Fascinating Versailles

Versailles secrets
With lots of pleasure I have watched the first season of the BBC series Versailles. An entertaining portrayal of the Louis XIV court with an abundance of intrigues and affaires. From an historical point of view certainly not a reliable eyewitness account, but definitely proof that the palace of Versailles is a place that still fascinates many people. An excellent occasion to shine a light on some of the most remarkable aspects of the real Versailles.

Louis XIII ordered the build of the original palace of Versailles around 1623 to service as a hunting lodge for the French royal family. Louis XIV, the Sun King, decided however that he wanted to reside at this idyllic spot permanently and from 1661 started expanding the palace to a gigantic structure with several luxury apartments and vast gardens. In 1682 the complete court was moved to Versailles, much to the dislike of many courtiers who did not feel much love for the boring and muddy countryside. Unfortunately they didn’t have a lot of choice and at its height the palace held up to 10.000 residents. The royal family and government remained located at Versailles until the French Revolution abruptly ended this in 1789. Over a period of more than a 100 years a lot has happened at Versailles which can still captivate our minds today.

Stripping for France

Of all the European courts, the French one applied some of the most elaborate protocols. Many of these practices and rituals were looked upon by other countries with a certain amount of cynicism and were almost impossible to flawlessly obey by an outsider. When Marie Antoinette arrived from Austria she was confronted with this problem immediately. It was ruled that a new princess was not allowed to take anything with her from her own country. This entailed that, when they reached the border, the young dauphine had to change all her clothes, including underwear, to a French outfit. Sadly she even had to leave her precious dog Mops behind. Daily life at court was dictated by hierarchy; the assignment of apartments, which events you were invited to, who you were allowed to address, which kind of chair you could use and even if you were allowed to sit down at all.

Waking up with an audience

At Versailles the entire life of the Royal family was a public affair and the bedrooms were no exception. The Levée, or ‘morning toilette’, was an 18th century practice which allowed the elite to receive visitors while they were getting up. These could be relatives, but also merchants or household staff. In the case of the French king and queen this practice went even further. It seems strange to us now, but back then it was a great honour to be allowed to help the monarch to dress and in this case hierarchy again played an essential role. In a palace where everybody walked in and out and with constant bickering about privileges and status, this often resulted in complicated and embarrassing situations. The majority of the meals were also a public occasion. Large groups of onlookers would watch in fascination, and probably hunger, while the king ate his plate of food.

Secret rooms and staircases

Privacy was practically nonexistent. You were almost never alone, everyone saw everything and gossiping was one of the main occupations. Luckily every important room had a hidden door with access to secret private quarters. These were intimate, smaller rooms with a more personal decor where private conversations and meetings took place. So not too surprising that a complex system of internal staircases and passage ways lay hidden behind the façade of the public spaces which made it possible to visit a lover without being seen… Marie Antoinette was strongly against all the protocols and ceremonies and was always looking for ways to retreat privately. Specifically for this reason she ordered the build of the Petit Trianon and a complete farmer’s village in the gardens to be able to escape from the palace when needed.

Casino at home

“Let them eat cake” has never been uttered by Marie Antoinette, but it is quite certain that she did not know much about the reality of life, let alone poverty. Life at Versailles existed of extravagance and decadency and the value of money was unknown to many. Because Versailles was a significant coach ride away from the city, a fair amount of exclusive entertainment was brought from Paris to Versailles. There were lavish garden parties, concerts and opera’s performances and all kinds of special artists gave their acte de présence. In 1763, for example, the six year old wonder child Amadeus Mozart performed one of his first concerts at the palace. One of the most preferred pastimes however was gambling. Louis XVI even had a room specifically rebuilt as a Games Room where card games were played all night long for ridiculously high amounts of money.

Elephant in the garden

Within the context of extravagant entertainment a lot of exotic animals were kept at the French court. One of the first big projects that Louis XIV completed in the gardens of Versailles was a menagerie to exhibit extraordinary animals. This was a glaring contradiction with the menagerie in Vincennes where wild animals like lions, tigers and elephants were forced to fight each other. Luckily this ended around 1700 when these animals were also brought to Versailles and the collection was starting to turn into a genuine zoo. After the French Revolution all animals were moved to the gardens of the natural historic museum. Part of the collection was also a rhinosaurus from India that had belonged to Louis XV. This gigantic beast was killed in 1793 during the revolution and had subsequently been preserved and stuffed.

Shitting in the corner

One of the most persistent rumours about Versailles is that people pooped and peed in every corner of the palace. Right after the French Revolution this story was used very often to argue that Versailles was a perverted place. And while this image is completely not in line with the strict court protocol, there is a sense of truth in it. The lack of a sewage system in combination with an alarming limited amount of toilets resulted in a lot of hygienic problems. The most common solution was to use a chamberpot or commode (a chair with a pot) behind a curtain or in a closet. Due to the multitude of complaints about stench, Versailles was soon known as one of the filthiest palaces in the world. When the problem got really out of hand, Louis XIV ordered that all hallways should be cleaned of faeces and orange blossom was placed around the palace to mask the stench.

Originally published on www.kimsomberg.nl on August 10th 2016

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