Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Complete guide to Versailles palace & gardens

Courtesy of yours truly, newly enrolled Ecole du Louvre student (who goes on a lot of educational trips and thus has learnt pretty much all there is to know about Versailles): You're welcome and enjoy your visit - it's a once in a lifetime experience of decadence, history and awe!


For practical details: http://en.chateauversailles.fr/prepare-my-visit-/single/tickets-and-rates

Films you need to see:
Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola (2006)
Versailles TV series by Canal + (2015)
Vatel with Uma Thurman & Gérard Depardieu (2000)


You will be familiar with this view if you've just entered the main courtyard at Versailles with stunning views as far as the eye can see towards the east. This is no coincidence mind you, as Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, demanded that all symbolism of the monarchy be translated into art, architecture and even urban planning. From this old blueprint you can see Versailles palace in the centre, the king's bedroom in the middle of the central block, with all pathways (both of the three boulevards leading to Paris as well as the garden paths) radiating from this epicentre - the epicentre of Versailles palace as well as of France. 

The key to understanding Versailles is getting to grips with its innovative but completely dominating aesthetic. More than a simple royal residence, Versailles was a seat of power, a showcase for foreign leaders, a living museum as well as the hub of French nobility. I like to think of it as a hotel because that's the closest comparison to describing what Louis XIV had in mind for his palace - he wanted a place where he could assemble all the most important figures in politics and high society. He actually moved all the nobility to Versailles - and who can say no to a king? - and forbade them to work. This way, they were completely submitted to the king and it was easier for the absolutist monarch to control any uprisings or revolts (we know how well that ended). In order to keep them busy, Louis XIV created an extremely complex set of court rituals in which separate tasks were given to each noble, according to rank of course. Perhaps the most telling example is that of the 'Reveil' and 'Coucher', where the court would actually be present for the king's waking up and, subsequently, to his going to sleep. One noble would be in charge with opening the bed curtains, another with putting on the king's slippers etc etc. 

A symbol of wealth and power, Versailles hadn't always been a royal residence showered in splendor and gold. The central body of the building, pictured above, is in fact a highly stylised and re-worked facade of the old hunting lodge that belonged to Louis XIII who used to come hunting here from the other royal residences of Marly and St. Germain-en-Laye. In the early 17th century, it used to be a rather modest building with very few rooms and definitely an unsuitable bedroom for the king, even for one night. Louis XIII died in 1643 when his son, who would go on to become Louis XIV, was only just a boy. His mother, the queen Anne of Austria was regent in his place until he turned of age but since boyhood Louis XIV seemed to enjoy Versailles, first as a hunting ground then as a very temporary residence. The young Louis XIV began to rule personally, without his regent mother, in 1661 at the age of just 23 years old. He wasn't very fond of the Palais Royal in Paris, the actual Louvre museum, so he set his eyes on his father's hunting lodge and assembled a team of the best architects, gardeners, painters and sculptors to oversee its transformation. Hence the creation of the golden triangle of Le Nôtre - Le Vau - Le Brun to which was later added the architect Mansart. These four figures are generally considered the pillars of French artistic identity and the technical creators of the legend of the Sun King, who managed to translate his ambitions into a visual spectacle that would serve as inspiration for centuries to come. 

Versailles was, for most of Louis XIV's reign, an ongoing building site. Think of how many nobles and servants the palace had to accommodate and you'll get dizzy from the sheer number of apartments that had to be created. 

The construction plan can be split into three stages, the first one starting in 1664 and being defined by Le Vau's 'envelope' plan. For economical rather than sentimental reasons, Louis XIV decided to keep the old hunting lodge, on the site of which the actual King's Bedchamber is, and build the rest of the palace around it. The U shaped building that envelops it has two very distinct styles on the East and West facing facades. On the East one, pictured above, you can see a decidedly more typical French architecture of the 17th century in 'three colours' - meaning that any one building had to be made of red bricks, white stones and grey-blue slates on the roof. To this was obviously added gold because it's a royal residence after all. 

Once inside, the overwhelmingly glorious decoration is very much present. The interior was quite revolutionary at the time as it was organised 'en enfilade' meaning that the only way to get from A to B was to pass through a series of state rooms and not through corridors. The rooms closest to the King's Bedchamber were obviously the most sought after but you had to navigate the enfilade and access was restricted according to rank, another clever way of hierarchizing court roles. 

In keeping with the celestial theme so beloved (and crucial in maintaining the public persona) of the Sun King, these rooms were each named after a Roman deity. If Louis XIV did not tolerate comparison with other monarchies he was certainly very keen to rival the Roman kings and gods. Hence the classically named salons (Mars, Diana etc), allegorical ceiling paintings and the famous bust sculpture by the Italian master sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. 

Beloved by popes and an innovator in his field, much like a Leonardo Da Vinci of the Baroque I think, Bernini was invited at Versailles to come up with a plan for the palace facade actually. His plans were scrapped -though they did serve as quite substantial inspiration for Le Vau and Mansart later on- but Louis XIV was extremely proud of the marble bust Bernini had made. Displayed on a harmonious polychrome marble background specifically conceived to suit the sculpture, the bust portrays a young Apollo-like figure of the king. Sporting a heavy military armour, the sculpture alludes to Louis XIV's military victories, whilst the very delicate lace collar suggests that he was a patron of the arts -what an understatement! The king's expression is fixed, composed and commanding over the room, his eyes looking in the distance so as to portray him as a visionary. Note also how he is looking up from our eye level which is meant to clearly state his superiority and demi-god status. Lastly, the famous wig he wore is here represented like a lion's mane which is also a reference to Alexander the Great whom Louis XIV sought to surpass in glory.

