Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Review: Versailles, A Biography of a Palace

There is a lot of myth associated with Versailles. This book tells the real story behind this legendary palace and is a juicy read.

In anticipation of my trip there, I read this book and I am very glad that I did. Now I know that what a tourist sees today is quite different from what actually existed during the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. Each King made extensive alterations to the palace and since then there have been many more alterations.

For example, there used to be extra floors around the inner courtyards with some facades eventually reaching six stories. Both Louis XV and Louis XVI found privacy, fresh air and panoramic views from their rooftop rooms. These extra floors were described by Napolean's architect as courtyards "burdened with structures with no order or symmetry, their roofs or terraces piled on top of each other, making a real labyrinth from which the rainwater runs off with difficulty." (page 175) The removal of these top floors is an "irreparable loss for royal history".

I also gained a deeper understanding of what actually happened in Versailles from many perspectives including the traditions of ceremony, protocol, entertainment, dress, as well as fascinating details of how the thousands of support staff lived and worked the behind the scenes. Organized in a thematic rather than a sequential fashion, the book is not your typical boring history book and although it is not specifically about Marie Antoinette, she is mentioned often. This book is both entertaining and easy to read.

"Mentioned here for its sheer oddity, finally, is the use of the palace galleries by Louis XVI's brother, the clever and exquisitely polite comte de Provence, to stalk his sister-in-law, Marie-Antoinette, for who he burned with confused feelings. In the 1780s, when the prince was lodged in the Superintendency, he used to patrol the south wing's first-floor gallery in the hope of encountering "Rhodopovna," his code name for the queen, on her way to see her children, also lodged at the far end of the south wing. Halfway down the gallery with her footman, the queen would suddenly find her brother-in-law issuing from a side staircase, his prize for this subterfuge a few moments in her company and the chance to kiss her hand." (page 112)

If you are planning a trip to Versailles or want to read some scintilating facts about pre-revolutionary France, read this book. (By the way, Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion, What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution, wrote the back cover blurb.)

Title: Versailles
Author: Tony Spawford
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, New York (2008)
Category: Non-fiction, history
Number of Pages: 254 (304 including endnotes)