My original intention was to ride around Paris on the Vélib’ bikes during the day and just come out to Versailles for the evening performance at the Royal Opera, but it turned out to be such a rainy day that all my Paris plans ‘fell into the water’, as the Germans would say, so I took an RER C train out to Versailles in the middle of the morning and had a look at parts of the palace — some of the indoor parts — while waiting for the rain to stop.
Since I was there on a bleak Thursday morning in February, the palace was relatively uncrowded — but only relatively. When you look at my photos you will see that I was not alone in the palace rooms, but I’m sure they are even more crowded in the summertime.
The vast majority of the tourists were Asians, by the way, but not only Japanese as would have been the case in the last century. This time there were individuals, families and groups from all over Asia, with only a sprinkling of Europeans and such.
In 1682, Versailles became the residence of the king, the seat of government and for all practical purposes the capital of France. For the next 107 years (with one interruption) it remained the seat of government until the French Revolution began in 1789. In this entire time, only three kings lived and ruled in Versailles: Louis XIV (1638-1715), his great-grandson Louis XV (1710-1774) and his grandson Louis XVI (1754-1793). When you go through the palace listening to the audio guide, the one they talk about is Louis XIV (= the 14th), with rarely a mention of the other two.
One way to deal with the enormity of the Versailles Palace is to think of it as a gigantic psychogram of Louis XIV.
On the one hand, he was a Renaissance man with a keen interest in Greek and Roman mythology, as is clear from the art works on display throughout the palace. At the same time, he was a devout Catholic who went to mass in his private chapel every morning at ten o’clock precisely, taking only two or three hundred of his most privileged courtiers with him.
Presumably he didn’t really believe in the ancient Roman gods, but just thought of them as literature, i.e. fiction. He did not pray to Jupiter, Venus or Diana and was not afraid that they would come down and tweak his nose if he did something wrong.
He did believe, however, in the Christian God and the Catholic saints. He was a Very Catholic Monarch — which seems a bit strange considering that his grandfather Henri IV had been a Protestant who only converted to Catholicism pro forma so he could claim the throne.
Henri IV, however, had little influence over the education of his children, much less his unborn grandchildren. Even in Henri’s lifetime, his son Louis XIII received a strict Catholic upbringing — his mother Marie de’ Medici saw to that — and the next generation got more of the same.
One indication of Louis XIV’s religiosity was the fact that in his later years he began to worry about whether his soul perhaps might burn in hell for all eternity — not because he had fought senseless wars or squandered the people’s money on his palaces, but because he had cavorted with so many mistresses. To ensure the salvation of his soul he felt he should do some decisive Good Deed for the Church, and this led to what was probably the worst decision of his entire 72-year reign, his Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. This edict revoked his grandfather’s tolerant Edict of Nantes from 87 years before and effectively outlawed Protestantism or any other non-Catholic religion.
Someone in his entourage came up with a catchy slogan:
Un roi, une loi, une foi
This means ‘One King, One Law, One Faith’ — they all rhyme in French — and Louis XIV felt that the time had come to enforce this.
One of the few who advised against this intolerant edict was Vauban, who feared it would lead to a civil war (which it didn’t) and to a mass exodus of some of the most skilled and productive people in France (which it did).
After climbing one flight of stairs you come to a place where you might expect to have a good view of the Royal Chapel, if only there weren’t so many of your fellow tourists trying to do the same. Note that I took these photos at the lowest point of the low season in February. In the summer you can expect twice or three times as many people. But don’t let that bother you, OK? After all, you are a tourist, too, and you are getting in the way of their photos as much as they are getting in the way of yours.
The Versailles Palace has hundreds of white marble statues, all roughly the same height, spread out all along the halls and in some of the rooms. I picked this one to photograph because I recognized the name.
Not that I knew much at that time about Nicolas de Catinat, but I did know that one of the main streets of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, used to be called Rue Catinat back in the days when Indochina was a French colony. It was named after a French warship that took part in the French conquest of Vietnam from 1856 to 1859. The warship, in turn, was named after this man, Nicholas Catinat (1637 – 1712), a French military commander.
