This year, to mark le quatorze julliet, trade in your bonnet phrygien for a brioche and revisit the place where France started and ended it all, Versailles.
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THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES was conceived by Louis XIV and designed by Le Vau, Mansart, Le Nôtre, Le Brun, Boulle, Coysevox and Francine for the staging of the magnificence of the royal self and the power of the state, both parts being played convincingly by the king.
Today, however, Versailles is one of those monuments, like Pompeii and the Tower of London, that one visits unenthusiastically and infrequently. The palace was stripped of its furniture, fixtures, appurtenances by the cash-starved revolutionary government(s) and only a small percentage has been restored and refitted for public viewing. The palace’s disappointing ratio of gloire to square foot manifests itself in herds of sightseers trudging for hours through endless corridors and empty salons en filade. The gardens and grounds seem dusty and desolate and by the time one gets to the end of the grande perspective and realizes one has to walk all the way back, anti-monarchical feelings have set in. The stupidly-big, boring palace is not impressive–it represents a decadent culture’s scandalous misappropriation of resources in support of a risible political system, and the guillotine the fastest solution to a bad idea on a baroque scale.
Versailles is a drag because the monument is being used today in ways that would have seemed irrational and perverse in the 17th century. No one would in Louis’ time would have walked the great distances of the entire complex and grounds at one go, guided by no business or personal purpose and no one be there at all if there was no royal self in residence to stage its magnificence. Like Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Giza, Versailles without the absolutist monarchy is a monument without a raison d’être, and, barring unlikely Bourbon restorations, visiting will always seem like going to a restaurant with long lines, insufficient seating and no food.
That said, in the last third of the 17th century, when Louis’s many complex plans and projects for Versailles were nearing completion, the experience of the architecture, gardens, waterworks, candle-light illuminations, and spectacles, including fireworks and staged sea battles, must have been staggering and magical. The palace and grounds provided not only grand settings for formal events, but also provided more casual and intimate, but no less thoughtfully-designed and luxuriously-appointed, localités–one’s favorite retreats, rendez-vous points, corners, and views, the appeals and attractions of which varied throughout the course of the day and year.
These images are meant to restore desirability to Versailles, to give a sense what made the place the envy of Europe. That journey must take place in the imagination because Versailles no longer exists even though it is still there.
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APPENDIX: ALL THE KING’S MEN
Charles-André Boulle, Ébeniste du Roi (1642-1732)
Antoine Coysevox, Sculpteur du Roi (1640-1720)
François Francine, Intendant des Eaux et Fontaines du Roi (1661-1688)
François Girardon, Premier Sculpteur du Roi (1628 -1715)
Charles LeBrun, Premier Peintre du Roi (1619-1690)
André LeNôtre, Contrôleur Général des Jardins du Roi (1613-1700)
Louis LeVau, Premier Architecte du Roi (1612-1670)
Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Premier Architecte et Surintendant des Bâtiments du Roi (1646-1708)
Hyacinthe Rigaud, Peintre du Roi (1659-1743)