Thursday, February 10, 2011

Glass, light, mirrors and ice.... Versailles!

Chandelier - Versailles
Today the sun was almost radiant however it has been bitterly cold here recently. Nevertheless it has been much worse, namely when I visited Versailles, during a particularly harsh spell. This was a little ironic since Versailles is the resplendant palace of the Louis XIV - the Sun King.

Le Roi Soleil dances...

The palace grounds had been closed to the public as everything was cloaked in slushy snow and ice, yet the day I went people were being admitted again to wander around the vast gardens.

And so it was that we were able to see Versailles in another light Whilst the fountains were exposed, denuded of their cascades of water, the statues in the grounds were largely shrouded by protective covers like billowing shadows to avoid structural damage. The result was rather eery...
The Fountain of Apollo -  J-B Tuby
 Nevertheless, according to records it was during the winter months of 1709 that Versailles experienced the most extreme cold and despite the magnificence of the chateau, the inhabitants suffered.

River God with the Hall of Mirrors in the background
Indeed, it is said that wine froze in glasses, dying birds plummeted from the skies, whilst in Paris the city dwellers were able to cross the ice-bound surface of the Seine river as they pleased.

 Versailles today is certainly adequately heated, even for the most chill-averse visitor, yet despite the warmth indoors, with the golden, luminous majesty of the interiors it was the lure of the magical ice-glazed gardens that seemed to lead the tourist outside to brave the freezing temperatures.
Another of the river gods and goddesses

It was in the vast grounds of Versailles that Louis XIV (1638-1715), had sought, and largely succeeded in mastering unruly, anarchic Nature, imposing his vision and world-view, of which he, as le Roi Soleil, was the centre.Versailles, palace and gardens were the mirror and magnifying glass of Louis XIV's splendour, reflecting and glorifying the power of this demi-god on Earth.

With his garden à la française Louis successfully laid out his classical vision of art, with vigorous geometric lines of composition highlighting  perspective so that the palace looked out onto seemingly unlimited space. Everything within the grounds reflected the strict adherence to these absolutist laws and in turn everything focused and pivoted on the axis of this centrist world - Louis XIV himself.

Plan of Versailles grounds
The central Grand Canal is thus offset by numerous ornamental ponds, fountains, decorative alleys, gardens, groves and mazes of all sorts yet even if the visitor feels overwhelmed by the size and complexity of these elements all of these observe the clarity and precision of established laws of composition.

The grounds are, of course, lavishly decorated with sculpture alluding to the king in this heliocentric universe. Indeed, Louis XIV was mirrored in the obvious allegorical and mythological references.

 Frequently Louis XIV is represented as Hercules or Apollo and later in his reign the historical figures of  Marcus Curtius and Alexander the Great.
G-L Bernini - the Louvre
Girardon - the Louvre
 The great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) produced the exuberant work of Louis astride his horse. Apparently Louis did not like the resultant work and so had it altered and relegated to the gardens! The above version is in front the Louvre. François Girardon (1628-1715) also presented the king in a similar manner. This small bronze model was at the Louvre in a 'tactile' display room that encourages visitors to touch the sculpted forms with the result that both Louis and his stead have well-worn noses! The original statue was melted down during the Revolution.

Voluptuous forms and writhing figures also abound in the numerous fountain sculptures that I saw during my visit. The Fountain of Latona, by the Marsy brothers, was particularly striking - if not frightening with the strange frogs and lizards surrounding Latona, the mother of Apollo (the Sun God) and his twin, Diana (the Moon Goddess). This was a indirect reference to the 'mud-slinging' of La Fronde which was so abhorent to Louis XIV.
Fountain of Latona - the Marsy brothers

As seen above, the magnificent Fountain of Apollo (1670) by the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Tuby (1635-1700) was magical with all the forms set in ice, and the whole scene itself set against a backdrop of carefully aligned trees.
Fountain of Apollo

