King Louis’ Bling Project

April 19, 2019

This is a blog about Mexico. But since I’m in Paris right now, and I don’t feel like opening a new blog for a visit of a few days, the next few posts will go in here.

Gérard Araud stole my best line about Versailles. Yesterday, as France’s retiring ambassador to the USA, he compared the White House to the court of King Louis XIV, filled (I quote The Guardianwith courtiers trying to interpret the caprices of a “whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed” leader.

Louis was often manipulated, to the resentment of many of his subjects, though he was not uninformed. He was usually a shrewd, ruthless old bird, who set out to Make France Great Again, and actually succeeded. But as I toured the Palace of Versailles, or as much of it as anyone can manage in a single day, I was puzzled by the overall design of it.

It’s enormous, overwhelming even, and parts of the roof and fence are covered in gold leaf, or gold paint. It’s architectural bling on an outrageous scale. There are parts that are lovely, but architect friend have taught me to look at the overall rhythm of a structure. I sensed numerous minuets, a few marches, and a bunch of gavottes. But metrical coherence was lacking.

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The bling-laden forecourt at Versailles. That’s gold on the balconies and roof trim.

Now, although I’d chosen the low season for tourism, I was still sharing the site with around 40,000 other people, and we were not so much visitors as a surge of perplexed humanity edging through the royal apartments. There was little opportunity to savour specific paintings or carvings. I was mostly taken with the architects’ imaginative use of natural, two-coloured stone, which avoided the cliches of much of the painting. That said, for me, anything monumental fails at a certain point because it reaches too far.

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A hall showing France’s victories in giant paintings. The crowd here had thinned to a hundred or less.

There are less grandiose parts of Versailles, few of which I had time to see, though I did admire Marie Antoinette’s quarters. Here, there were paintings not of people fawning over Greek gods, but of her relatives. Whatever her failings, she preferred the human to the superhuman.

But as a beautiful structure in itself, I found Versailles oddly lacking. I don’t mean because it wasn’t really a home, but because it is so enormously overdone, it seems incoherent. It just goes on and on, rather than having a unifying central block, or other architectural focal point.

Notably, it echoes the style of housing seen throughout Paris as well as the town of Versailles outside the gates: a half-dozen storeys, pulling back a little at the top floor to create a rounding out. This gives it the feel of an enormous yet still bourgeois project, livened up with a few dozen Corinthian pillars to underscore the imperial nature of the project. Apparently it was under construction for more than half Louis’ 72-year reign.

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A juxtaposition of architectural styles.

He was a great patron of the arts, and loved ballet, even performing on stage himself numerous times. The parallel with the current occupant of the White House, who can’t even walk between the holes of his golf courses, is therefore not exact. But primarily, Versailles was a political project that accommodated a vast amount of art, as well as being a place of many theatrical and musical performances.

What did I like about it? That’s in the following post.