Catinat, like Vauban, was a close contemporary of Louis XIV, who as a young king liked to have men of his own age in leadership positions.
Another thing that Catinat and Vauban had in common was that they both lacked any sort of prestigious aristocratic background and rose through the ranks entirely on merit, which in seventeenth century Europe was highly unusual. Both of them took an unusual interest in the welfare of the men under their command, and often wrote memos recommending able men for promotion. Both received the title of ‘Marshal of France’ towards the end of their careers.
Vauban and Catinat were friends, by the way, as I have learned from the book Vauban by Daniel Halévy. Among other things, they conducted the siege of Ath (now in Belgium) together in 1697, with Vauban leading the engineers and Catinat in command of the soldiers.
When you start going around the King’s Grand Apartment on the first floor (i.e. one flight up) the first room you come to is the Hercules Salon. As I learned from the audio guide, the large painting on the side wall is The Meal at the House of Simon by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). It was originally painted for the refectory of the Servite Convent in Venice in 1570, but 94 years later it was transported to Versailles and given by the Doge of Venice as a present to Louis XIV.
The elaborate ceiling paintings in the Venus Salon of course depict Venus, the goddess of love, but also various ancient heroes and scenes that have some connection to the planet Venus.
Supposedly there is also a painting of the wedding of Louis XIV, but I must admit I got a stiff neck before locating that one.
Here in the Diana Salon we have three girls with their audio guides gazing up at the ceiling, as Louis XIV looks on benignly from his pedestal in the background.
This room was named after Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting (not the Diana you were thinking of). From the audio guide I learned that the Diana Salon used to be Louis XIV’s billiard room and that it was known informally as the ‘applause room’, because the ladies of the court always applauded vociferously whenever the king scored a point at billiards.
This is the ceiling painting that those three girls were looking at.
The painting above the fireplace in the Diana Salon is The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Charles de la Fosse, from the year 1712. Sixty-two years later the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote an opera about this called Iphigenie in Aulis, based on a play by the French dramatist Jean Racine (1639-1699), who in turn was inspired by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides.
The plot has to do with the half-hearted efforts of King Agamemnon to avoid sacrificing his daughter Iphigénie (Iphigenia) to the gods in return for favorable winds to he can sail his fleet to Troy and start fighting the Trojan War. At the end of the opera Iphigénie is saved but the wind comes up anyway, so they can all jubilantly sail off to war. This was considered a happy end at the time, but from a 21st century point of view it might have made more sense for the gods to strand the Greek fleet in the harbor indefinitely and thus prevent the war altogether.
In 2005 I attended the premiere of a new production of this opera in Nürnberg, Germany. At the party after the premiere I had to comfort the stage director (with whom I was slightly acquainted from his visits to Frankfurt) because to his chagrin the wind machine hadn’t worked properly, so the whole point of the final scene was lost.
This room was named after the planet Mars but also after Mars, the ancient Roman god of war.
In the center of the ceiling there is a painting by Claude Audran (1657-1734) called Mars on a chariot drawn by wolves.
A sign in the Mars Salon explains that it was formerly used as a Guards’ Room and later as a Ballroom for evening receptions.
Although this room is clearly labeled as The King’s Room and is furnished with a fancy royal bed, this is not where he actually slept, according to the audio guide.
The room is described as the king’s “ceremonial bedchamber” and is also known as the Mercury Salon. It was recently closed for over a year for restoration work, and was re-opened on October 25, 2012.
Originally this room was furnished with “tables, mirrors, andirons and chandeliers in solid silver, magnificently carved by the Gobelins silversmiths”, according to the palace website. But in 1698 Louis XIV had to have all these magnificent furnishings melted down to finance a war, namely the War of the League of Augsburg, also known as the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the Palatine Succession.
This was a war that caused widespread destruction in what is now the southwest corner of Germany, as I have mentioned in my post The Sheriff of Renchen.
The Hall of Mirrors (La Grande Galerie) is an astounding room even today. But imagine the impression it must have made in the seventeenth century when even the smallest mirror was an expensive luxury item that usually had to be imported from Venice, at least until the French began making their own mirrors at the Gobelin manufactory in Paris.
