Drawing on a burgeoning of recent research and scholarship, as well as memoirs and chronicles, Jones (History/Queen Mary Univ. and Univ. of Chicago; The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris, 2014, etc.) creates an adroit overview of the transformation of Versailles from a rustic hunting lodge to France’s most sumptuous palace.
In the 1610s, the “shy, ungregarious and mildly misogynistic” Louis XIII, embroiled in religious conflicts, urban upheaval, and war, retreated to the unremarkable village of Versailles, where he surrounded himself with fellow hunters. Although he expanded his lodge a bit over the years until it resembled a country house, it was his son, Louis XIV, who turned the residence into a palace, relocating his court and government there. Dependent on fluctuating funds from the royal treasury, Louis devoted himself to micromanaging extensive renovation, expanding, modernizing (including bathrooms and portable porcelain stoves) and decorating, choosing as his personal motif the sun, “giver of life and centre of the universe.” His focus went beyond the main house to its sweeping gardens and to a château—“a more relaxed retreat for him and a select group of his closest courtiers”—five miles away, which became known as the Grand Trianon. For more than 50 years, Jones reports, “Versailles was probably the biggest building site in Europe.” It was also a site teeming with people: around 3,000 who lodged in the palace, several additional thousands who came for the day or lodged elsewhere, and tens of thousands of servants who resided in the town. The author recounts the fate of Versailles under Louis XIV’s heirs, who preferred glittering cultural life in Paris, and after the French Revolution, when Versailles was perceived as a glorification of the despised monarchy. Every successive regime—monarchy, empire, and republic—redefined the meaning, use, and relevance of Versailles. Private philanthropy and public support for France’s national heritage has ensured that Versailles endures as a “world-historical site of memory” and repository of history, art, and culture.
A brisk and richly detailed history of a significant place.