Versailles

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Versailles

Versailles is an important excursion and you need to give full expression to your rhetorical skills to bring it to life. You should have no compunction about occupying the microphone for the whole 45 minute bus journey. In the chateau itself you cannot guide. Once outside again you have to explain the gardens, the Trianons and the Hameau before rejoining the bus. Details of what the group will see inside the palace are given in the Le Château de Versailles: Walking Tour.

The history of Versailles is closely linked with the growth of power and the development of the character of Louis XIV himself. In 1661, building began on a site that was originally a small hunting lodge of his father's, Louis XIII. Louis XIV was only 5 years old when he came to the throne in 1648, and is position and that of the regent Cardinal Mazarin had been continually threatened by powerful nobles plotting against him and stirring up the Parisian mob. In Versailles, the king could escape the rigours of government and the nobles he mistrusted so much. It also provided him with a more secluded environment in which to indulge his many love affairs. Only one year after his marriage he had already embarked on a series of mistresses who included Louise de la Vallière, Mme de Montespan and Mme de Maintenon. Like his father, Louis also chose this site surrounded by woodland because of his passion for hunting. "La Chasse Royale" had become a great ceremonious ritual accompanied by orchestras and banquets in the middle of the woods.

Louis engaged three men to carry out his plans: the architect Le Vau, the gardener Le Nôtre and the interior designer Le Brun. These were the same three who had recently worked on the magnificent chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte for Louis' Minister of Finance Fouquet.

Tremendous construction problems were encountered at first as the land was largely marshland, and soil had to be transplanted to the site. The original plans took 50 years to complete, and the expense was so outrageous that Louis was said to have destroyed many of the bills to avoid accusations of overspending treasury money. The plans for the gardens proved equally problematic. The whole project involved 26,000 workers and 6,000 horses and was completed over a period of 20 years.

In 1682 Louis moved from Paris to his new palace where he set up the government. The whole court inevitably followed. The overflow of nobles and courtiers flocking to the new palace was such that Versailles faced an accommodation problem with an acute shortage of apartments in and around the palace. The town of Versailles did not exist in 1670. At Louis XIV's death in 1715 it numbered 30,000 inhabitants. The surfeit of bored courtiers also had to be entertained. To do this, as well as to satisfy his own extravagant desires for pomp and pageantry, Louis held a series of wildly expensive festivals, which included banquets, balls, pantomimes, plays and elaborate fireworks displays. Louis also favoured and attracted to his court writers such as Racine, Corneille and Molière, and composers such as Lully, the inventor of French opera. These lavish forms of entertainment were supplemented by card games and gambling which were pursued with a vengeance at Versailles.

Every member of the court had to observe a strict code of etiquette. It governed each and every aspect of behaviour: in whose presence to wear a hat, how to knock at a door, how to bow etc.

A Day in the Life of Louis XIV  The exact timetable of a typical day could vary according to the season or any incidental events, but as a general principle, the king's timetable was rigidly adhered to. It was as follows:

8.30am: The Grand Lever
10.00am: Mass
11.00am: Council
1.00pm: Dinner
2.00pm: Walking or Hunting
6.00pm: Soirées d'Appartement or similar entertainment
10.00pm: Supper
11.30pm: The Grand Coucher

The grand lever is the most interesting of these occasions. The 'big wake up' was the defining moment of the day in the life of Versailles. It was held in public, in front of about 100 men. At 8.30am the Valet de Chambre woke the King with the words "C'est l'heure." The king was then combed, washed and shaved. Finally he was dressed and would take breakfast. The king never missed Mass. Council was the occasion when affairs of state were discussed. It took place in the King's Bedroom. Usually those present at Council were those who had been granted a place at the ceremony of the grand coucher. According to the day of the week, affairs discussed might be economic, legal, political or military. Lunch was theoretically in private but in practice it too was a public spectacle. Hunting was the prime activity for the afternoons. Walking in the gardens was an occasional alternative. For the Soirées d'Appartement, see the Versailles Walking Tour. Supper was the grand couvert at which the king would eat prodigiously in front of admiring onlookers. The grand coucher was like a miniature version of the grand lever in reverse.

Who Was Who in Versailles?  This page is intended for reference only, should you forget.