Pierre Puget (1620 -1694), a rather lesser-known French sculptor worked in a style reminiscent of Bernini - his works were taken to the Louvre to conserve them in the early 19th century. The Salle Puget was inaugurated in 1993 and it was here that these photos were taken...So much easier to do now than when I studied Puget at university in the 80's before the existence of the salle, mainstream use of the internet and digital cameras!
Milo de Crotona - Pierre Puget

Alexander and Diogenes - Puget
Puget's most famous work destined for Versailles is the Milo de Crotona (1683), followed by Perseus and Andromeda and Alexander and Diogenes which as a sculpted relief was to adorn the king's grand apartments.
Perseus and Andromeda - Puget

 The famous médaillon relief of the Triomphe de Louis by Coysevox is to be found in the Salon de la Guerre - next to the Hall of Mirrors of which the sculptor was set the task of decorating.
Louis XIV - Coysevox

He strove to compete with the art of Girardon - and many of works (or their replicas) can be seen  in the gardens - one of the most elegant in its antique style being the Vénus à la coquille.
Venus with a shell - Coysevox

This indeed can be seen in Louvre along with Coysevox's  most renowned work that was destined for the chateau at Marly - the equestrian figures of Fame and Mercury.
Mercury - Coysevox

My favourite statue is this one however... I just love the rump on this fine fiery horse!
Marly horse - Coysevox

What Versailles was felt to be lacking at the outset was soon amply provided; whole woods were transported from Normandy and Flanders to populate the Versailles grounds, around 200 swans were imported from Denmark to grace the water courses with their elegance whilst miniature sea vessels and genuine Venetian gondolas animated the Grand Canal. A Baroque-style menagerie presented all kinds of exotic beasts to the spectators and was, much later, to house the sheep, duck and cockerel who had nobly served the incumbent king by assisting in the virgin flight of the Montgolfier brothers' hot-air balloon in 1783!

Initially the land of Versailles had been dominated by forests interspersed with water-logged plains and mosquito-ridden marshes that encouraged malaria. Yet here were Louis XIII's preferred hunting grounds - so much so that in 1622 the king acquired an area of the Versailles forest for his own personal hunting needs.

Several years later Louis
XIII bought more land and promptly ordered the construction of a hunting pavillion on the top of a hill. With the black, white and red colouring of its building materials the pavillion was referred to as "Le chateau de cartes" as the colours resembled those of a deck of cards. It was around the original building that the Versailles that we know today was born, thus conserving the beloved hunting pavillion of Louis XIII  thanks to the Le Vau 'envelope' and paying a modicom of respect to the concerns of the finance minister, Colbert, who wished to limit costs.

Needless to say, this cost-saving wish was outrageously flouted since the building of the palace of the new Versailles and its grounds, started in 1661, was to devour 4 times the budget of France and was to last more than half a century.....

Whilst the conservative Colbert praised the virtues of the Louvre as the official residence of the king and court, the young Louis XIV hated it, surrounded as it was by dirty streets, the noise of city life and the throngs of people populating the area, embodying above all the memories of the insurrection of La Fronde. Thus it was that at the beginning of his reign Louis demanded the architect Le Vau, the landscape architect Le Nôtre and the painter Le Brun to design and oversee the construction and decoration of the palace of Versailles.

Gold stucco
Although work continued right up to 1710 with the plans for the realisation of the chapel, this did not prevent the king, court and government from settling in the palace from 1682. Indeed nothing would deter Louis XIV from occupying this ultimate theatrical stage - to play out the majesty and ostentation of his reign to a wide European audience.

