit as a bunch of Scottish youths listening to repetitive dance music in the 21st Century: Louis XIV, king of France, was 22 and was invited to a party. This party, in fairness, didn't take place in a terraced house and dance music was somewhat different back then, but it had lots of guests - around 6000 - and lots of pretty ladies. It was 1661, and was held by the king's minister of finance, the Marquis de Belle-Isle, kind of like the French Renaissance version of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I guess. It was at his new chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte and it took extravagance to a whole new level. Guests were presented with tiaras and horses, ate from silver plates, enjoyed ballet and theatre in an immaculate garden venue, admired golden statues and luxury furniture, and were generally dazzled by a show of astonishing wealth. This was pure 17th Century bling.

It's fair to say that Louis XIV was not impressed. One of his own ministers was upstaging him, the king, and where the hell had he got all this money from? Regarding the Marquis as a threat to his power and accusing him of fraud, he had the Marquis put on trial, dubiously, and eventually imprisoned for life. But at the same time, it seems he was secretly quite impressed. It had been a spectacular party. And he was determined to do better, much much better. Within a year of the Marquis' ill-fated party, Louis XIV had hired his architect, his artist, and his landscape gardener, by repute all the greatest in France. He selected a site first bought by his father, Louis XIII, thirty years earlier, but that had never developed beyond a modest country house. It was called Versailles-au-Val-de-Galie - Versailles on the Galie Valley - and the Galie Valley was a marshy, slightly desolate stretch of woodlands. But Louis liked it, it had been where he'd taken his mistress, and he thought it the perfect place to outdo his upstart Marquis. It was to dominate the rest of his life - when not at war (another popular pastime), Louis would add and amend to his growing palace and gardens at Versailles.

The story of Versailles from this point, the point of palatial inception, becomes a story of trying to do something the very biggest and best it can be, and also the story of three different kings called Louis. Louis XIV, his great-grandson Louis XV, and in turn his grandson Louis XVI all made Versailles their home, all held grand court there, shifting French political life from its usual centre of Paris to this location about 20 kilometres out of the city. Versailles was built by Louis XIV as a monument to the glory of his reign and the glory of the French royalty; and ironically, it became the symbol of everything that was wrong with royal rule over a century later, leading to Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, losing their heads.

So, what do we have now? Mostly, we have Louis XIV's construction and gardens, built in various phases, and with subsequent tweaks by his successors, royal or otherwise. The palace itself has a facade of around 400 metres long, a few grand storeys high, with something like 700 rooms contained within it. Approached from the golden-gated entrance (replaced in 2008 after being torn down in the French Revolution), there is a central block once for the royal apartments, and long north and south wings flanking this. It's in the Baroque style, an ornate and dramatic architectural style intended to look grand and fancy. Versailles is all about looking grand and fancy, and the gardens take this to the next level. Their total area is around 800 hectares - twice the size of New York's Central Park - with about 200,000 trees, even more flowers, fifty fountains, and a mile-long canal. It's all thoroughly, perfectly landscaped, fit for a king and for upwards of six million visitors a year. It's a world unto itself, a magnificent, over-the-top, grandoise world of extravagance.

It being a separate world from Paris was a large part of Louis XIV's intention, and it worked out pretty well for him. Political life was shifted and he had more control over people and their plans. In his lifetime, he was free to wage war and lavishly build and furnish his new home and enjoy almost total power in his absolute monarchy. But living like a king is costly, and his reign left France in great debt. The wars were the costly part. The exact cost of Versailles is uncertain as accounts weren't published and Louis kept departments separate so that he only he knew the overall picture. But accounts found much later were published in the 19th Century, stating a total of 91.7 million livres had been spent. In English money, this translated to about £4 million - a lot in the 17th Century. By comparison, St Paul's Cathedral, a contemporary construction, was seen as vastly expensive and it cost about £1 million. In today's money - and it's a ball park figure - the Palace of Versailles's final tab comes to about £4 billion. It could easily be more.