The kings:                          The queens:
Louis XIV (1643-1715)      Marie-Thérèse, princess of Spain
Louis XV (1715-1774)        Maria Leszczynska, of Polish royal house
Louis XVI (1774 - 1792)    Marie-Antoinette, Hapsburg princess

The mistresses (some of them, anyway):
Louise de la Vallière (Louis XIV's first great mistress, ended up in a convent)
Mme de Montespan (mother of seven of his children)
Mme de Maintenon (nanny to Louis' and Mme de Montespan's children, nicknamed 'Votre Solidité,' secretly married Louis after the death of Marie-Thérèse )
Mme du Barry (Louis XV's first mistress, guillotined under the Terror)
Mme de Pompadour (immensely influential political and cultural presence under the king)

The rest:
Molière (comic dramatist, several of his works premiered at Versailles)
Lully (court composer, Master of the King's Music)
Le Vau (principal architect)
Le Brun (interior decorator)
Le Nôtre (head gardener)
Hardouin-Mansart (architect of the Grand Trianon and the Chapelle Royale)
Colbert (comptroller, architect of France's wealth in C17)
Saint-Simon (diarist, responsible for passing on much of the detail about court life)

"A Toutes les Gloires de la France" dates from the time of Louis-Philippe who turned Versailles into a museum in 1837.

1870 Versailles was HQ of German army during siege of Paris.
20,000 people attached to the court. 1,000 courtiers and 4,000 attendants in the palace. 14,000 soldiers and servants in the town.
Louis XIV had a standing army of 400,000.
Equestrian statue of Louis XIV in Cour d'Honneur dates from 1820s.
The court residence and seat of government between 6 May 1682 and 6 October 1789.

The Gardens and the Trianon Palaces  The gardens of Versailles are so vast that it is absolutely impossible to absorb them in the course of a half day excursion. You do not have time (or money) to visit any of the Trianon buildings. There are several possibilities for a brief glimpse, however. If you have a group of non-walkers or if the weather is bad, it is probably best to return to the bus in the Place d'Armes and drive round to the Trianon parking. From there it is a short walk to the Petit Trianon and the Hameau, which fulfils most pax's ambitions perfectly. If you are walking from the main palace the walk is a good couple of miles but it allows them to see much more and allows you to expound much further on the varying glories of these incredible gardens. If you are doing Versailles in the afternoon it is often wise to begin your tour at the Trianons, starting with the Hameau and continuing towards the main palace. This is going chronologically backwards but it has the virtues of reaching a climax at the right time, of getting the tiring bit over with early on, and avoiding the crowds in the palace. As long as you reach it by 3.30pm you will have plenty of time to see inside. From the Trianon to the palace or vice-versa the overpriced mini-train, with commentary in English, is always on hand to aid any flaggers. The cost (which you can put on expenses if you have an adult group) is somewhere around 25 FF (5 Euros) per person.

There are various possible themes to take for your garden commentary. You may want simply to stroll, occasionally pointing out items of interest. You should try to bring out the importance of symbolism re the repeated motifs of Apollo and Diana. You could expound a little on the subject of formal and informal garden styles, French and English respectively (Versailles embraces both trends). Your field of expertise may be more botanical or perhaps technological on the subject of the water supply to the fountains. It is worth explaining how the gardens here are not so much an adjunct to the palace as an architectonic continuation in the open air of the palace building itself. Ideally you can evoke something of the feeling of the gardens in their resplendent glory at the height of the Ancien Régime.

The whole grounds occupy about 2,000 acres surrounded by a 12-mile wall. This is approximately an eighth the size of the original grand parc. The gardens, occupying 250 acres, were first laid out by André Le Nôtre in 1661-68. They are formal French gardens, with later English-style landscaping and plantings dating from the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI. The trees, of which there are about 200,000 (or were, until the hurricane of 1990), are mostly lime, oak, beech, chestnut, ash and cherry.

There are now 620 fountain nozzles (for 50 fountains) left in the gardens of Versailles. In Louis XIV's time there were 1,400. The land and the water pressure was such that there was no possibility for all the fountains to be turned on at the same time. Therefore when the King walked in the gardens the assistant gardeners had to precede him at a discreet distance turning on the fountains in his line of vision while other gardeners following behind turned off the taps of the fountains he had just passed. In this way the king could maintain the illusion of having all the fountains on at the same time.

The Walk  The following description presumes that you begin your walk at the palace proper, exiting through the Arcade du Midi, and take the route approximately as indicated on the accompanying map.

Parterres d'Eau: The reclining bronze figures represent the great rivers of France. You can see the palace reflected in the water. As you approach the Latona steps the statue on your right is of Diana, goddess of hunting. On your left is an allegorical figure of Dawn. If you look back to the palace from these steps you have a marvellous view on to the whole facade and the north-south axis of the gardens from the Neptune Basin to the Orangery.

Latona Fountain: This represents a story, with significant symbolic implications, that is told in Ovid's Metamorphosis. The goddess Latona was insulted by certain Lycian peasants who saw her naked and in revenge she is seen here with her children Apollo and Diana begging Jupiter to avenge their act of hubris. Consequently the peasants are being tranformed by Jupiter into turtles, lizards and frogs. (Incidentally, the same fountain in a C19 copy is the centrepiece of the gardens of Ludwig II's castle at Herrenchiemsee.)

Tapis Vert: This is a long stretch of manicured lawn, bordered by C17 and C18 statues, leading down to the Grand Canal. In Versailles' heyday it was the scene of bals masqués and outdoor concerts.

