Louis XIV

Versailles: Dull and Ungrateful?


Today I've been working on the Vignette Guide: Versailles a bit and wanted to share one of my favorite vignettes. The whole idea for the guide is that you can read a little or as much as you would like, so each room or part of the tour will have a section of fast facts and a fun vignette or ancedote that somehow relates to the room and helps bring it to life.  

This vignette is the first of the tour and serves as a something of an introduction. 

“Dull” and “ungrateful” are not the words you normally hear associated with Versailles. 

Before it became the magnificent building you see today, the palace began as a relatively small hunting lodge. Although it was worthy of being the king’s hunting lodge, the original plot of land was no place for a court. It was a mixture of swamp and sand. The water was stagnant and unhealthy, which often made workers sick throughout the years of construction.

None of this mattered to Louis XIV. He was The Sun King, after all, and this was his chosen land. It was tamed and moulded to fit his desires, whatever the cost and in spite of anyone else’s opinion. 

As The Duc de Saint-Simon wrote in The Memoirs of Louis XIV, His Court, and the Regency :

[. . .]nobody ever approached his magnificence. His buildings, who could number them? At the same time, who was there who did not deplore the pride, the caprice, the bad taste seen in them?[. . .]Saint-Germain, a lovely spot, with a marvelous view, rich forest, terraces, gardens, and water he abandoned for Versailles; the dullest and most ungrateful of all places, without prospect, without wood, without water, without soil; for the ground is all shifting sand or swamp, the air accordingly bad but he liked to subjugate nature by art and treasure.⁠1 

So the will of a king as powerful as the sun created this magnificence at the great cost of money and time, yes, but also of lives. 

 Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon, Memoirs of Louis XIV, His Court and the Regency, accessed November 17, 2014, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3875/3875-h/3875-h.htm.

I love this vignette for a couple of reasons. Saint-Simon was not afraid to lampoon the king (or anyone else for that matter) and I love that he pulls back the mask of the  Versailles. I also love it because I think it helps set the stage for understanding just how powerful Louis XIV was and just how unpleasant Versailles could be. Louis XIV not only built one of the most magnificent palaces in history from what many thought was nothing, but he forced his entire court to move there. He took them out of the comfort and bustle of Paris to live in his vision, literally and figuratively. That vision was not always pretty or comfortable for them.