Versailles, beautiful yet tragic. A spectacular achievement in French architecture that would only see three generations of the French royal family inhabiting its walls. The Chateau de Versailles was begun by eccentric Louis XIV, who moved the court from Paris to Versailles in the seventeenth century. The site of the palace was originally a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII, over the next century Versailles would be expanded upon and transformed into an exquisite pleasure palace from which the descendants of Louis XIV would continue to act out the sacred royal rights initiated by the Sun King.
I have been reading about Louis XIV and his descendants over the past couple of years. From the Sun King and his mistresses, to the boy king Louis the Beloved and the unfortunate Louis Capet, I have slowly traced the lives of the family at their royal residence. My particular interest is in Marie Antoinette’s life at court and her constant battle to legitimize herself as a Bourbon queen (she was a direct descendant of Louis XIV’s brother Phillipe Duc d’Orleans).
In visiting Versailles, I feel that I was able to retrace her steps by physically walking the grounds that she inhabited. From the tight routines and restrictions of the palace to the seclusion in her later days at the Petit Trianon and Queen’s Hamlet. Versailles is full of tourists all year round. Upon entering the main palace, along with hundreds of tourists, I felt what is probably a similar claustrophobia to Marie Antoinette’s whilst at court. Louis XIV had turned Versailles into an open air royal museum, members of the court would observe and participate in the French royal family’s daily routines including the waking up to the preparation of the evening coucher of the king and queen. There would have been little time for Marie Antoinette to spend on her own or with her close friends due to etiquette. My own walk through the palace was led by a populous group of tourists, mostly Asian with expensive cameras and heavy duty lenses. The blinding flash and constant sound of the camera shutters distorted the elaborate Baroque wallpaper and mouldings. Here I was taking part in an age old royal routine.
By the time we’d passed the King’s chambers and the hall of mirrors I felt completely exhausted and lacked inspiration to record my experience (plus the constant flash of cameras had given me a migraine by this point).
Eventually I was pushed along to the queen’s chambers, the last queen to have used the apartments being Marie Antoinette. It was as I had imagined. Across the walls I could see the stylistic evolution and contribution of the queens who had inhabited the space. Having been packed into the room with slightly aggressive tourists, I could imagine the suffocation Marie Antoinette felt when she gave birth to her first child Marie Therese, the queen had fainted soon after. Such an experience must have further encouraged her to step away from court life.
I wish I had been more patient to really explore the palace but I just didn’t feel like myself whilst I was there. As we slowly moved towards the exit I began to relax. And so a feeling of tranquility took over the anxiety as I walked through the gardens. The labyrinth of green muffled the sounds of visitors and kept them away from sight. Instead I was greeted with Classical Baroque music pumping out from speakers hidden in the bushes. This gave a rather grand effect to the feel of the space though I would much rather have experienced it as it was, without the aid of modern technology (the speakers).
I can see why Marie Antoinette chose the Petit Trianon as her get away from court life. The little chateau is a 20 minute walk away from the main palace, it is hidden away in a green corner surrounded by beautiful landscapes. Louis VXI gave the chateau to Marie Antoinette on her 19th birthday. It had originally belonged to Louis XV mistress Madame Pompadour and after her death it was given to his final mistress Madame Du Barry. In this way Marie Antoinette appears to have taken the role not of Louis XVI’s consort but of his mistress, they were yet to produce an heir to the throne. The lack of a Dauphin and the decision to seclude herself from court would eventually lead to rumors and the negative perception of the queen of France by the public.
It appears that the Petit Trianon is somewhat unheard of or less popular with the tourists. I was delighted to find peace and tranquility at the chateau Marie Antoinette called her own.
My most memorable experience at Versailles would have to be discovering the Temple of Love. This to me was the epitome of Marie Antoinette’s shift to embracing nature through the creation of an English garden and the temple at Versailles. Louis XVI is known to have heavily invested in improving the gardens. The carefully planned out landscape appears to imitate nature. The temple was created by the queen’s architect Richard Mique. An exquisite example of the Neo-Classical style that was slowly replacing Baroque architecture at Versailles.
Next we made our way to the Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette’s rustic hideaway, a place that she would increasingly spend more time in, especially with her children. Here the queen commissioned rustic buildings in the guise of Norman and Flemish country houses. She would take her friends and family to relax in the gardens, visit the dairy, the mill and even to a little farm with goats, pigs and chickens. This was at a time when Marie Antoinette became interested in the ‘back to nature’ philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his is also the philosophy that would greatly influence the French revolution.
Lastly we walked around the grounds of the Grand Trianon, the family’s retreat. Just as the Petit Trianon, this palace was a place in which the king and queen (or mistress) could relax away from court etiquette. Royal guests residing temporarily at the Grand Trianon included the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV, the Duchess de Burgundy, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, her son Philippe d’Orleans, Peter the Great of Russia and Napoleon.
As I waved goodbye to Versailles, vowing to return again soon, I couldn’t help but feel sad knowing that at one point Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette also waved goodbye to the only home they had ever known. I reflected on the hectic claustrophobia I felt at the main palace and how this was washed away at the peaceful Trianons, as it would have been when the grounds were inhabited by the royal family. The main palace is worth seeing the first time round though I shall definitely be avoiding it like the plague on my next visit. I would like to see the changing faces of Versailles from Autumn through to Spring, Summer and Winter.
The palace is easily reached from Paris if you would care to take a visit. I took the Line C from St. Michel in the direction of Versailles-Chateau. You can also take the Line C from Musee d’Orsay, Invalides, Pont de l’Alma and Champ de Mars-Tour Eiffel. I would suggest arriving at the palace early in the morning, half an hour prior to opening times as I can guarantee queues will already be forming. If you do arrive later, be prepared for a one hour to one hour and a half waiting time. Once you are in the ticketing building, speed up the ticket purchase time by buying your tickets from one of the machines instead of waiting to be served at the desk. Free admission for under 25’s and History of Art and Architecture students. Enjoy!