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A Biography of a Palace
By Tony Spawforth
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Tony Spawforth
All rights reserved.
Builders of the Labyrinth
Only an aerial viewpoint starts to do justice to the size of Versailles. Even then, it takes one of the delicate eighteenth-century plans of Versailles, with the royal domain delineated in a faded pink, to grasp that the palace, with its multiple wings and hidden courts, was the focus of a much larger complex scattered around the town of Versailles.
Inmates likened royal Versailles to a labyrinth: a maze of galleries, corridors, staircases, and apartments.1 In 1838 William Talmadge, a visitor from England, confessed: "The place is vast beyond all English imagination: one can hardly conceive it according to its purpose as a place of residence."2
A confusing number of french kings called Louis had a hand in the building we see today. This chapter tells the chronological story of the creation of Versailles from Louis XIII's first house on the site in 1623 to Louis XVI's ambitious rebuilding plans on the eve of the french Revolution, which broke out in 1789, when Versailles ceased to be a royal residence.
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When Louis XIII succeeded as french king in 1610, Versailles was a prosperous hamlet set in an upland valley as yet only partially cleared for cultivation. The name of the place, formed on the Latin word vertere, meaning to turn the soil, immortalizes the hard grind of the medieval farmers who first won a way of life here from primal woodland. In the years around 1600 a windmill topped the knoll on which the palace later rose. Two hundred or so souls made up the population.
As the crow flies, Versailles is twelve miles west of Paris. When Louis XIV moved the seat of the monarchy to Versailles in 1682, the Paris-Versailles road became one of the busiest arteries in Europe, even during the night, when, by the late eighteenth century, streetlights lit the paved surface all the way from the palace to the Paris tollgate. But, in the first instance, the sleepy village of the early seventeenth century owed its new destiny not to the nearby capital, but to the royal residence of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, six miles due north. This redbrick Renaissance château, sited on high ground above the River Seine, commands sensational views of the Paris basin — much better ones, critics would later say, than those of Louis XIV's Versailles.
Henri IV, Louis XIV's grandfather and first king of the Bourbon line of the french royal house, liked this old royal residence, updating it with new royal quarters and terraced gardens running down to the river. Saint-Germain remained a favorite residence of the new dynasty for most of the seventeenth century. In 1638 Louis XIII's queen, Anne of Austria, gave birth there to the future Louis XIV.
Like all french royalty, the Bourbon kings had hunting in their blood. The chief attraction of Saint-Germain, apart from the view, was the stag. The virility and sheer beauty of this monarch of the french forests had made it a badge of royalty since time immemorial. An indefatigable animal, it was the stag that first led Henri IV from Saint-Germain to Versailles. His son and successor, Louis XIII, was only ten when he too first found himself at Versailles in pursuit of his quarry.
No one knows precisely why, but the young Louis XIII took a fancy to the spot. He started to buy up land here for a game reserve. This kind of human intervention was needed because hunting on the Bourbon scale upset the balance of nature. In the sixteen years from 1775 to 1791, Louis XIII's descendant, Louis XVI, killed 1,274 stags. Sustaining this level of slaughter were the gamekeepers whose animal husbandry kept the royal forests well stocked. At Versailles, Louis XIII's reserve is remembered in the quarter of the modern town still called Parc-aux-Cerfs (Stag Park).
In 1623, when he was twenty-two, Louis XIII decided to commission a simple country house on the site of the future palace. He intended it for short stays with a small entourage only. He began buying up more local land, including in due course the seigneury, or feudal estate, of Versailles, acquired from the noble family of the Gondi. As lord of Versailles, Louis now enjoyed rights of high and low justice over the local peasantry. No less important, he could now hunt at will over the seigneurial land.
Seven years passed before the king, now aged thirty, plucked up enough nerve to exile his politically overbearing mother, Marie de' Medici. Sharing the reins of power with the formidable Richelieu, his chief minister, he now felt confident enough to rebuild his house as a medium-sized country château in the french style of the day. Walls of creamy stone rose, framing decorative panels of red bricks — in fact, simulated in painted plaster — and roofs tiled with blue slate; the color scheme echoed, deliberately one supposes, the red, white, and blue livery of the king's household. Philibert Le Roy, the architect, added the seigneurial touch of a dry moat. This was not just symbolic; in what was then countryside, the house and its contents needed protection when the monarch was absent.
