There was a time in the not too distant past when France was the undoubted leader of Europe. French culture and fashions dominated the courts of Europe’s crowned heads, and the French king Louis XIV was the most powerful man on the continent. The palace of Versailles has come to represent one of the defining moments in European history – the transition from the 17th to the 18th centuries and the associated economic, political and philosophical changes. Louis designed Versailles to reflect his idea of the perfect autocrat – “etat, c’est moi.”. For a while the European world orbited around Versailles and in its centre sat Louis.
The palace began as a hunting lodge and occasional weekend home for the king, before going through an extravagant rebuilding process which added two vast wings and enormous landscaped gardens. Louis’ chief minister Colbert decided that everything that went into the construction should be made in France, and that the palace itself should stand as a symbol of France and the French monarchy. France had no indigenous industry for making mirrors. No problem! Colbert bribed several mirror makers to defect from Venice.
No expense was spared in the construction of the Versailles palace, and it shows. Everywhere I turned there were gilded things, ornamentation, paintings, or extra wings containing several dozen more rooms. The marble court, part of the main entrance, contains a large golden clock above the door. Apart from being ridiculously ornate it also makes the point that someone like Louis XIV could afford the best of everything, and this included newfangled horological devices.
The purpose of Versailles’ extravagance initially seems obvious: a powerful king keen to show off his magnificence to all the world. However there may have been a deeper political reason behind it. Historically France was never as united as, for example, England. Local feudal rulers had a bad habit of becoming powerful and threatening the status of the French king. Louis XIV, being the first king of France able to be completely autocratic, short-circuited the rebellious tendencies of both his vassals and the mob by moving to Versailles. It was far enough away from Paris that it couldn’t easily be stormed in a popular rebellion as a 20-kilometre walk tends to cool people’s ardour. In addition Louis demanded that the regional nobility spend large amounts of the year in and around his palace. These dukes and counts found themselves competing amongst each other for the attention of the royal person (which the king encouraged), while simultaneously being unable to foment local rebellion due to being absent for much of the year. Extravagant expenditures on the latest fashions and curious gifts for the king may also have been Louis’ way of depleting the coffers of potential rivals.
Versailles was the site of more ritual humiliation about a hundred years later. In 1871, after a crushing victory in the Franco-Prussian war, the Prussian King chose the Hall of Mirrors as an appropriate place to have himself crowned as Emperor of a united German state. Having oneself crowned in a foreign country seems strange initially, until you consider that there could hardly be a more powerful statement about German primacy in Europe than to announce it in the home of Louis XIV. The insult was returned in 1919 when the French government chose the Hall of Mirrors as an appropriate site for the humiliation of Germany after the First World War.
In one corner of the park sits le Domaine de Marie Antoinette, the special area constructed for the Austrian wife of Louis XVI, the last French king. She was a somewhat tragic character, initially intended to be the vehicle for a dynastic union between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs, but it seems that she was terribly homesick for Austria and filled her days with clothes and social engagements. She also harboured a Rousseauian desire to live the simple life of a peasant, a life which she had never been even close to experiencing for herself. What did she do? She had an entire small peasant village constructed within the Versailles gardens to which she could retire and play the part of the milkmaid. It would be comic if it weren’t so tragic.
A little further beyond Marie Antoinette’s play village lies extensive parkland and a gigantic formal lake. At the time that I visited it was full of people in rowboats pootling around with no clear destination or intention. This makes sense, given that the lake is a perfect rectangle. Further beyond are large woods and parklands which I suspected I needed a horse to fully appreciate.
The glitz and glamour of Versailles is impressive, and must have been astonishing in a less jaded age. As with many such places, the palace was overrun with tourists on the day of my visit and so the grandeur was somewhat impaired by shoving elbows and dazed expressions. I would love to be invited to some kind of French government ball or presentation at Versailles. The palace is so ostentatious that it seems that it would present its best face when filled with tuxedoes and ball gowns.