Rob Hardy on books


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A Photo Tour of the Grandest Palace



Rob Hardy


I remember thinking when I visited Versailles years ago that it would be a wonderful place to go running. Oh, I had some other thoughts, about monarchical grandeur and the march of history and so on. But if I lived near the chateau, I would do all my running on its grounds, which are huge, almost two and a half times the size of Central Park in New York. I would run around the fine architecture, and the fountains, and the topiary, and I would never get tired of the environs. I guess this will not happen, but I enjoyed especially the many pages depicting the gardens in Versailles (Abrams) by Valérie Bajou (translation by Antony Shugaar). Bajou is just the one to have compiled this book of photographs; she is a curator at the chateau, and a specialist on French paintings, many of which the chateau contains and many of which are depicted here. The book is not large format; it is a blocky tome of a little more than eight inches square, but with 480 gilt-edged pages and 280 photographs, it weighs in at almost four pounds. I would have been happy with more text and more explanations for each photo, but as a picture book, this will be appreciated as a fine reminder of a previous visit, or an introduction for those who have yet to join the five million people a year who tour Versailles. 




In the pocket history of Versailles included here, Bijou reminds us that it was first a hunting ground, a wild place far different from its controlled and classic French garden style (supplemented with English borrowings). Louis XIII ordered a hunting lodge constructed there in 1623, called simply his "country house." His son Louis XIV was only four when he ascended the throne on the death of his father in 1643, and it was he who in the 1660s started building a palace that would suit him as a show of power and vanity. Voltaire criticized the vanity (which he said led the Sun King into too many wars), but he also called his reign "an eternally memorable age." Versailles nicely encompasses the memory. Louis XIV also wanted to remove himself from Paris, so that the nobility would have to travel the twelve miles from the city just to have an audience with him.  




It is funny to read that the king's bold project did not please everyone. "The Duke of Saint-Simon considered it to be nothing more than a 'paper castle.'" He wasn't the only one who thought that the architecture was too traditional and even archaic, a feeling that cannot afflict visitors today. The exteriors are still pretty much as he made them, but the interiors have changed substantially, starting with Louis XV. He changed the mere bedroom of the king into the Chambre de Parade, where there was a ceremonial bed. Nobles who competed for the king's attention would be rewarded by being allowed to participate in the formal ceremonies of rising (Lever) and retiring (Coucher). Louis XIV had planned the palace of Versailles to be a refuge from Paris, but Louis XV seemed to have needed a refuge from the palace itself. He spent much time at the outbuilding, the Grand Trianon, and also ordered construction of the Petit Trianon. The latter would be an especial enthusiasm for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. 




The text here helps place the palace within the centuries it has served as a home, a showplace, a ceremonial court, a museum, and a center for diplomacy. It is fun to read, for instance, about the Queen's Staircase, a gorgeous polychrome marble construction, that it "is the path that the rioters took on October 6, 1789, before breaking into the room of Queen Marie Antoinette." Near the heavily gold King's Bedchamber was the Cabinet des Chiens, or Antechamber of Dogs, where the favorite dogs of Louis XV slept, and there was a Salle à Manger des Retours de Chasse (the After-Hunt Dining Room). There was the Cabinet du Pendule (Clock Room), the Cabinet de la Cassette (the privy purse room), libraries, galleries, dressing rooms, the War Drawing Room, the Peace Drawing Room, the Apollo Drawing Room, the Mercury Drawing Room, and on and on, not to mention the famous Hall of Mirrors. There are many pictures of decorated walls and ceilings here. Look up and in one room you could see Mars coming in his chariot, and in other rooms you could see the chariots of Mercury, Apollo, and more. These are some of the same deities cavorting in the many fountains. 




The Historical Galleries include the Hall of Battles, which is even longer than the Hall of Mirrors, and is hung with pictures of French armies victorious. Although in much of the palace, care has been taken to furnish the interior as it would have been during the times of the kings, you could not have a Hall of Battles without many portraits of Napoleon in action. There are, however, many depictions "more suited to the bivouac than to the battlefield." This bothered one critic who blustered against artists whose originality had made their reputations but then who had abandoned "the field of art to become salaried laborers in that great museum of Versailles, which has proved so fatal to painting because of the official nature of its subjects and commissions, the haste demanded in terms of execution, all those projects undertaken on a job rate, made to measure, which were to convert the gallery of our glories into the school and the pantheon of bric-a-brac." 




Most of the pictures of interiors here have golden baroque richness that any king of the time would have found just the right atmosphere. It is a shock to come to a spread that shows the relatively austere (and relatively is the key word) bathroom of Marie Antoinette, with a black and white marble floor, raised ornamentation on the walls, white (not gilt) over a light lavender, with a simple bed. Another surprise is the only slightly less ornamented room depicted here, a drawing room with a semiofficial-looking desk, and comfortable-looking chairs and a sofa. This is the office that General de Gaulle set up in the northern wing of the Grand Trianon. 




Versailles is a monument to absolute kingly power, but modern French governments have continued to support it. Looking at the handsome photographs here, it is easy to see why. Versailles is a vision of a paradise on Earth; the baroque fancies are not what everyone would like as surrounding décor, but they do represent an opulence that is unmatched. This is a lovely book just as befits its subject. 




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