Chances are, if you went to Versailles you're probably the most excited to see the Hall of Mirrors. And it would be completely understandable because it really is one of a kind. This very long hallway served many purposes, from being a sort of waiting room for the nobles who wanted to see the King, a place to be seen, a banqueting hall as well as a reception room for state visits. Funnily enough the throne room (which is much less decorated than this), a few rooms down, was not really the symbol of power. The throne was mainly built to be used on state occasions in order to impress foreign courts and ambassadors who were used to having the King sat on the throne in the imposing main hall.  

This corridor that looks onto the garden forms the centre of the envelope wrapped around the old hunting lodge. According to construction plans, it was initially left as an open terrace, as you can see from the drawing above. This was mostly because Le Vau, the architect, inspired himself from Italian architecture styles but it soon became clear that the nobles weren't very happy to cross from the king's wing to the queen's via an outdoor terrace in the freezing winter cold or rain. Hence the creation of the Hall of Mirrors as we know it today.

Decorated very lavishly, the room is a testament to French craftsmanship and even technological advancement. In order to keep costs *somewhat* down, Louis XIV insisted on cutting down on imported decoration such as glass and mirrors and marble which, until the mid 17th century, were brought from Italy. Under his reign, multiple quarries opened throughout France and Venetian glass-makers were brought to a newly built Royal mirror factory. This is also the place where the recipe for more resistant glass was created meaning that the panels of  mirror could be bigger and the effect more powerful. A total of 357 separate panes were used just for this room. 
Throughout the palace, the decoration was overseen my Charles Le Brun, a sort of artistic superintendent of EVERYTHING royal. Louis XIV had set up the manufactory of Gobelins, which still operates today, and where the best craftsmen and artists would work on the most outrageously decadent pieces, from tapestries to furniture. Perhaps the most outstanding was the silver furniture (!!!) that used to line the Hall of Mirrors and which has since sadly been melted to fund war campaigns. 

Fun fact: Versailles furniture is dressed according to seasons. In summer, chairs and sofas and beds would be up-hosed in silk brocard and damask in light pastel colours with floral motifs. In winter, they would be changed for the dark coloured and rich velvets with silver and gold trim thread, a tradition that is still observed to this day, every year. Sure, this is very lavish but it was also due to the fact that velvet retains more heat in winter and Louis XIV hated the cold months - which is also why the royal bedchamber had a second fireplace built.

The palace is placed on a naturally raised platform meaning that it has views over most of the domain which used to be almost 10 times bigger but which has since been sold for building allotments in the village that formed around Versailles.
One interesting thing to keep in mind is that Louis XIV is not only exercising power over man and the French court but also over nature - which obviously stroked his ego. The land surrounding the old hunting lodge was marshland originally and Le Nôtre had quite the task in front of him when he was charged with creating royal gardens complete with a Parterre d'Eau, 10 bosquets, a Grand Canal, a hunting ground, a menagerie (that has since been destroyed), an orangerie and not to forget the English gardens of the Petit and Grand Trianon together with Marie Antoinette's fantasy village. Quite the list. And to top it all off, a hydraulic system called the Marly machine was created in order to pump water from the Seine that would then be used for the fountains.
All water features and bosquets were decorated with marble or bronze classical sculptures, in keeping with the Roman theme inside the palace as well. They were also used for fêtes galantes, high society parties hosted by the king for the court which were unrivalled in opulence and sheer creativity. 

The orangerie that used to have 1200 orange and lemon trees

Fun fact: Le Nôtre had a collection of flowers, as well as many very expensive tulips that were worth their weight in gold, potted in individual porcelain vases. When Louis XIV would be entertaining special guests at the Grand Trianon, the gardeners would quickly rearrange the pots so the guests would be greeted with a different flower display when they would exit. I could not be making this up if I wanted to.

Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon, her refuge from the etiquette of the court. Louis XIV himself got tired of constantly performing and living in the public eye -even though he was the one responsible for the high-strung etiquette in the first place- which is why the Grand Trianon was built. That and the need for a place where he could be entertained by his many mistresses.

Finally we arrive at Marie Antoinette's Domaine (Le Hameau de la Reine). Built relatively late, in 1782-3, this half-fantasy half-theatrical decor creation was the ultimate idyllic retreat for Marie Antoinette. She was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings, a very important French philosopher, who argued for the return of humans to a more natural and harmonious lifestyle. She probably also missed the comforts of more rural Austria, her homeland, and saw this as the perfect chance to also live out her favourite theatre or opera role of the bucolic innocent shepherdess. Total and utter escapism. 
The model village has all the typical houses a village would have such as the mill or the farm. It was mostly inspired by the Chantilly hamlet.

The irony is that the Grand and Petit Trianon together with Marie Antoinette's village domain were built in order to simplify life, to cut back from the protocol and excesses of Versailles palace and even to give the royal children a more diverse education (bear with me, it was only the 18th century). However it was seen as completely the opposite, as another caprice that had to be satisfied, a snobbery and idealised portrayal of peasant life which bore none of the hardships and famine that were generally the norm in French villages at the time. The French Revolution could hardly be deterred and Versailles fell into ruin for many years -though the paintings were stored in the Louvre and the furniture sold off rather than destroyed. To this day, regardless of the sheer beauty and monumental importance of Versailles I think the palace is still a little bit tainted by its own opulence and the part it played as France's money pit for almost a century. Whether you think it's utter megalomania or artistic genius, there's no doubt Versailles has to be on your bucket list!

Let me know if you've been, your thoughts on it and experiences :) 

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