Versailles and its Critics, from Sévigné to Montesquieu


Madame de Sévigné is ambivalent on the subject: there are days when she likes Versailles, and there are days when she does not. Let us hear her out, “The court is at Saint-Cloud. The king wants to go to Versailles. But God Himself is against it. The building is not ready, for the workers die like flies. They hide the dead bodies not to scare the newly hired labor. Indeed this palace is a favorite without any merit.”

This theme of a favorite without any merit is echoed in the writings of Saint-Simon. Duke de Saint-Simon is famous for his three-fold rhetorical question: there is no ground to build upon, because it’s all swamps, there is no potable water for us to drink, because it’s all swamps, there is no breathable air, because it’s all swamps, why are we here?

Saint-Simon’s idea of tyranny over nature is reflected in many anecdotes. My favorite happens to be the dialogue of Louis XIV and Duke Vendome where the Sun King, trying to impress his general with the re-shaped landscape unraveling before them, finds in Vendome an interlocutor who begs to differ. “Do you remember, there used to be a windmill up here on this hill?” asks the King. “Oh Sire, how could I forget,” answers Duke Vendome, “for even though the windmill is no longer here, the wind is still with us!”

The most virulent critic of Louis XIV and Versailles happens to be Baron de Montesquieu. Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu has published his Thoughts in 1720 — smack in the middle of the reign of libertinage, that is five years after the Sun King’s death. We should remember that in 1720 Versailles is pretty much a ghost town: the Regent, Duke of Orleans, prefers to party in Paris; so the Court and the government had de-localized in 1715. An attack on a dead king and his defunct capital do not qualify as an act of courage; and yet Montesquieu’s circumspection does not disqualify Pensées in the eyes of his contemporaries or posterity, for it is an insightful and mirth provoking narrative.

How does his satire work? Montesquieu associates tyranny with geography: to diminish monarchy, he chooses to address the size inequality of the new and the old capital: all such comparisons are to Versailles’s disadvantage; and yet, as a rhetorical device the author often employs au contraire, and likes to start from afar: Olympia, the sister-in-law of the Pope Innocent X, was famous for her role as a power broker; her amorous life is made look quite similar to the relationship the king could have had with his architect: “Faster, harder, Maldachini! I will make you a cardinal!” The impotence of the ecclesiastic, who does the best he can but cannot satisfy his mistress, is then lined up against the promises the king could have made to his architect, Mansard; and Mansard also does his best — he adds wings to Chateau Versailles. “He could have been adding those wings all the way to Paris,” says Montesquieu, “all with the same effect — the palace would not look any greater.”

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This entry was posted in Architecture, Chateau Versailles, Court, Courtiers, Libertines, Louis XIV, Versailles. Bookmark the permalink.

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