Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Vive La Revolution!

Image: Part of the massive main building that is the Palace of Versailles

If you ever needed to be convinced that revolutions – even violent revolutions – are necessary, just visit the Palace of Versailles, in France. Here amongst the opulence and splendor that marked the reign of King Louis XIV (14th), and successive French rulers, the reason for revolution is writ large. Larger than large, in fact. Here is grandeur, extravagance, wealth, and sumptuousness of the highest order. No wonder then, that on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, it was at Versailles that the citizens of Paris came to demand that Louis XVI (16th) return to Paris to face the wrath of the people.

The Palace of Versailles is a royal château in Versailles, the Île-de-France region of France. The court of Versailles was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. [Source: Wikipedia…]

The Palace of Versailles consists of 700 rooms providing around 67,000 square meters of floor space. The Palace’s collections include over 6,000 paintings, 1,500 drawings, and more than 15,000 engravings. Add to these 2,100 sculptures and around 5,200 pieces of furniture and objets d’art, and you get some idea of the size and scope of this amazing historical site.

Image: The massive Hall of Battles at Versailles

In room after room, luxury and indulgence seemed to be trying to outdo each other. Just when you think the fittings and decorations, the massive paintings adorning walls and ceilings couldn’t get bigger or better, they do. When you think nothing could top the massive Hall Of Battles (see photo above) and the 33 huge paintings located there depicting scenes from some of France’s greatest victories, and which also includes 82 busts of various military leaders who died in action in many of the battles depicted in the paintings; just when you think nothing can top that you walk into the equally massive Great Hall of Mirrors.

The Great Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles. Image courtesy of Arnaud 25

Ceiling view of the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

The French painter Charles Le Brun, is responsible for decorating the ceilings in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces), with a series of stunning paintings only equaled by his other works at Versailles in the Halls of War and Peace (Salons de la Guerreand de la Paix), and the Ambassadors' Staircase. It was not for nothing that Louis XIV declared Le Brun "the greatest French artist of all time".

The dimensions of the Hall of Mirrors' are 73.0m × 10.5m × 12.3m (239.5ft × 34.4ft × 40.4ft). The ceiling decoration is dedicated to the political policies and military victories of Louis XIV. The central panel of the ceiling, Le roi governe par lui-même (The king governs alone) alludes to the establishment of the personal reign of Louis XIV in 1661. Other panels represent the military victories of the king beginning with the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), through to the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678.

Image: Part of just one of the many wonderful ceiling paintings at Versailles

Images of King Louis XIV swanning his way down long passageways and through vast rooms, flash through my head. Look! Here he comes now, closely followed by a retinue of handlers, hangers-on, and assorted family members, while courtiers, foreign visitors and gawkers wait and watch to catch a glimpse of his supreme eminence.

Does he pause to admire the monumental work of Veronese called, The Feast in The House of Simon – a gift of the Viennese court? As he enters the cavernous Chapel to attend Mass (where years later, Marie-Antoinette married Louis XVI), does he stop to chat with one or two of the lesser leaders of the day, who are here to curry favor and bask in his attention – no matter how brief or cursory?

I suspect he barely gives them more than a passing glance. It is enough to know they are there, and that he has created a building large enough to house monumental works of art, as well as draw sycophants and other toady’s to his palatial home far from the Paris mob. A palace big enough to satisfy even his overblown ego. For surely that is the point of Versailles. To show that this one person has the power to call upon the greatest builders of his era to carve stone, bend and shape timber, weave giant tapestries, plant and landscape hundreds of acres of land, and to do this all at his behest with little or no regard to cost in terms of either monetary value or the human cost of this monumental construction project.

Ceiling decorations in the Royal Chapel at Versailles. Image courtesy of Diliff

I am not sure if we will ever see buildings like Versailles being created again. Not because we don’t have the money, but because there are so few people of vision around who could design, let alone build palaces like Versailles. And if there were? Would people allow such wanton excess? Such extravagance and splendor? It’s not just the scale of the building, but the detailed extras that have been incorporated into the design that impress and shock.

Statues and friezes, fountains and gilded furnishings, landscaped gardens, manicured lawns, broad mile-long pathways and secluded alcoves. Was there anything not included in the scope and design of Versailles? I suspect that pretty much every skill in design and artistry extant at the time the Palace was being built, was used in some way in the extensive building process that went on even after Louis XIV was long dead and gone.

Sadly, I can’t think of any modern political leaders who wouldn’t love to be able to bask in the glory and opulence of a Palace of Versailles. How it would feed their egos and pander to their vanities! How they would delight in being surrounded by fawning acolytes and supplicants seeking to curry favour and win even the briefest of passing attention.

It is exactly for this reason that places like that Palace of Versailles need to be maintained and kept open – as a reminder and proof that absolute power, corrupts absolutely. That if the people are not vigilant, if they are satisfied with bread and circuses, the power elite will happily create their own versions of Versailles, and continue to run the game exactly as they wish to.

Having toured through the Palace, you can either leave Versailles and head back to central Paris, or you can go for a walk in the grounds and gardens that surround the main building. It is here that the grandeur of Versailles really overpowers you, and it was while I was walking around the grounds that the full impact of Versailles hit home. But that’s a story for another day.

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