Apollo Fountain: This represents Apollo, the god of the sun, in his chariot emerging from the waves to illuminate the earth, victorious over various monsters of the deep. Some of the statues on the surrounding esplanade are original Greek and Roman. Apollo's eyes stare straight into the Hall of Mirrors and the King's Bedroom behind. (By the way, this fountain is absolutely dazzling when it is working because the effect created by the spray gives an impression of movement that brings this sculptural group to extraordinary life.)

There is a cafe/restaurant here, loos, a souvenir shop and a stall for people to buy ice-creams. (Also, at a very reasonable price, you can hire bikes against a deposit of ID to cycle around the Grand Canal and the Trianon palaces, with the exception of the Hameau.)

Grand Canal: This was the scene of Louis' boating parties. The boats were brightly painted gondolas complete with real live gondoliers, presented to Louis XIV by the Doge of Venice. It is in the form of a cross, a mile long. The north transverse arm leads direct to the Grand Trianon. The group of houses on the right is known as Petite Venise, since it was inhabited by the Venetian gondoliers.

You have now walked the east-west axis of the gardens. At the end of the canal and its tree-lined borders are two poplar trees. On midsummer's eve the sun sets precisely on this axis, framed between the poplar trees, illuminating the Hall of Mirrors and reflected in the waters of the Grand Canal. Here you should take the allée de Bailly to the Grand Trianon. The road rejoins the canal arm where it meets the palace garden. At both the Trianon palaces and at the Hameau you should stop for a few minutes to talk about what you're looking at.

'Trianon' was the name of a village which Louis XIV demolished in order to build in its place a house suitable for light refreshments and snacks. The result was the Grand Trianon palace.

Grand Trianon: This is a miniature palace built in 1687 by Mansart for Louis XIV as a retreat from the oppressive protocol of court life. It is made of pink marble and porphyry. The gardens are beautifully maintained. It would have been an even more spectacular sight in the early days of Louis' reign. Then, the flowerbeds were changed on a daily basis to ensure that the visual and olfactory sensations were always exciting and new. The palace itself, in its first incarnation, was unique, made inside and out with tiles from Delft. This was the famously lovely but rather impractical Trianon de Porcelaine. At the time of Louis XIV this was the residence of his mistress Mme de Montespan. (NB. A point of interest, especially for groups from Maine: Mme de Montespan was the mother of the Duc de Maine who was granted the governorship over those territories of French Canada, now US territory, comprising the State of Maine.) After she fell out of favour, the new mistress Mme de Maintenon took up residence here. The Grand Trianon was Louis XVI's primary place of residence. He didn't like the main palace. Besides, he had given Marie-Antoinette the Petit Trianon as a present and he wanted to be near her. Napoleon stayed here often. The interior decoration dates mostly from his era. Since the time of Charles de Gaulle, one wing of this palace has been reserved for the use of the French Head of State.

Petit Trianon: This small and beautiful classical palace was built by the architect Gabriel in 1768 as retreat for Louis XV and his mistress Mme de Pompadour. She never lived to see it completed, and it was subsequently occupied by Mme du Barry, Louis' next mistress. Louis XVI gave it as a present to Marie-Antoinette for whom it became a favourite residence. Here, she brought back the spirit of parties and high living that had been the essence of Versailles in the early days of Louis XIV 100 years before. The only difference was the carefree informality she brought to the proceedings. In the grounds she created the fantasy village that is your next port of call.

There is a man here selling freshly-squeezed orange juice who will give you a glass for free if the group wish to partake.

Before you reach the Hameau, don't forget to point out the Temple of Love, a folly built for no particular reason except to celebrate the love between Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The figure in the middle is Cupid drawing his bow.

Le Hameau de Marie-Antoinette: This is an extraordinary place. It is a theatrical village which takes its romanticising cue from the idealistic image of country life promulgated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Around the lake, filled today with carp, are houses and farm buildings in the half-timbered Norman style, in which Marie-Antoinette could live out the idyllic fantasy of rural bliss. It was built in 1783. The main building with the wooden gallery was the queen's house, complete with billiard room and a suite of cabinets. Dotted around are a mill, a boudoir, a separate dining room, a guards' house and a dairy. The actual running of the farm was entrusted to a couple from the Touraine and their two children. "How delightful were these groves scented with lilacs, peopled by nightingales...the queen spent most of the fine season there." There is a powerful irony in the contrast between these charming pleasures but ignorant dreams and the final fate of Marie-Antoinette and her family in real life under the Revolution. (Incidentally, at the time of writing, late 1998, there is a plan to make this place 'interactive' and people the Hameau with unemployed French sheep and actors dressed up in C18 costume and talking in C18 French. The windmill will be restored to working order. There will, of course, be a charge for this new delight.)

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