Life at Versailles

Why Versailles?

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Basin d'Apollo with Chateau de Versailles in background

Why Versailles? 

  Why do we still care about Versailles?  It is the symbol of all that is right about monarchy, and the symbol of all that is wrong about it.  Walking through room after beautiful room in Versailles, noticing the gilded boiserie and the expertly crafted furnishings, noticing the picturesque views out the windows, it is hard to remember that people actually lived within these walls. 

 

  The enormity of scale and wealth present in Versailles served its purpose to build up the prestige and influence of France among the nations of Europe, a position it held throughout much of the reign of Louis XIV.  It also set France up for the first major revolution of the modern world.  The roots of the French Revolution reach back into the Grand Siecle of Louis’s reign.  Much of the blueprint of the royalty of France was created and refined during his tenure at Versailles, and as this model of governance did not allow for changing with the times, it was ultimately doomed.  In the meantime it was- depending on what your position in the world- a beautiful, happy place to live.  It was a way of life that all aspired to, even its critics.     

 

  Monarchs as well as wealthy noblemen in other lands built their palaces and gardens after the style of Versailles.  In Austria, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Poland, England, Spain, Russia there are well-known palaces that directly drew there inspiration from Versailles (1).

 

  These Versailles-inspired palaces were furnished in the French style, and the people who luxuriated in them dressed in clothing patterned after what was worn at the court of Versailles.  French playwrights Racine and Moliere created internationally acclaimed plays and ballets.  European society as a whole was influenced by the fables of La Fontaine and the reasoning of Descartes as much as French society.

 

  This growing prestige was used to France’s advantage by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Commerce, who created a rigid customs barrier to ensure that nothing which could instead be manufactured in France would be allowed in.  This way the French craftsmen were protected and allowed to develop their skills to a level that often surpassed that of the nations that formerly supplied the very same goods to France.

 

  It was at Versailles that the traditional symbol of the kings of France, the sun, became inextricably linked to Louis XIV.  The sun was a symbol of their power since at least 1538, when Charles de Grassaille, the legal-theorist who authored the Regalian Rights of France, called the French monarch a second sun (2).

 

  At the time of Louis XIII’s coronation (1610) the sun was also called upon to express the king’s power and place in France through verse:

 

Mais le lever de mon soleil

Astre d’un aspect non pareil

Change cetter nuit en lumiere  

 

But the rising of my sun

A star with a peerless countenance

Changes this night into light

 

  Although these verses were written for Louis XIII, it was his son who became the embodiment of them.  Under Louis XIV’s hand rose many of the great names and industries that assured Versailles- and France’s- fame; Le Vau, Mansart and Le Notre, the architects and landscaper who created a distinctly French style. Tapestries from Savons and Gobelins, Porcelain from Sevres,  Furniture made by Boulle, symphonies composed by Lully, these were all developed for Versailles and the commerce of France.

 

  At the beginning of his reign Versailles was a “humble” hunting lodge built in 1623 by his father, Louis XIII.  Louis liked the location, and as he preferred to spend time there more frequently, he embarked in 1661 on a lifelong project to enlarge and enhance the setting of his chateau of Versailles. It became the official residence in May of 1682.

 

  At all times throughout the reign of Louis XIV there was some type of building or land beautification happening at Versailles.  During times of peace, Louis’ building projects took the lion’s share of state expenditures, and during times of war the spending greatly decreased (in general), but always there was something happening.  Many thousands of workmen exhausted their lives in this endeavor.   

 

  Some would say that the 21st century take on Versailles does not match up with the 17th century reality of that life.

 

  For example, the food was almost never hot by the time it reached the royal table due to the distance of the kitchen from the dining area. There was almost always construction, with the attendant noise, mess and inconvenience. The fireplaces smoked into the rooms because the chimneys were constructed to conform to Louis XIV’s aesthetic wish that the roof line be unblemished by chimney stacks as opposed to the practical considerations of properly venting the smoke out of the fireplaces.

 

  Additionally, there was little privacy at Versailles.  As a public property, even regular citizens were allowed to walk through the gardens and buildings of Versailles as long as they wore a coat and sword- which they could rent for the day if they didn’t have their own. The royal family dined in public view at least once a day.  The queen gave birth to her children in view of the courtiers- no privacy in this most important state occasion!

 

  Versailles was a public institution which served as a venue to increase the gloire, or glory, of Louis XIV and by extension, the glory of France. Life there had to be incredibly sophisticated and lavish because it was a sign of the greatness of France.

 

  To be a member of the Court of France was a special privilege within the already privilege-laden world of the noble and the rich (two separate categories which overlapped, as one was not a guarantee of the other).  In the parlance of the nobility, the Versailles was ce pays-la (3).  Having a living space in Versailles was something which was prized, even if it was a teeny little space, because it meant so many things to the inhabitants: potential increase in income, elevated social status, career advancement for yourself, a member of your family or a friend of the family, even just a chance to rub shoulders with the celebrities of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, the members of the royal family.

 

   There were certain requirements to being part of the court of France; Versailles the Monument was open to the public, but Versailles the Lifestyle was open only to those with the right family names and titles; those who knew how to play the game and behave accordingly.  Life on the inside at Versailles was very formal, wrapped up in its own phraseology and etiquette about everything from the way ladies of the court would walk (a gliding shuffle) to what topics were acceptable or not (death and personal suffering were taboo), to how one could be of service to the country (military officer, anything administrable- farming and mercantilism being a little too common and therefore avoided.).  

 
  Versailles is a fascinating glimpse into the past- how its residents conducted the daily business of life- and how it compares to what we experience in these modern times.   

(1) Schonbrunn in Austria, Wilhelmhohe in Germany, Drottningholm in Sweden, Colorno in Italy, Wilanow Palace in Poland, Blenheim in England, La Granja in Spain,  Peterhof in Russia
(2) Jackson
(3) That country

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Versailles in December

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