Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bird Is Dead but the Plumage Remains


Your humble narrator must confess that on his recent trip to Europe, he found Paris rather unimpressive* – muggy, full of surly tourists, and comprised mainly of “drearily monotonous” Haussman tenements and overpriced shops. (Quote by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, from David McCullough, The Greater Journey [Simon and Schuster, 2011], p. 209.) To the traveler visiting central France, however, he can without hesitation recommend a visit to the Palace of Versailles, home to three successive French monarchs and symbol of absolute royal authority in the early modern era. The courtly ritual which framed the king's authority ended in 1789, when the Paris crowds invaded the palace and drove the royal family to Paris, but the baroque furnishings of the royal apartments remain. The curlicued woodwork, richly canopied beds, extravagant crystal chandeliers, and ceilings lavishly painted with rococo scenes still retain their ability to impress. Our guide explained that it was common for Louis XIV to receive high-ranking visitors in his outer bedchamber while he reposed in bed, and I wondered if this was a common practice in 17th-century Europe. If so, it might explain why the Virginia Company presented Powhatan with a bed when they crowned him “king” of his people (and vassal of James I) in 1608.

The most famous room in the palace, the Hall of Mirrors, extends for 240 feet between the king's and queen's suites, and its immense Venetian mirrors represented, for their time, an extraordinary (and expensive) demonstration of the glazier's art. Today they look a bit dark and faded, but considering their great age they have held up quite well. The chandeliered hall must have glowed quite brightly at night during its heyday, and I am not surprised that the Bourbon monarchs used it for public celebrations and social events, most famously the 1745 ball where Louis XV met Madame de Pompadour.  When the Prussian army occupied Versailles during its siege of Paris, Bismarck chose the Hall as the site for the declaration of the German Empire (1871), and in symbolic retaliation, the victorious Allies met there half a century later to impose their punitive peace treaty on the successors to that Empire.

The gardens of Versailles, a huge expanse of meticulously pruned hedges, white statues, flower beds, and fountains, are even more impressive than the Hall of Mirrors, but they cover nearly three square miles and my petite amie and I only saw a tiny sliver of them. I understand one can rent a golf cart to tour the gardens today, which is probably the best way to see them if one lacks a horse. Incidentally, the pumps driving the Versailles fountains originally drew their power from twelve large waterwheels that could collectively generate up to 124 horsepower, or about 25 times as much power of one of the aforementioned golf carts (Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun [Norton, 2006], 72.)


* Your narrator will of course make an exception for the Louvre, perhaps the only place in the world where one can, while looking for the stele containing Hammurabi's Code, stumble upon an entire gallery full of Peter Rubens paintings.

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