Le Roc de Soleil.
We are sure will know who this refers to. If there was one French King to remember, hopefully it was not Louis XVI that you recall (he was guillotined along with his wife for telling folks to go eat cake…), but rather Louis XIV, his grandfather. Versailles.
Yep, granddad left him a fabulous legacy indeed.
You will know that in the late 1600s, France was rather powerful. Relatively un-devastated by the destructive religious wars of the mid 1600s, Louis XIV had made his powers absolute. In fact, this was the age of the ‘benevolent despots’ in Europe. He was fashionable for the day, and a keen patronizer of the arts. You will also know that the Baroque period came to a height during Louis’ time of ascendency.
A palace for all to mimic
Located about 20km in the southwesterly direction from the Notre Dame, the palace is sited on the origins of a small village nearly 400 hundred years ago. It wasn’t intended to be more than a hunting lodge, Louis XIV had this place enlarged successively over a period of 50 years!
There is much more literature available in the web and especially in the actual website of the Palace, but here is our take. Louis XIV was not only a fashionable dude, but also an ambitious one. Throughout his long reign (longest by way of all French monarchs), he engaged in more devastating wars than ever before. In a way he was like someone who loves “face” as Asians would say.
Thus funding both wars and his pet projects were seen to be symbols of how powerful he was compared to his peers on the aristocratic stage of Europe. And Versailles was indeed made into a showcase to project French power and culture. Fortunately Louis had an able Colbert for a Finance Minister, who masterfully collected revenues in support of his liege.
So today the layout of the palace is amazing! And if one had visited the Schonbrunn in Vienna, you might do a double take and think it was Versailles too! Indeed all over Europe, monarch of various rank and wealth wanted to mimic the grandeur that the Sun King had created. It was definitely the height of French cultural power!
While the palace itself was already immense and inspired copycats, the gardens were even larger. At approximately 800 hectares, it is designed in the French garden style that we wrote about (here). One of the key features would be the mix of green gardens (enjoyable through the year) and fountains. Even today in the warmer months from around spring till autumn the fountains come to life on weekends creating a spectacular display. For us this appears to have inspired Russia’s Peter the great to build Peterhof in some likeness to Versailles.
So large are the gardens that a horse carriage ride can be taken to sample just a section. We were privileged to have done this in the summer, and saw the Grand Trianon. That was where Louis XIV and his mistress (later secret wife) held a private life after Louis’s wife died in 1683.
We would say that Louis’s legacy would send French influence all the way to the other end of the world – in the Orient. The Ching dynasty’s Emperor Chien Lung initiated construction of western styled palaces with fountains and design in 1747 at the Yuanmingyuan (圓明園).
An unfortunate loss of legacy
Of course no visit to Versailles is complete without the guided tour of the interior of the palace. Afterall it has 700 rooms and 1250 fire places!
While one tours the interior of Versailles, one would be impressed with the immensity of art on the walls and ceilings of the apartments. But did you also notice that most of these apartments are not fully furnished. Did you notice the sparseness of artefacts and vintage on display?
Did you know that one of the most extravagant furnishings of Versailles was Louis XIV’s Silver furniture. Not plated, nor hollow but full solid silver! Mirrors, commodes, benches, candelabras, vases, statues, tables large and small, stools etc. Everything was finely carved and decorated in the finest style by masters of Paris (the Gobelins). Said to have been around 200 pieces, some literature claims that it would have totaled 20 tons of silver! Most of these would had been displayed in the hall of mirrors. All leading up to a silver throne upon which the Sun King sat and received his guests, diplomats or royalty alike.
It was a way to project his majestic power with all these glittering pieces of art! However today it is sadly empty – except for the mirrors! You see, Mel’s an antique buff and thus it was a disappointment that these could not be seen.
Well, all’s not well with the Bourbon dynasty of France. By the time Louis XIV’s reign was coming to an end, the country’s treasury was depleted and the government deeply in debt. This, coupled by intense competition from the English and Dutch for commercial supremacy in the Indies had led France down the road towards economic meltdown.
In a series of financial crisis in the 1680s, the Sun King had to send his entire collection of silver furnishings to the mint to coin money, all so to fund payments for his costly wars.
Thus today we do not have the privilege of viewing these intricate works of art that took nearly 20 year to assemble and deliver. But the beautiful murals on the ceilings and the walls remain for all to enjoy.
When in Paris, it is very meaningful to take at least a half day to see Versailles. Take the RER. It’s fast and convenient, and remember to come early. The Palace is frequented by so many people!
The journeys to Versailles took place in June 2002 and January 2003