Today was Kathi’s treat – a visit to Versailles. We caught the train near home at 8am and were walking up the entrance courtyard before 9am in the face of a grand chateau with statues and trimming in gold reflecting the morning sun into our eyes. This is truly the palace of the Sun King.
OMG! This place is big! Really big! Really, really big! Big just doesn’t cover it. Neither does huge, enormous, gigantic or any other words of the same type. It took us more than three hours to wander from one wing to the next and back again. And they don’t let you pause too long in any one spot because it holds up the rest of the traffic coming through. Then there’s the gardens – they’re bigger. It’s 1.5km from the chateau through gardens which would be magnificent if the cold hadn’t convinced the flowers it was still winter to the first of the out buildings which became Marie-Antoinette’s private residence. Once you’re at the lake, the half way point between the chateau and the residence, the grounds stretch from horizon to horizon in all directions. We knew we’d have a job doing it but we discovered that there’s simply no way to check out both the chateau and the grounds on the same day. I reckon you may even need two days for the gardens alone.
It’s difficult to talk about any one part of Versailles without ignoring other aspects equally important to developing an understanding of the place. It is not a location which can be understood piecemeal but must be absorbed as a whole through long association. For example, there’s monuments and decorations dedicated to the medieval scholastic tradition of grammar, logic, geometry, music, etc but talking about these leaves out any discussion of the tension between these motifs and those of the new (at the time) humanism which embraced poetry, rhetoric and direct observation of the natural world rather than reliance on received authorities. There’s a tension here between the old almost stylised remnants of the medieval world and the new struggling-to-be-born elements of late Renaissance Romanticism. This can be seen in the abundance of statuary based on Greek and Roman models but placed on curved paths and in rotundas rather than the straiht lines of classical antiquity.
Above all, the impression is one of conspicuous consumption – and even then the term is barely adequate to describe what’s going on here. The entire palce is the embodimentof the idea that the state exists to serve the King and not the other way around. You can’t visit here and not be struck by a very modern concern about the army of people who kept this place running during the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV. So many people with arguably the most prestigeous jobs the working class could aspire to beavering away to keep the royals happy and show off the power and grandeur of France. While this attitude (that the state exists to serve the King) was in the process of changing elsewhere in Europe as an outcome of the Protestant Revolution 100 years before and the dangerous precedents drenched in the blood of the English Civil War, the change passed over Versailles without being noticed. It’s no wonder that the French revolution occurred a little over 100 years later.
Around 4pm, we took the train home feeling that we had barely scratched the surface of what could be seen and understood in this place. The recent cold weather has delayed the spring here so that the 100 metre long flower beds and gardens are merely a promise of their real beauty. In another month of so, they will be fantastic and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on if and when we come back.