Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Versailles:
The Power of a Symbol by Olivier de Rohan
Versailles is the consummate symbol of sovereign power. Everything about it was calculated and realized with this end in mind. From the crown of a hill with a view extending into infinity, a king whose power was bestowed by God governed France that was then the preeminent European power.
In this new Olympus he was surrounded by images of antique divinities and heroes painted and sculpted by the greatest artists of his era. One autumn day in 1789, when the extensive greenery of the park had begun to turn color, the king of France left Versailles under the pressure of a revolution that wanted France to be governed from Paris. Immediately upon his departure laborers, tapestry weavers, and gardeners set about making the palace yet more beautiful for his anticipated return. But destiny intervened. The king was beheaded and Versailles, symbol of his inherited power, seemed doomed to destruction.
Fortunately, the residents of the town of Versailles managed to prevent this. A few years later Napoleon, having founded a new dynasty, wanted to set up residence there, as did King Louis XVIII after him, having spent his youth there, and his brother Charles X during his short reign that followedas if occupation of the throne and residence at Versailles were intimately related. The sovereign rulers who came after them never contemplated returning to Versailles, which indicates the extent of their deference to the symbolic power of the place.
Was it for this or other reasons that at Versailles the Third Republic was established and the sovereignty of the German Empire proclaimed; that presidents of France were elected by the assembled chambers there until the Fifth Republic; that the treaties ending the First World War were signed there; that even now modifications of the French constitution must be decided there, and contemporary French heads of state prefer to receive the leaders of the great nations there, when such summit meetings are mandated?
But if power and history have continued, and still continue, to reside in the palace in the absence of kings, a more regular use for the domain, which would justify its conservation and maintenance, remains to be found. We should be grateful to King LouisPhilippe for reviving the idea, born during the Revolution, of creating a museum in the château of Versailles. His was a museum devoted "To All the Glories of France," as inscribed on a pediment of the château.
But what attracts crowds from all over the world to Versailles is, above all, the grandiose manifestation of the power and history, allied with beauty, of a civilization at its apogee, rendered accessible through its architecture, painting, sculpture, furniture, and gardens.
Restoration work proceeds apace in all these areas. Whether it is a question of extensive preservation campaigns or the reconstruction of buildings, of attempts to reassemble the furnishings dispersed during the Revolution or to enrich the museums collections, or of work undertaken to restore the gardens original harmony, Versailles today is marked by various and incessant creative endeavors. Thanks to the good will and assistance of public agencies? Yes, but none of this would have been possible, either yesterday or today, without the passionate commitment of all those throughout the world who love Versailles. One would like to mention all the generous donors who have lent their moral and material support to this enterprise of restoration, but space limitations prohibit this; one example, perhaps the most striking one, the contribution of the Rockefeller family, will have to stand for all.
The admirable photographs in this book, realized by that passionate lover of Versailles, the artist Robert Polidori, evoke very nearly all the pleasures enjoyed by those who, like himself, might wish to prowl about Versailles at all hours and in all epochs. He lends us his eyes and his sensitivity, revealing an infinite variety of marvels: from the surprise of unexpected discoveries, always beautiful, to fresh views of consecrated but eternally vital masterpieces.
To guide us through this spellbinding world, JeanMarie Pérouse de Montclos here offers a magisterial synthetic text that, like the design of a French garden, opens vast horizons and lays out byways inviting exploration, with new perspectives at each crossroads.
Without doubt, all those fortunate enough to hold this book in their hands will, like is authors, find it impossible to resist the charms of Versailles.