Great artists and architects would succeed each other so that on the death of Le Vau it was Mansart who resumed the work at hand. The materials used at Versailles would themselves highlight and magnify the power and efficency of the Royal machine commanded by Colbert. Under Colbert, the Manufactures of the French state provided the king and his country with articles of unequalled quality and quantity. The Manufactures d'Etat of the Gobelins, Beauvais, and La Savonnerie were accompanied by private manufactures - such as that of Saint Gobain.
In this manner, Versailles was decorated with lavish tapestries, glass and mirrors hailing from the state factories in unprecedented opulence, so that reliance on foreign materials was lessened or ended; Venitian glass was no longer deemed necessary.Versailles therefore became the reference. The work of the cabinet-maker André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) with its distinctive bronze detail and marquetry became a source of inspiration across Europe - he is even said to have introduced the innovative chest of drawers! The arts were equally highlighted in the grand siècle which was indeed punctuated by the work of Molière, La Bruyère and Boileau, Bossuet, La Fontaine, Saint Simon and Lully, finding a stage in Versailles - quite literally so in the case of Molière. The great paintings that adorned the walls of Versailles were moved around the palace regularly in order to reflect the full wealth of the Louis' collection. It is said that even the Mona Lisa had graced its walls.

Here to put you in the mood to appreciate the atmosphere of the époque - some of the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), who, of Italian origin,  took on the French nationality in 1661 and became the chief composer of French Baroque music.

Another means to articulate the glory of Louis XIV was through the innumerable lavish fêtes, dances, festivities and plays that were held in the setting of the palace and grounds. This was covered in part by the 2003 film, Le Roi Danse, by Gérard Corbiau, and below is the link in order to watch a short extract.
Title image from the film

The expenses run up through such events met with much disapproval from Colbert, ever-conscious of costs, yet this did little to deter the king, who even appeared in person on stage presenting the dance of the Sun King, both figuratively and literally. In May 1664 Les Plaisirs de l'Ile Enchantée was composed by Molière and Lully thus combining theatre, opera and ballet whilst the king himself rode in the equestrian parade.
J-B Lully

These great public demonstrations were accompanied by breath-taking water and firework displays that showed how the illustrious king could dominate the elements. Indeed, such was the demand for water that a solution had to found. Despite the fact that Versailles had initially been a marshy area, the supply of water was limited and could certainly not satisfy such demands; Versailles had 1400 fountains alone!

The machine à Marly was the outcome of this enormous water-supply problem. It was thus hoped that the water of the Seine could be led to the palace, with a pump system that would enable Versailles to "drink the water of the Seine", even if the domain was 100 metres above the level of the river.
Machine à Marly

One initial plan to build an enormous Pont du Gard-style aquaduct to supply water was drawn up but this was left unfinished due to lack of funds. In spite of the dedication of his engineers, who promised that "water will rise up to the heavens if it so pleases your Majesty" Louis XIV was not to win the water war....

At the same time the town of Versailles itself was being built up and so from that moment until 1789 Versailles was to be the true capital of France, even if Paris maintained the official title. The palace of Versailles certainly reflected this prestigious status.... The immensity of the palace cannot be overlooked as succession after succession of galeries and rooms lead on from one another. However, the gleaming jewel in the Versailles crown is surely the Hall of Mirrors, decorated by Le Brun....
Hall of Mirrors (avoiding the heads of all the other visitors...!)

The long Galérie des Glaces of 73m glows and sparkles with the gold and glass decor which in turn is reflected in the huge mirrors set in 17 arcades. The hall looks out onto the sweeping landscape of the grounds featuring the Grand Canal, all of which is in turn reflected in the hall mirrors.

Each arcade bears references which reflect the glory of Louis XIV. Here in the Hall of Mirrors Versailles reflected its own image and luminosity, in turn a symbol of the Sun King with the illuminous rays of his power and influence.

Like the sun, the days of Louis followed established trajectories and likewise the life of the palace reflected and traced the order and routine of the Sun King's day. Each hour of the day was thus orchestrated to run like clockwork according to a rigid schedule - one that was later to be abandonned by Louis XV and XVI who found the regime too repressive.

Louis XIV himself felt the need to escape his gilded cage and in 1687 Hardouin-Mansart built the Grand Trianon on the site of the Porcelain Trianon which the king had had constructed in 1670 as a place to relax with his mistress, Madame de Montespan. Meanwhile the laws of étiquette of the court governed the life of each and every individual so that the slightest gesture and figure of speech was codified and scrutinized. A strict timetable was established around the activities of the king and courtiers, in rigid order of hierarchy, would present themselves to assist and punctuate each event of the day, however intimate or banal these may have been.
Blurry light reflected in a blurry mirror from a blurred photo!