Louis XIII's rooms are now known mainly from inventories of their contents. As was customary, they were on the first, or noble, floor. They included accommodations for his queen on the south side, with his on the north. This basic disposition of the royal quarters was preserved throughout the history of Versailles as a royal residence. It is ironic, then, that Anne of Austria never stayed the night. Not only was the marriage troubled, but Louis XIII was far from gregarious. He preferred mainly male cronies and disliked the prospect of an invasion of his retreat by the "great number of women" forming Anne's household: they would "spoil everything," as he once told Richelieu. In this respect as in others, his son could not have been more different.
Louis XIII went on buying up local land. By the time he died, he had laid out a modest park to the west of his château. The estate now included the stag park, outbuildings for kitchens, stables, and kennels, and a covered tennis court. Everything was inherited by his elder son and successor, the four-year-old Louis XIV.3
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The future Louis XIV was first brought to Versailles at the age of three.4 Once he was old enough to hunt from Saint-Germain, he came to know the place better. But he took no special interest in his father's retreat until 1661, when he was in his twenty-third year and had been king for eighteen years. Then he began to plough funds into what, in hindsight, became a never-ending series of costly transformations continuing until his death.
This sudden change of attitude toward Versailles is often linked with his amorous needs. At the time he was embarked on an adulterous affair with Louise de La Vallière, a young noblewoman of the court. The memoirist Saint-Simon records how Louis used to bring her to Versailles from Saint-Germain for discreet trysts out of sight of the queen and queen mother. But france and Europe were beginning to learn that Louis XIV was a king to his fingertips. At Versailles, reasons of state quickly weighed in as well.
In his twenties Louis redecorated the interior of his father's château and rearranged the approach on the Paris side. He built new kitchens and stables. But his great passion at this time was the park. In concert with the gardener and designer André Le Nôtre, he began to invest large sums in an extremely ambitious redesign and enlargement of the old grounds, gradually extending them with more land purchases until they reached the western horizon.
Le Nôtre's achievement is difficult to appreciate because we can no longer see the terrain as it was when he set to work. He was a landscape gardener on a grand scale. He turned ponds and streams into ornamental sheets of water. He shifted vast amounts of soil to create a terrace in front of the château, where the ground naturally slopes. He imported mature trees and relocated the villages that blocked his new vistas.
In the taste of the day, he regimented nature. Trees and shrubs were clipped and sheared. He divided the terrain into bosquets or groves with geometric shapes. With the help of artists, architects, and fountain makers he decorated these like outdoor rooms. Astonishing waterworks and kinked paths revealing hidden surprises were a feature of this young king's garden. In the royal idiom of the age, Louis and his artists used sculpture, water, and orientation to liken the nature of his rule to the daily passage of the life-giving sun.
The general aim was to impress, and Louis XIV succeeded. By 1668 the modest country house was incongruously married to the most talked-about grounds in france. Called a "theater king" by contemporaries, Louis was aided in this purpose by his innate showman's flair.
He spread word of his works at Versailles by means of a series of nocturnal fêtes in the grounds, the first in 1664, a second in 1668, and a third in 1674. He invited the nobility, bourgeois Parisians, provincial notables, and ambassadors and other distinguished foreigners, like the duke of Monmouth, a bastard of Charles II of England.
He relied on a team of specialists — from actors, playwrights, musicians, artists, and set builders to dressmakers, flower arrangers, and pyrotechnists — all under the general direction of a gifted impresario. Carlo Vigarani hailed from the country of origin of this kind of court spectacular, imported to france along with Medici queens from sixteenth-century Italy.
The young king sought to entertain his entourage and to charm his mistresses. But — and this is true of Louis XIV and Versailles in general — he always had politics in view. He used the fêtes to raise his profile both in france and abroad by showing off his comely person (he took part in fancy dress), his good taste, and his resources. His vehicle for this rather modern attitude to self-promotion was a publicity machine that made liberal use of the engraver's skill.
Its director in all but name was Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the key organizer of "project Versailles" behind the scenes. Thanks to his industry, loyalty, and talents, this older man had been promoted by the young Louis XIV from clerk to the most powerful positions in the government. He ended up combining the finance ministry, which provided the funds, with oversight of the "Buildings, Arts, Tapestries, and Manufactories of france": in effect, an arts minister.
Colbert hired the best artists to engrave the highlights of the royal fêtes — the theatricals, fireworks, balls, and banquets. At a leisurely pace, in a world that moved more slowly than today's, he had these engravings made up into collections bound in calf or morocco. In the 1670s he gave these away by the hundreds to the ambassadors, who were encouraged in turn to show them around in their home capitals. As word spread, overseas sightseers were drawn to Versailles, like the English architect Christopher Wren, an early visitor in 1665. Louis had succeeded in using the arts to get himself talked about.
