I have been in Paris since August and I have finally tackled Versailles.
Chateau de Versailles (pronounced vair-sy) was built by King Louis XIV, otherwise known as the Sun King, in the 1600’s, and stands as a rather indiscreet reminder of one big reason the French people may have revolted. It is lavish, glorious, structured, stately, and over-the-top: all things French. It is insistent in its Frenchness, if you will. Everything down to the handles on the doors are a dedication to the Sun King himself, although its most famous inhabitant – Marie Antoinette – left the most impressive alterations when she built the gardens.
Though it indulges in home-decor luxury, the palace also pays tribute to the great men and battles of France: it is like a home and military museum all rolled into one. It’s clear that the palace wasn’t just for laying in the lap of luxury, but also for business: great halls through which to walk diplomats, entire suites devoted to political happenings, and statues of the great men of France to remind those who pass of their legacy. What strikes me most about castles is that they have great political importance: their geographic placement is important (Heidelberg’s schloss is an example of this), as well as how they present their royalty to dignitaries. Many of the rooms in Versailles – such as the famous Hall of Mirrors – were not used for many functions, but were instead to demonstrate the wealth and cultural superiority of the country, which translates into ample superior power. However, in the case of Versailles, something did get lost in translation: while Louis XIV was building a castle basically made out of gold, his people were starving and living in severe poverty. Paris was still the medieval mess of a century before, and Louis was using his country’s money to fund a palace to accommodate his luxurious lifestyle. While Louis XV survived, the country revolted under the Sun King’s grandson, Louis XVI (they were of the Bourbon line, who took control under the Louis XIV), partially influenced by the American Revolution. Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s Austrian wife, was known for her glamorous taste and decadent fashion, and was part of the impetus for change for the French people: they were tired of watching their young queen live a life of luxury while they struggled to feed their families. When the French people revolted, it was against the very idea of French culture that Versailles represents.
Marie Antoinette’s famous line, “Let them eat cake”, is notorious for many reasons: she allegedly uttered the words during one of the famines of the 18th century that was ravaging her country. When her husband said that the peasants had no bread, she supposedly said, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” – then let them eat brioche. Brioche is a luxury bread, something that would demonstrate her complete obliviousness to her starving people. However, there is no evidence that she ever said such a phrase: it was recorded by Rousseau in his work Confessions, published when Marie Antoinette was only 13 (she became queen at 14), and attributed to an unnamed “great princess” who many scholars claim is actually Marie Therese, the wife of Louis IV. Marie Antoinette, in reality, was quite charitable and was moved by the poverty of her people – keep in mind, she hadn’t grown up there like her husband, so his familiarity with a starving France was foreign for her, and she implored her king to do something about the hunger.
I admit that I have a bit of an obsession with Marie Antoinette, so seeing Versailles first-hand was magnifique. I tend to like misunderstood women like her, the ones that history got wrong. Marie Antoinette was transported from her home country of Austria at the age of 14 and dropped at Versailles, her new home and the home of her soon-to-be husband, the future Louis XVI. Upon arrival at court, she was forced to strip down to nothing and walk through one of the palace’s great halls: the idea was the shed her Austrian clothes, and identity, and step into French ones, thus becoming a true member of the French royal family. She was soon cast the outsider at court, unable to produce an heir for the French throne and instead providing a line of girls. She was given the Petit Trianon in the gardens of the palace as a getaway for herself and her daughters, but it was more of an exile: she was supposed to rest and prepare for creating a son. She dreamt of living as a peasant, without the pressures and responsibilities of being royalty, and it was this desire that inspired her to create her hamlet in the gardens, where she could make believe like she wasn’t the French queen. What’s important to remember is that she was a girl: she was 14 when she arrived at Versailles. While most of us are discovering boys and rocking braces, she was running a country – and one in desperate need of help. When Marie Antoinette was executed, the French Revolution began, and with her death came the end of French royal decadence that had for so long drained the country and angered its citizens.
Versailles was the ultimate symbol of this, and now, it reminds us of a time long gone: when kings and queens were held to an otherworldly standard that was impossible to uphold, and when 13 year old girls could be shipped off to humiliation and to run a country at the side of one of the great Bourbon kings. Being at Versailles transports you temporarily to this world, but only for a brief moment: for in the next moment, you’ll have to dodge a tourist carrying a huge Nikon and a marked-up map of Paris!
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