Friday, August 19, 2011

Versailles, off the beaten track

We've published two books dealing with Versailles (links here) and have always approached the château as an architectural and historical enigma—what was Louis XIV really up to when he turned the obscure hunting pavilion of his father into the seat of the French state, and who really built the "Envelope" that is the basis of that vast palace?

These are questions not easily answered —after all, they required two books—and though they go to the heart of "why" Versailles exists, they are certainly too involved for a blog post in mid-August. Especially when it finally feels like mid-August, even in Paris, and so we wanted to share a much more approachable side of Versailles—some views of the château that the public never sees: places off the beaten track that we photographed some years ago now. But then Versailles is eternal; what are a few years when confronted with a few centuries?

Above are some views taken from the apartment of Madame de Pompadour, the lover of Louis XV and "mistress of the arts." As you can see, her rooms were beneath the eaves of the château, overlooking the Marble Court, and were (unsurprisingly) directly above the king's own. Needless to say, the views outside were infinitely more interesting than the apartment itself.

Louis XV, "the gracefully bored," was the inverse of all that his predecessor stood for. Intensely private, he suffered mightily inhabiting the monstrous propaganda machine that Louis XIV had fashioned for himself. After his official coucher, where he carried out the semi-public pretense of going to sleep in the Sun King's bedroom, he then took a little lift to Madame de Pompadour's rooms, where he dined and entertained into the wee hours.

The Mercure de France (the Ancien Régime's Pravda), daily reported the hour of king's levée (awakening), which was also (in the ridiculously hermetic pretense of absolutism) the time at which the sun officially rose. Under Louis XV, the sun rarely rose in France before noon, and often after 1:00 in the afternoon. He was renowned at court for preparing his own morning coffee and for unerringly decapitating his soft-boiled egg with a single, deft knife-stroke.

This is also the same view, under more threatening skies, that Louis XV had from his own apartments when he watched Madame de Pompadour's coffin leave Versailles for a funeral that he could not, as king, attend.

In 2009, the leadwork ornaments on these roofs were regilded for the first time since the Revolution. Believe it or not, the question of whether to regild the Marble Court's roof ornaments was one which ultimately concerned the highest levels of the French state and which took generations to resolve. We first heard of the debate in the 1980s; the work was finally carried out in 2009, with enormous trepidation.

For the French political class, spending money (even private donations) to gild the roofs of Versailles was akin to the US Congress authorizing a museum of the Confederacy on the Washington Mall: i.e., political suicide. The project was finally justified as part of renovations necessitated by a massive storm that occurred in 2000, nine years before the actual work began, and in the end the roofs of gold caused none of the leftist backlash the right so dreaded. Of course, this is now cited to invoke carte blanche by those who wish to return the château to its state at the death of Louis XIV in 1715, and who frankly would just as well clone the Sun King from strands of hair found in his wigs and place him on (a contemporary, though nonetheless faithful restitution of) the royal throne—if only for the sake of historical accuracy.

However, even history cannot excuse bad taste. Sir Christopehr Wren visited Versailles in the mid-1660s, when Louis XIV, then in his early twenties, had renovated the obscure hunting lodge of his father, turning it into a cosseted weekend retreat for lovers and select friends, long before he thought to aggrandize it so unexpectedly. Today, Wren's judgment of that early Versailles would be summed up as "effiminate bling." As he wrote to a friend, "The Palace, or if you please, Cabinet of Versailles call'd me twice to view it. The mixture of brick, stone, blue tile and gold make it look like a rich livery; not an inch within but is crowded with little curiosities of ornamanents... Works of filigrand, and little knacks are in great vogue, but building certainly ought to have the attribute of the eternal..."

Wren was not alone among world-famous architects in holding this opinion; in 1666 Bernini also visited France and remarked that young Louis XIV was inordinately fond of gaudy knick-knacks (besides Versailles, he cited jonquils massed in crystal vases at the Tuileries) that would horrify Roman matrons.

Here we are looking at one of the interior courtyards, the cour des cerfs or "courtyard of the deer," which is named after its deer-head sculptures (and is not to be confused with the infamous bordello of the same name run for Louis XV's pleasure in the town of Versailles). Madame du Barry (the last mistress of Louis XV, and by all accounts the most beautiful and agile) had her apartments here, and was discovered there.

These empty, beautifully gilded, and low-ceilinged rooms on the same floor once belonged to Marie Antoinette and were also where she began her famous, panicked flight from the château to the grotto in the gardens of Trianon, when she learned that the people of Paris were marching to Versailles on 5 October 1789, inciting the French Revolution. They are in the pure Louis XVI style, named after her husband, who had nothing to do with anything involving taste, preferring instead to tinker with clockworks in his private rooms, which in its way does indeed explain much about his reign and particularly its end.


  1. Andrew and Bernd,

    How excited I was to see that you are blogging. You are on my favorite blog list. I very much enjoyed your latest post on Versailles and the photos are gorgeous. Hope you'll check out my blog too.

    Best to you both,


  2. On the off chance that you still read old comments...we spotted the deer heads on our recent visit to Versailles, but I wonder if you can identify this oddity (which was located near one - one of the deer heads is just out-of-frame to the left in this shot):

    I recognize several of those as zodiac symbols, but I'm stymied by the symbol at the top, which I feel certain I should recognize but I just can't place. Nor can I guess why any of them are there in the first place!

    1. Dear Sean,
      Thank you for your comment and the link to the photo. That is a sundial that only marks noon (XII) and you can see the gnomon (tipped by a gilded sun, of course, it being Versailles) at the upper edge of your photo. The zodiacal symbols of capricorn, aquarius, pisces saggitarius and scorpio are found in the cartouche, surrounding the foursquare representation of the celestial plane and the + crossing, which is traditionally how the earth is depicted in space.