Taking a Bath with Madame Montespan, Versailles Renaissance at the Turn of the Century


The turn of the century. Not this century, the last one. The interest in Versailles was provoked by the feeling of nostalgia radiating from the king of the Parisian dandies, Robert Montesquiou. This is the beginning of the aesthetic movement which attempts to turn man himself into a work of art. The life style and a newly created institution of good taste is what separates now the dispossessed nobility from the uncultivated lower classes.  The bourgeoisie is subject to a judgement, and the jury is merciless, scrutinizing the entire spectrum of the bourgeois aesthetic activities. What about the activities that are economic? Those too are subject to the same scrutiny, for economic activities, even more than any other, could be found in bad taste. So, what is being judged is the way you make and spend your money. The aesthetic judgement in its broader application studies you as a self-cultivated bonsai tree. Is it all that new? Not at all. You can say the same thing about Plato: to Plato an ugly car mechanic could not be happy. Only now, it is the other way around, hence it is only a car mechanic who can be happy. A person of good taste is miserable by definition.

The newly created aestheticized human being does need a proper setting though; so, to a large extent it is his setting that is being judged.  But I guess, the setting just cannot be separated from its master: you are not only the product of your environment, but are immediately responsible for it. Enough of these generalities! I want to tell you the story of a XVII century bathtub. Surprised, aren’t you? Well, I don’t really know what else to call it, the opinions are divided there. Some say…, and those are closer to the source in time, although not any less affected by amnesia than the rest of us; so, they say…, and by they I mean Duke de Luynes who made his judgement in 1750 when he wrote in his diary that the object discovered under the parquet on the ground floor at Chateau Versailles is a big bathtub (the dimensions of this carved piece of marble are 1 meter by 1,2 meter by 1 meter, see the picture above); so, he said that it was designated for a simultaneous use by several persons as was the custom in the days of Louis XIV! And given the location, the former living quarters of Madam Montespan, the mistress of the Sun King, we can imagine the king and his beloved spending some time together in a XVII century Jacuzzi.

Between the times of Montespan and the re-discovery of her tub half a century went by. And some say Louis XV was remodeling downstairs, while the others tell us that a royal page fell into a hole after the floor had rotted. Doesn’t matter, Louis XV gave his orders to dig that thing out and since Madame Pompadour wanted it, he gave the tub to her; only she already had a similar indoor facility, so it’s been decided to put it outside; and that’s where most of these things happen to be today anyway, out in the backyard, but we are talking about XVIII century, though we should not put it past Louis XV, a sex-revolutionary that he was, to hop right in anyway, as long as it was private. And the place where they had it installed was very private, and not the location where the picture above has been taken. The picture is from the early XX century, and it is not Versailles, it is Neuilly, the residence of Robert Montesquiou. His house there was a miniature replica of Trianon, for Robert Montesquiou was obsessed with Versailles, and when bidding for the house, has simply stated that if he is not going to live in it, he will die.

As I said, Robert Montesquiou was obsessed with Versailles and knew the location well. One day he showed up at the Pompadour Hermitage, inhabited now by the local nuns, and while sneering at the sisters asked them if they wouldn’t rather sell the Jacuzzi to him. The old girls blushed and made a deal. The next morning Gabriel Yturri, Montesquiou’s secretary and partner, dragged that XVII century piece of pink marble to the location shown above where a small dome in the style of Marie-Antoinette’s Temple of Love was constructed over it. The happy ending! However, in the later XX century, some envious art historians began to spread rumors that the thing had never served as a bathtub to Madam Montespan. They went even as far as to claim that this is where Louis et al would wash their boots after a day of hunting. But I see it all as yet another homophobic smear campaign and beg my discriminate reader not to believe it.

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This entry was posted in Chateau Versailles, Court, Courtiers, d'Artagnan, Duels, Estate of Marie-Antoinette, Gardens and Park, Homosexuality at Versailles, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Madam Pompadour, Madame de Montespan, Madame Pompadour, Marie-Antoinette, Versailles Renaissance. Bookmark the permalink.

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