A lot of money, but bear in mind that in just one single year of Louis XIV's reign, the cost of war was over 114 million livres. What's to show for that? Some dead people and some temporary shifts in territory. The Palace of Versailles was insanely, ridiculously expensive - but it was only a fraction of the cost of war.

Nonetheless, Versailles was a pretty high-profile, highly visible cost. Louis XIV got away with it, and Louis XV generally did as well. But by the time Louis XVI came to power in 1774, age 19, the political world was changing. A wave of anti-monarchy sentiment was rising. Cut off from events in Paris, living in the bubble of life that was Versailles, the king was seen as increasingly out of touch. Despite financial crises in the 1780s, Louis continued with expensive works on Versailles as well as his other royal homes. The Palace of Versailles certainly can't be blamed for the French Revolution, but it certainly didn't help. On the 6th October 1789, a mob marched from Paris, and captured Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette - that they complied and went peacefully likely saved Versailles from being torn apart with fighting. They were put on trial and beheaded a few years later. The palace's contents was torn out and sold. The absolute monarchy in France was over.

The end of the monarchy wasn't been the end of Versailles though. It continued to have significance throughout the 19th Century, often as an elaborate reception venue for visiting dignitaries, and later converted into a military museum. When the Prussian leader, Bismarck, besieged Paris, he made Versailles his headquarters, and Wilhelm I was enthroned as German emperor there. The French got their own back at the end of the first World War, when the Germans were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. These days, it's gone the way of so many historic buildings, and effectively become a museum to itself. It still hosts large functions however. The daughter of one of India's richest men got married there as part of a £40 million, six-day event featuring Kylie Minogue in 2004, and Robbie Williams performed at another billionaire's wedding just last year. It looks like Versailles remains as glitzy, ostentatious and, of course, tasteless as ever.

The Palace of Versailles is famous for being grand and spectacular, with more than a little pomp and ceremony; however, from pictures I have to admit it looks just a little blocky to me. What do I want - spirals and swirls and pointy towers? I don't know. Looking like a big rectangle isn't the worst thing in the world; perhaps it needs to be seen in person to appreciate the wealth of detail. After all, if it was good enough for Louis XIV, then it will surely be good enough for me. Unless, of course, it inspires me to go one better.

I'll be visiting Versailles in the summer of next year, and will give a full account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. "It being a separate world from Paris was a large part of Louis XIV's intention, and it worked out pretty well for him. Political life was shifted and he had more control over people and their plans"

    Yes. One reason for this was a rebellion led by aristocrats known as La Fronde, when the young Louis had to be smuggled out of Paris as child (he was apparently quite traumatised by these events). Hence the desire 1). to live outside Paris and 2). to have his court live with him where he could keep a close eye on them. A lot of sculptures and frescoes in Versailles depict classical allegories of treason and its repercussions on the traitors, and the meaning would have been clear to all well-educated noblemen of the time.

    "The palace's contents was torn out and sold."

    Recently the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian was discovered to have been one the French Royal crown jewels (re-cut for some reason hence the length of time to find this out).

    "The Palace of Versailles is famous for being grand and spectacular, with more than a little pomp and ceremony; however, from pictures I have to admit it looks just a little blocky to me."

    It's not to my taste either, although I must admit I have never visited. If I were a French king I would prefer to live in one of the Loire Chateaux. They look more, well, chateau-y.

    One interesting aspect about the gardens is that they incorporate various optical illusions and visual effects to better impress visitors. It's another indication of the skill of the people involved in the construction of the whole thing, it wasn't just "let's have some neat hedgerows here, and maybe some water features here". As they didn't have enough water pressure to power all the fountains at once, the fountains were switched on and off in sequence when important guests were being shown around.

    1. That's interesting about the gardens - I've not read much about them, except that thousands died building them. I think they might be a key part of Versailles' appeal, and at least are big enough to reduce what I expect to be quite a crowded Wonder.


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