Today this building is a public library, but it was conceived by Duke Choiseul to host his Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as that of the Marine. And simply because the second half of the XVIII century brought into being some new technologies which allowed for a construction of the relatively inexpensive fire-resistant brick floors, Louis XV approved of the experiment. The novel idea, as frequently is the case, came from the military. Before proposing his innovating project to Choiseul, the architect of the day, Jean-Baptiste Berhtier served as an engineer and cartographer in the French Army.
Cutting the cost of the construction in two seemed very appealing, besides, bringing most of the administration under the same roof in Versailles, rather than keeping it scattered all over Paris, helped with the government’s efficiency. Simply put, this is the place where Casanova received his pan-European spying assignments, and this is where he reported about his successful re-financing of the French national debt; and then this is where Vergennes and Franklin signed the French-American treaty…. To open the door, you lift the tongue hanging out of the lion’s mouth, and push.
What is there to see? First of all, there is only one floor of the building that has been preserved in its original beauty. And what you can see there is books. Old books on the in-built bookshelves. Then those giant mirrors from the ceiling to the floor which Borges had once accused of multiplying unnecessarily the numbers of human beings. Here his reproach will bring a smile on your face: the empty hallway, a George Washington’s letter in brown ink, yellowing in its frame, “Dear Baron,” he is writing to von Steuben, “I entreat you to exert yourself in remedying the defects occasioned by the departure of these militia who… (I cannot read this: he does not separate words), then a pencil portrait of Lafayette, a pencil portrait of Vergennes; the Vergenne’s profile looks like a bored guard drew it; then maps, maps from around the world, complete with some ancient models of boats sailing around that world, the world of the pencil-drawn old maps, that hand-drafted world, the faded seas. Strange. Do you think those islands are still there? I see no one to stop me, so I roll out one of the mini-canons: ph-hh!!! ph-hh!!! so I play a little with one of the boats, probably a prototype proposed to Louis XVI and tested by him in his bathtub. Nice.
The building is located right across from Chateau Versailles: 5, rue de l’Indépendance Américaine, the part of it I am showing you is open till 3 December. So hurry up, you only have one week left. It’s nice. It is ghostly. And just as all the things so nice and ghostly, it’s free. Free. And we are living for free.