A special rail was set up around the king's bed to prevent those present from getting too close to his Majesty on his waking, La Levée, and then during the bedtime procedure when he retired to his chambers. Whilst the king's daily routine was observed through each stage of his life, court life was strangely static. Apart from the king's offspring - few children were present at Versailles, nor were elderly people since they could serve little purpose in court where elegance, wit and beauty were so revered.

As Louis XIV matured his image and representations changed too, passing from innumerable mythological references to those of history as the king came to equal the gods of antiquity in power and importance and seemed to embody them; likewise, latin texts were replaced by French ones.

Little by little the sun began to set on the Sun King and the illustrious reign of Louis XIV came to an end in 1715 on his death. The chapel and opera were finally finished under Louis XV yet even if Versailles continued to shine, it no longer had the same radiance. Later its glow was to be equated with pure decadence - leading to its demise with the Revolution in 1789. Indeed, after Louis XIV, it would appear that today only the ill-fated queen Marie-Antoinette comes to mind today when we think of Versailles...
Temple d'Amour
Marie-Antoinette's reputation and influence have been largely re-assessed, and so we are perhaps more sympathetic to her life and failings. In part due to Sofia Coppola's film from 2006, Marie-Antoinette is now considered to have been avant-garde in her refinement and taste. In the gift shops of the Louvre today there are innumerable Marie-Antoinette objects - which in their pink frothiness seem to run a mockery of past criticism...

Petit Trianon
She was certainly the only queen to lay  her own personal style on Versailles since the Petit Trianon , The Hamlet, the Temple of Love (1774) are today synonymous with her name.
Seeking refuge from the strict court étiquette and the libertinage, Marie-Antoinette devoted herself to the domain given to her by Louis XVI in 1774. Even if the Petit Trianon had, in fact, been constructed some years previously for Madame de Pompadour, a favourite of Louis XV, we associate it with the queen.

Apart from the graceful belvederes and groves Marie-Antoinette also installed a fully-functioning farm which provided the royal table with fruit, vegetables and wine. She herself enjoyed bucolic pleasures and would tend to the animals which were all, nevertheless, meticulously cleaned before the queen's arrival!

The arts were also greatly appreciated and Marie-Antoinette had a marked pleasure in acting and watching plays in her own small theatre - although only those personally invited could attend.
The Hamlet
Not surprisingly, such whims and pleasures could not meet with approval from a starving population and finally in 1789 a horde of Parisians envaded the palace, forcing the family to return to Paris to meet their end.
Façade near the Place des Armes, overlooking Versailles town
On this demise, Versailles lost its privileged status, ironically been re-labelled the 'Cradle of Freedom' - the Berceau de liberté by the revolutionaries whilst Paris recovered its position as capital of France. Ransacked during these temptestuous times Versailles was abandonned but in 1833 Louis Philippe turned it onto a museum housing collections "To all the glories of France" thus giving Versailles a new role in the 19th century.

Today palace and grounds have recovered their glory - though rather more as a reflection of the artistic endeavours of the grand siècle rather than its political statement so that whatever your affinities and view of the monarchy you cannot dismiss the huge exploit that Versailles represents. At the end of the First World The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors in 1919 and for over 30 years now Versailles has been recognized by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage. So, even when the sun had gone down on my visit to Versailles, the palace still threw out light and glory - I can't wait to visit again during the summer - alongside the several thousand other daily visitors!
Louis XIV - Coysevox - Musée Carnavelet. 1689. Paris

1 comment:

  1. magnifiques photos et commentaires d'une érudite qui donne l' impression d' être elle-même une princesse royale; a t elle donc vécu à Versailles dans une vie antérieure?
    un vieux sans-culotte qui aime quand même les princesses quand elles sont sensibles à la beauté


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