In 2013 I took a tour of the Gobelin manufactory (see my post How they make the Gobelin tapestries) and saw some tapestries and carpets being made — slowly! — using traditional methods that have scarcely changed from the time of Louis XIV nearly four centuries ago. But they have long since stopped making mirrors at the Gobelin manufactory.
As I learned from my friend Eddy Dijssel on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist, making mirrors was a hazardous occupation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because mercury was used to coat the backs of the mirrors. Many craftsmen died from breathing in the mercury fumes. When the Hall of Mirrors was restored in 2007 some of the mirrors had to be replaced, but it was impossible to make new mirrors using mercury because this has been illegal in France since 1850, so they had to find or buy antique mirrors to replace the ones that were broken.
Later I looked up the dimensions of the Hall of Mirrors and found that it is 73 meters long, 10.5 meters wide and 12.3 meters high. Seventeen large windows look out onto the palace gardens. 578 mirrors are mounted on the wall opposite the windows. On the ceiling there are large paintings glorifying events in the early years of the reign of Louis XIV.
This is where Louis XIV actually slept, and where he died on September 1, 1715 after reigning as king for 72 years.
Since he had outlived all his sons and grandsons, his successor was his five-year-old great-grandson, who reigned as Louis XV (= the 15th) for over 58 years.
Louis XV has not gone down in history as one of the more capable kings of France. The American historian Jerome Blum is often quoted as saying that Louis XV was “a perpetual adolescent called to do a man’s job.”
After going through some of the more bellicose parts of the palace, I was pleased to find that there is also a Peace Room (Salon de la Paix) which is every bit as beautiful as the War Room and the Mars Room.
During the reign of Louis XIV there were in fact several periods of peace, one of which lasted over ten years, between the war against Holland and the war of the League of Augsburg.
Nonetheless, the sad fact of the matter is that Louis XIV was not a big fan of peace. Wars were his second favorite hobby, second only to his palace in Versailles.
Vauban, his Commissioner General of Fortifications, repeatedly tried to dissuade him from fighting wars in distant places that he would be unable to hold or defend. To Vauban, fortifications existed to defend the ‘limits’ of the kingdom, not only to ward off attackers but to discourage them from attacking in the first place. To Louis XIV, wars were the way to augment his personal ‘glory’, so he didn’t really care why or where they were fought, or what had to be given up in the ensuing peace treaty. No wonder he and Vauban talked past each other for most of their lives.
By the time I reached the Queen’s bedroom I was distinctly ODed on seventeenth century magnificence, so I decided to call it quits for the day, stop taking photos and come back some other year for the rest of the palace.
Actually “ODed” is not the proper term to use in such aristocratic surroundings. I should have said I was surfeited — that sounds much more courtly and refined.
The sad thing about visiting Versailles is when you stop to realize that mankind has not made much (if any) progress since the bad old days of Louis XIV. Then as now, a tiny caste of rich people controls most of the earth’s resources and uses them for their own — quite frivolous — purposes.
Vauban, who knew France better than anyone at Versailles because he spent forty years on the road inspecting and building fortifications, repeatedly tried to make clear to Louis XIV what life was like for the vast majority of the people in his kingdom. The king’s typical response was that he approved of the fortifications.
On my way out I made one exception and took a photo of this bust of Charles X (1757-1836), who was crowned King of France on May 29, 1825 at the Cathedral of Reims.
To polish up his image, Charles X commissioned the great Italian composer Gioachino Rossini to write an opera in honor of his coronation. What Rossini came up with was the lovely comic opera Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims), which ends with an aria for soprano with solo harp accompaniment, All’ombra amena. This is announced in the opera as a tribute to Charles X, and it is no doubt a more beautiful tribute than he ever deserved.
I’ve heard All’ombra amena sung several times by Juanita Lascarro at the Frankfurt Opera. I can’t find a recording of her performance, but by clicking on this link you can hear Eleonora Buratto singing it in 2015 at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.