Today I got to explore the palace of Versailles and all its gaudy glory. Actually, much of it was magnificent, and it was mind-boggling – the extravagance of spending on this palace. After a couple of hours of pre-French Revolution and exceptionally bad tourism crowds, I was ready to explode from a lack of fresh oxygen and feeling like a sardine in a Costco pack. I took a lot of nice pictures like a proper tourist, but I was relieved when the tour was over.
Behind the palace there was a relaxing garden area, a lovely decorative hedged area like a hedge maze, but only a couple of feet tall, and surrounding a shallow pool. There was also a mini-train and I had no idea where it went to. Still, it seemed like a good idea, so I made my way into the line and attempted my best French to get more information about the train. I learned from some friendly French-speaking tourists that made a few stops around the Versailles grounds – which were apparently enormous – perhaps several kilometers wide and long. The first stop was at the Trianon, a smaller palace where Marie Antoinette used to go to relax, away from the buzz of Versailles. It was easy to see why. The Trianon was much less obviously decadent. Few things were painted gold – instead, each room had its own whimsical flavor. When in the Trianon, I felt that if I had to spend my days at Versailles I would probably hunger for a pleasant retreat like this, too. The main palace was so decadent it was nauseating. This smaller palace was a breath of sweet fresh air. It was surrounded by exquisite gardens peppered with the most wonderful smelling rose I’d ever encountered in my life – so much that when I buy a home someday I want to plant the same roses. A pale, pink rose with a delicate sweet and floral scent. It was reportedly Marie Antoinette’s favorite, and she was sometimes painted holding one. This rose symbolizes France to me: a product of exquisite perfection yet tainted by a political history that made possible such perfection. But still, the rose is no less lovable for it is not responsible for the misdeeds of those who kept it.
I wondered what the peasants who overthrew the king and queen at the start of the French Revolution must have thought when they found this place. I heard that they turned much of the gardens into farmland for edible crops, because they were starving. King Louis had many square kilometers of hunting grounds, land that was fairly ugly and useless other than this own leisure activity for the king. I can only imagine what the peasants thought when they saw all this arable land going to waste when they could have been using it all along to grow crops to feed their families. Was King Louis uncaring about the starvation as he hunted game hens for thrills, or was he just really clueless? I suspect the latter. He’d been groomed to be a King from early childhood, even taught to believe that he held some sort of divine status superior to normal men, like Caesar.
I spent the remaining hours walking the grounds, exploring various statues, fountains, and small buildings tucked away here and there. I discovered the Queen’s Petit Theatre, where she held her own private plays, and the Temple d’Amour, a lovely gazebo style marble structure with a statue of a male god of love in the middle. The King and Queen were obsessed with Greek Mythology and decorated heavily with it wherever they were not already obligated to honor actual living and dead people. The obsession with Greek mythology is mysterious to me. On the one had this revival is consistent with the French Renaissance’s exploration of ancient Greek ideas, but on the other hand I thought that the Renaissance was supposed to be about knowledge, not superstitions. Perhaps with the adoption of ancient Greek knowledge, their mythology simply became fashionable? Louis’ belief that he held some sort of divine status may have also played a role in the obsession with ancient gods and goddesses.
For more information about the CGIS: French 230 in Grenoble, France visit the MCompass program page.