Tuesday, 2 February 2021

The Wonder That is Versailles - a Palace of Dreams

There are fewer things grander in European Architecture than the Palace at Versailles

Like Louis the XIV,s motto "nec pluribus impar", the Versailles Palace is more than a match for anything of the era. 

It fascinated me during my lectures on Landscape Architecture not just for its scale and grandeur, but also the ingenuity of some of the features. The kings of France took quite a bit of flak for the construction and maintenance of the Palace which eventually crippled their economy and lead to the French Revolution. But what a dream the Palace was! What started as a simple chateau and a Hunting Lodge in the forests for King Louis XIII, got transformed to one of the most grand Royal Courts in the world, that literally crippled a country in its maintenance. 

The Versailles Palace reinforced the glamour and lavish architecture inside and outside with the varied and colourful court life of the Royal entourage, the French Nobility and aristocracy. History notes numerous intrigues, secrets, treaties, scandals that lent colour to Versailles in the 17th and 18th century. All these have been graphically illustrated in many books and most recently the TV series "Versailles".  

Louis the XIV, the Sun King,  improved upon the medieval chateaux he inherited from his father into a daunting and sumptuos Baroque residence and court that had around 2500 rooms and and a garden defying all expectations of grandeur..and profligacy. At it's busiest, the Palace had around 10000 people in it daily, occupied in various forms. For Louis the XIV, it was the Chateaux de Versailles that was the centre of the World. A palace to showcase and project his power, position and aura.

The Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles

The gardens at Versailles were some of the most advanced for their age with never before seen features. The water parterres (large rectangular features of water body) were the highlights. They connected the various paths and reflected the various features, as well as the lit up the outside. If one stood at the Palace terrace, the line of vision would lead one through the orangery, many elaborately constructed fountains, sculptures, pyramids, a belvedere here, groves, there, to the large north and south water parterres.

Perhaps not satisfied with the crowd and his entire court at Versailles, King Louis XIV built another smaller (by Versailles standards) and a more private Palace 7kms to the west of Versailles, at Marly.  The Marly gardens featured some of the most unique hydraulic engineering seen at that age. 

Machine de Marly was a marvel of that time that was built to pump water from the Seine via aquaducts to the Gardens of Marly and Versailles. The complicated hydraulic system had fourteen gigantic wheels, initially operated manually, to haul water from the Seine, via 250 pumps. The water from Seine was directed  by well constructed dykes, and the water wheel transferred it to the aquaduct de Louveciennes, a series of basins, reservoirs, through some complex piping and machinery to eventually feed the water bodies at Versailles and Marly. 

The machine was however not sufficient to entirely feed the extensive water features of Versailles and Marly. It was considered to be extremely noisy as hundreds of workers operated it round the clock to keep it going! Even then it served Versailles for 133 years, before steam engines and other modifications took over.

Machine de Marly at Marly 
Vue de la Machine de Marly (1723) by Pierre-Denis Martin
 (Source - Wikimedia)

Elevation and perspective of the Machine de Marly (c. 1715) by Nicolas de Fer
 (Source - Wikimedia Commons)

By L.-A. Barbet - Les Grandes Eaux de Versailles, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38927687

Historians see Marly as a finished product as a result of all the experimentation on at Versailles! The Sun King was definitely one of those people who believed everything can be achieved, from the exquisite Hall of Mirrors where he held Court, to shifting his entire court to Versailles,  to having an exotic orangery and other marvels mimicking nature, to dragging water from the Seine to feed the numerous water features and magical gardens of the grand palace. 

To be able to dream, conceptualise and finally execute a marvel like the Palace at Versailles must have required quite a vision, and of course unlimited resources at command. Even though the subjects and courtiers of the Sun King and his descendents would have had every right to complain for the taxes, inconvenience, the world is still rich by Versailles.




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