By 1668, when he had just turned thirty, Louis had won his first war, wresting Lille from his wife's family, the Spanish Habsburgs. flushed with success, he decided to turn his attention from the gardens of Versailles to the house. This was too small to be much more than a backdrop to outdoor activities. But the ephemeral theaters and ballrooms repeatedly erected for the garden fêtes were wasteful, and these festivities always ran the risk of bad weather. Louis now wanted to build a permanent theater and ballroom at Versailles. Not for the last time in the history of the extravagant palace, expensive new buildings could be claimed as an economy.
At first Louis planned to preserve the original château at the center of his enlargements. But in June 1669, with work already under way, he decided on a far more ambitious upgrade of Versailles into a center of government. He now envisaged the ministers working with him at Versailles, just as they already followed him from Paris to Saint-Germain and to fontainebleau, the other big royal palace in the vicinity of the capital.
Inspired by this vision, Louis announced his intention to demolish his father's château. He wanted to build huge wings to the north and south to house a ballroom, theater, and lodgings for the courtiers of the household: those with a right to board and lodging under the royal roof. Attracting these great nobles into his permanent entourage was already a key concern for the young Louis. As early as 1663, he was nagging Colbert about their accommodations. Stories of bad-tempered grandees dining in "holes" — a reference to the inns of Versailles — and sleeping in their coaches during the fêtes of 1664 and 1668 were not the best way of tempting french nobles out to Versailles.
A tussle now ensued between Colbert and his master. Each had his own ideas for how france's king should be housed. The powerful arts minister would have preferred to see the king finish his improvements to the Louvre, the Parisian palace that all frenchmen thought of as the traditional seat of the monarchy. The two men eventually compromised. for the time being the king dropped his talk of demolition and of wings. But he had his way in building something grand and majestic at Versailles.
The architect Louis Le Vau drew up new plans for what became known as the Envelope. His new extension literally enveloped the old château on three sides; the gaps between the new and old buildings created inner courtyards for use by servants. The new façades were built of bright, creamy stone and decorated with Ionic columns in the Italian manner. The second, or attic, story was topped by a balustrade masking a flat roof.
This upper story would go some way to satisfy the king's wish to house his courtiers. Traces remain of the original décor of the attic rooms. They had painted ceilings — a prestigious feature in this period — and sculptured cornices. This richness shows that Louis intended them as lodgings for persons of unusual eminence, probably his cousins, the princes of the blood.
On the Paris side, too, there was a transformation. The detached service wings dating from the 1660s were converted into more lodgings for courtiers and joined up with the side wings of the Louis XIII château. The effect, more chance than design, was to create two elongated wings that progressively narrow as they recede toward the old château. This is still a distinctive aspect of the palace today. At the same time, a huge new forecourt was created. This was flanked by four pavilions, one for each of the four ministers of state, their families, and their bureaux.
In contrast to Le Vau's Italianate façades overlooking the garden, on the Paris side Louis XIV's aesthetic choices were constrained by the older work in the Louis XIII style. Louis and Colbert were troubled by this jarring divorce of styles and materials between the garden and Paris sides. At first they tried to offset it by giving the rebuilt wings on the Paris side flat roofs to harmonize with those of the Envelope. But the need for more accommodations prevailed. Only a year or so later these roofs were drastically raised to provide two superposed attics filled with lodgings.
With massive wings to east or west shelved for the time being, Louis still needed more lodgings for courtiers. At Saint-Germain or fontainebleau most of the court lodged, not in the palace, but in the town. A senior court official, the grand marshal of lodgings, had the job of requisitioning the billets and chalking up names on townsfolk's doors.
At Versailles the courtiers were now to build their own accommodations. In 1671 Louis XIV announced that he was giving away plots of land on the Paris side and that houses built on them would be exempt from seizure for debt — an enticement for france's great nobles, many of them cash-strapped and in debt. A rush of grandees took advantage.
Louis required the new houses to be built in a uniform style. They also had to defer in both height (no more than two stories) and building materials (the same cream stone, redbrick effect, and blue slates) to the Paris façades of the royal residence on the low hill above them. An English visitor in 1677, John Locke, likened the effect to that of an English manor house and its surrounding cottages.
The new houses lined two of the three tree-lined avenues that fanned out from the trapezoidal plaza in front of the château. Le Nôtre had planned this impressive approach in the 1660s by broadening two avenues that already existed under Louis XIII and, for the sake of symmetry, adding a third to the south, the future avenue de Sceaux, in fact a decorative cul-de-sac. On paper, the total effect resembles a goose's webbed foot.
Excerpted from Versailles by Tony Spawforth. Copyright © 2008 Tony Spawforth. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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