The ‘why’ in the ‘treat’ of Versailles

by Neil Thomas
August 3rd, 2011

Just as the vogue of texting strengthens the pun in the saying “There is no FUN without U”, so a recent trip to Paris caused me to try to add the ‘y’ to the treat of Versailles.

A truly astounding architectural creation, it was the symbol of the absolute power of what became the Ancien Régime and then, much later, the palace of peace at the end of the First World War, with the Treaty of Versailles signed in the fabled Hall of Mirrors (pictured above). Unfortunately that Treaty is also forever associated with being one of the deeper causes of the Second World War.

So when, for the first time, I visited Versailles (actually a suburb of Paris but synonymous with the Palace of Versailles), of course I was astounded by the grandeur and the scale of both the buildings and gardens. But when you think about it being for the greater glorification of one man, Louis XIV, rather than, as is the case with say temples or cathedrals, the greater glorification of one higher than mere mortals, it does force you to ask ‘why’? And the only answer is absolute power and we all know that that corrupts absolutely.

Even allowing him the excuse that the Seventeenth Century was the time of great astronomical progress, where the sun was generally accepted to be the centre of our universe, to seek to glorify yourself as the Sun King where even Apollo, the God of the Sun, would be made to serve you (as a fountain!) was surely more than mad.

But be that as it may (and it may well may!) I am, as usual on these occasions, grateful for the succinct note on Louis XIV on page 31 of Speak the Culture: France:

“France may have been a republic for much of the last 200 years, but the collective pride still wells at the mention of Louis XIV. Widely regarded as the greatest French monarch since Charlemagne, Louis gave France an identity and culture that remain strong. The arts and learning flourished under the Sun King: Molière, Corneille and Racine ushered in the age of great French drama, Poussin took French art to new heights and Descartes’ philosophy proved seminal. Under Louis, France (the nobility at least) also got its taste for fine food. And yet his rule was often tyrannical. A liking for conflict abroad and opulence at home (Versailles has 700 rooms!) would bankrupt the nation and ultimately sow the seeds of Revolution.”

To sum up then and address the title of this blog, the ‘why’ in the treat of Versailles is – a must-see, spectacular creation and symbol of absolute power, which caused a Revolution and a World War.

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