Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Being Jupiter

Nothing prepared me for the gilded enormity of Versailles. I tried to imagine being in a mob storming the castle and could manage only incredulity at the excess. I've never seen a better argument for republicanism.

I don't understand the way of thinking that commissioned such an enormity nor the way the court understood itself. I thought Tale of Two Cities an exaggeration but now I realise it understated the reality.

There are notices at Versailles about the practices of the court. Every evening at 10 p.m. Louis XIV dined with his family. This was a public event and members of the court were privileged to watch. They didn't get to eat. The ladies perched on small stools and the gentlemen stood behind them as they watched the monarch and his family at dinner.

Going to bed and getting up were ceremonies too. There are gilded rails in front of the high four-poster beds and at the top corners of the bed - the structure must be fifteen feet high - are white fleur-de-lis made out of ostrich feathers. A few chairs stools are placed nearby, presumably for the attendance at court.

It's perhaps not remarkable that the chapel is a baroque riot or that there were strict rules based on orders of precedence about who could attend and where different levels of the nobility could sit.

But strangest of all are the paintings. Some are religious, with Jesus and his disciples in peasant dress. At a last supper, an extravagantly-dressed Mary Magdalen washes Jesus' feet. You wouldn't catch the royals in any such gestures of humility. Anne of Austria appears as Minerva, Louis XIV as Jupiter. One of Louis XV's toddler sons reclines as Cupid. Louis is everywhere: winning wars, making peace, implicitly compared with Alexander the Great, honoured by a winged Victory as he stays aloof from the battle. He even poses to show off his red shoes and his fine leg - he could sing and dance as well as making war.

The French royal family moved among paintings of themselves as divinities, usually in the Roman style. How they combined this with their public Christian faith, I don't know. But they seem to have seen themselves as more than heroes. In the oddest painting of all, Hercules, nude but for a carefully-placed drape, paints a portrait of Le Grand Condé on a lion-skin while assorted nymphs and divinities stand around.

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