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In Defense of Versailles

July 2020

A few days ago, English architect Francis Terry published his view of an idealized Versailles, calling the actual one a “missed opportunity.” As a great admirer of both Francis’s work and Versailles, I felt that an answer had to come from France. We will not start a new Hundred Years’ War over this, and I usually would have waited to share a pint with Francis to express my views, but, with travel now restricted, it seemed necessary to put a few things back in context. And, after all, I, too, have too much time on my hands these days. 

Firstly, let’s be fair: Francis’s project is beautiful, and it would look lovely in many places. It does not look French in many ways, though, and this is my main grievance. Versailles is known around the entire world as the quintessential French royal residence, and any project should reflect this. It is actually at the center of the concept: When the Versailles we know began being built in 1664, the Sun King had become the most powerful man in Europe, and France the most populous country. A situation that was the opposite of the state of the kingdom 80 years earlier, when the Wars of Religion were tearing the country apart, draining its finances and territory to the profit of its powerful neighbors

"Vue et Perspective du Château de - Versailles, du côté des Jardins Dediée - Au Roy Par son tres humble tres obeissant - et tres fidèle serviteur" by P. Menant - Source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF

In the mid-17th century, France was now leading everywhere, and there was no way the young monarch wanted to copy what already existed: He wanted to create a French style that could become the new norm. This is why France would never really get into Baroque, unlike the rest of Europe. At the same time, he started construction of Versailles, Louis XIV refused Bernini’s plans for the Louvre’s new facade. It had to be French, and this was something that even the pope’s architect could not provide.

 

Now, to give Francis Terry credit, French Classical style is clearly more sober and low-key than some of its counterparts in the continental and English baroques. But does that mean it is boring? At the height of his power, and after having seen the reigns of his father, his grandfather, and his own childhood marked by assassination, betrayal, and civil war, Louis XIV wanted to show power and harmony – which is a gentle word for order. Hence the regularity that Francis might find “monotonous.

"Veüe et perspective du Chasteaux de Versailles du Costé du Jardin" by Nicolas de Poilly. Source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF.

To quote Louis Marin, “We see here the production of the symbolic place of power, of State power, of absolute power through the appropriation, by means of the gaze of universal space, to this place. In contract with Bernini’s conception, seen in the colonnade of Saint Peter’s, where universal space is caught in a kind of physical embrace as if by arms that would envelop it as they make the great ostentatious Baroque gesture of Catholic and Roman charity, the king at Versailles is at once everywhere and nowhere. He is not in space or rather he is present only as the dominant gaze which ‘develops’ its classic place. It is indeed the world in its entirety that finds itself architectured in the place of the King and transubstantiated into a monarchic body in the optical forms of his portrait, that is to say of his all-seeing gaze: the symbolic production of the exemplary royal place.” 1

Another important part of my defense of Versailles might also come from my conception of good historical architecture: I enjoy seeing history in the making when I look at a facade. Am I looking for perfection? Certainly not – we all know that perfection can be terribly boring. But when Francis explains the dull plan of Versailles by the fact that it “is a series of massive additions to a relatively modest original château, I actually think the opposite.

"Vue du château de Versailles" -Le Vau - Source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF.

Versailles is amazing because it kept the humble château in its center. Let’s travel back in time: The château was originally built as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII in 1623. His son, Louis XIV, was born in 1638, a little less than five years before the passing of Louis XIII. Throughout his childhood, Louis XIV went from one residence to another, fleeing the civil war led by the most powerful aristocrats of his realm against his young power. How touching it is that when he finally decided to settle in Versailles, having, in the meantime, become the most powerful king in Europe, he decided to keep his father’s small château in the middle of his magnificent creation. Call me a romantic, but these are the small facts that make me love a building: seeing emotion through stones.Of course, many major historical figures actually agreed with Francis Terry, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s main minister, was one of them, as Francis recalls in his blog post. Touché, but we now need a French architect to do a counterproposal for Buckingham Palace! 

Valentin Goux

1- Classical, Baroque:Versailles, or the Architecture of the Prince, Louis Marin et Anna Lehman, Yale French Studies