The Sun King and his Palace
Trip Start May 31, 2006
170Trip End Ongoing
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Any king who spoiled his court in this fashion was probably seen as a bon vivant, a hedonist, the incarnation of Bacchus himself; but the self proclaimed Sun King, Louis XIV of France was smarter than that. He gathered his court and kept them happy with shows and music, and extravagant games and banquets, showed them the earthly delights in exchange for loyalty and submission. He kept them all in his palace of Versailles.
It's just a small town barely outside of Paris, but as soon as you enter it, the infamous Chateaux de Versailles is imposing, grandiose, commanding. Perched on a low hill it stands upright, like a blue-blood with his white wigged head tilted upwards, his eyes sneering down upon us. For a cold autumn Saturday morning, there were already clear signs of overcrowding in the entrance, a sight which worried us considering the palace had been open for just barely 15 minutes. After the long queues, 17€ bought us a pass into every attraction in the palace, a tour which would take the entire day.
Louis XIV had an ego like no other king preceding him, but it was this ego which made France one of the strongest powers in the world. Under him, French culture and art became the most appealing in Europe, a model for elegance and refinement which still exists today. So it was in 1682 that the Palace of Versailles became the official residence of the court, centralizing the French government in once place. This happened after about 50 years of designing, remodelling, and redecorating the greatest palace in Europe, one which would serve as inspiration for other courts and palaces in Europe and Asia.
Our tour started in The Chapel Royal, one of the last additions to the palace. There's something humbling about standing in such wealth and artistic mastery; the richly decorated ceiling seems to float above the ground as the chapel is bathed in light entering from the windows, reflecting on the gilded altar. Louis attended mass everyday, particularly towards the end of his life when his family was all dead and gone, and his religious fervour had grown substantially. This second stage of his life contrasts significantly from the first one, characterized by libertinage and excess.
The Grand Apartment reflects this relaxed period of his reign where he chose the sun, the life-giving force for the world, as his personal symbol thus becoming the Sun King. Apollo was the Sun God, god of peace and the arts, which is precisely what Louis strived to be. "And since the Sun is the emblem of the King, seven planets were taken to serve as the subject of the paintings of the seven salons of this apartment" (Félibien des Avaux, 1674). These apartments included the salons of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Diana, and Apollo which were all dedicated to a heavenly body. But as we entered the first salon, we gasped as we looked on to the famous Apotheosis of Hercules by Francois Lemoyne decorating the ceiling. It depicts Hercules being welcomed into Olympia by all the gods and goddesses of the pagan world after completing his labors and making the world a safer place. This is meant to represent Louis's feats for France and his dream of entering Paradise as a hero.
But which better way to glorify Louis than by designing a grand hall, a hall in which the light of the rising sun would enter through the windows and reflect on the mirrors and gilded candelabra, capturing the magnificence of the sun. The Hall of Mirrors is probably Versailles' masterpiece, a hall in which Louis proved to all those who visited him here that he was indeed the Sun King, in case anyone ever doubted him. The large painted ceilings depict the monarch in various guises: as Roman emperor, great administrator of the kingdom, and victor over foreign powers.
The Queens Apartments can be found at the other side of the Hall, and although they were built for Louis XIV's wife, it was Marie-Antoinette who found it to be terribly old fashioned when it was her turn to sleep there, and had it all refurbished. Today it stands as she left it in the height of the French Revolution when an angry mob entered these apartments in search for her. Luckily, she had escaped through the secret passages linking the rooms of the chateaux with the aid of her bodyguards. The Rococo furnishings together with the silk hangings and woven patterns of lilacs and peacock feathers add a more feminine and elegant touch to the chambers.
Outside, the gardens looked barren and unkempt, a faint memory of what they must've been like centuries ago, or maybe in summertime. By looking at the detailed map, the parks spread out in geometrical shapes around the palace in the form of orchards, lagoons, fountains, groves, and basins. Andre Le Notre, although the Royal Gardener, was not often seen with a rake and shovel in his hands. He was an expert in botany and architecture, so combining his two skills, he became the royal landscape artist. His challenge was making the marshy swampy lands of Versailles into lush green gardens, perfecting the French style of landscaping. The objective was to dominate nature in every sense, and make it succumb in all shapes and sizes, however irregular and unnatural they may be, much like Louis's absolutist monarchy aimed to rule in France. Bushes were shaped into triangles and hearts, spirals and mythical animals. Exotic trees, plants and flowers from every corner of the earth were brought over to Versailles, costing the state thousands of francs.
Past the Grand Canal was the reserved yet equally splendid Trianon, Louis's sanctuary from the strict protocol of the court ceremonial where he could relax and have meals with his family. Decorated in the elegant Empire style by Napoleon during his brief stay in the Trianon, the interior of the palace drew influences from the Roman Empire which translated into simpler designs than the Rococo of Versailles. Pink and red upholstery in silk and velvets, green marble vases and table tops, sphinxes and griffons and winged lions decorated tables, chairs and fireplaces. Comfortable chaise longs were placed in front of fireplaces where I pictured Marie Antoinette eating rose bonbons and sipping champagne.
Sadly, the Petit Trianon is closed during the cold seasons but we still got to see the Trianon Gardens. There was a magical sense to these gardens, more so than the perfect symmetry and balance of the Versailles gardens. Marie Antoinette wanted the botanical gardens that Louis XV had built, redesigned in the landscape style of England. This style was more free-flowing, allowing nature to take its course without the constant hand of man shaping it. She had a Rock Pavillion built, a Temple of Love, a Venus's Grotto and several hilly mounds which spiralled upwards revealing different species of trees, bushes and plants, perfect for her enchanting promenades.
By the time we exited the Trianon Gardens, the water running through the small streams had frozen and the sky light was almost completely gone. Lights were being turned on in the gardens and in the faraway palace, and from above we could spot the tiny streets lights of the town of Versailles. The gates were still open letting everyone out of castle grounds and before we exited we took one last look at the palace that shaped French history for centuries, a symbol of wealth and power but also of oppression and absolutism. Today it's just another tourist attraction, one that still holds Louis's ego inside, immortal and undisturbed.