How many revolutions separate the Versailles of 1875 from the Versailles of 1681! How astonished would these vast dwellings be, if they could return, in thought and remembrance, back to their first days of grandeur, when there was in this place, now laden with stone and marbles, nothing but ancient trees! Henry IV. came there to rouse, the stag, Louis XIII. quitted the oaks of Saint Germain for the woods of Versailles; and when night surprised him, the king slept in a neighboring windmill, little suspecting that not far from this humble shelter would rise a palace sufficiently capacious to contain the greatest king and the greatest century of France.

At last, in 1660, the real king of the Château de Versailles, — he who was to raise these walls, and people them with guests of talent and genius, — Louis XIV., appeared, and at his command this immense chaos was replaced by a magnificence full of art and taste. In vain did Nature, and the situation of the place, and the sterility of the ground, seem to present so many invincible obstacles to the will of the young monarch. Headed by Louis XIV., a council of clever men assembled to erect these superb dwellings. Mansard raised the ceilings, which Lebrun covered with masterpieces. Le Nôtre laid out the gardens, and spread through the barren earth whole rivers, turned from their natural course by an army of workmen; Girardon and Puget peopled the shores, the groves, the watery grottos, with a variety of Nymphs, Tritons, and Satyrs, with all the gods of mythology.

When, at last, the palace was built, and worthy of the king, Louis XIV., Colbert, the great Condé, all the leaders of the seventeenth century, took possession of it, as of their natural dwelling, and with them all the great minds of that fine epoch, the kings of thought and poetry. Nor must we forget other powers, who saw at their feet the kings as well as the poets: Henrietta of England and Mademoiselle de La Vallière, Madame de Montespan and Anne of Austria. Poetry and military glory inaugurated the Château de Versailles; Louis XIV., the king of every kind of grace and elegance, the all-powerful monarch, who had, in himself, the sentiment of every grandeur, had made of this palace the only asylum which he considered worthy of his glory and his love, the only shelter of his labors, and of the gloomy anticipation of his old age, so abounding with grandeur and melancholy. His whole life, his brilliant youth, his middle age, his decline, — those last rays of the sun, — were passed within these walls.

Beautiful gardens, fountains, marbles, bronzes, old orange trees covered with flowers, extensive lawns trodden by so many kings, so many queens, so many ambassadors, so many holy bishops, so many profane beauties, royalty of former days, whose track can be so easily followed in these magnificent gardens, it is impossible to salute you with indifference! Every step taken in these dark alleys is a remembrance, every apartment in this funereal castle is an elegy. In vain are these splendid walls covered with new paintings; in vain do all kinds of statues stand erect in the splendid galleries, — you breathe in these magnificent places an indefinable odor of death. Here is the solemn chamber in which the king of the great century died: nothing is altered, or, rather, everything has been restored to its place; the bed is hung with the drapery embroidered by Madame de Maintenon; the portrait of "Madame" Henrietta of England, for whom so many tears were shed, smiles, as in former days, with her calm, tender smile; the paintings on each side of the bed represent a "Holy Family," by Raphael, and "Saint Cecilia," by Domenichino; the ceiling is by Paul Veronese; the portraits over the doors are by Vandyke. Never was the royal chamber more splendid and more brilliant, in that other room, which has preserved a funereal aspect, in spite of its laughing pictures, died the king of the eighteenth century, the king of Voltaire and of Diderot — Louis XV. Look around you; you are in the midst of his mistresses. What beauties, what grace, what smiles! and at the end of these feasts, this delirium, this love — what an abyss, what a frightful gulf into which to fall!

Thus, in this long journey through the splendors of the old Palace of Versailles, you pass from triumph to defeat, from royalty to nothingness. This king, so young, so brilliant, — adored more than a god, — the same powerful being who walked in these magnificent gardens to the sound of so many murmuring fountains, — see him extended upon his death-bed! Of all these kings, the last, the most upright, and the best, where will you find him? Beneath the hand of the executioner! Vanity! vanity! . . Ruin is there: the Palace of Versailles may be filled with paintings, but to restore life to it is impossible. Look ! they tell us this is the Œil-de-Bœuf — that saloon where waited, in respectful attention, all the men of the great century! Where are you, ye kings of French mind and genius — Bossuet, Corneille, La Fontaine, Molière, Despréaux?

Magnificent amongst all the royal dwellings, the Château de Versailles had been arranged for the express purpose of affording a suitable shelter to French royalty, as Louis XIV. understood it. Just as he said, The state is myself, the sovereign master of so many millions of men ought to have been able to say, "Versailles is the whole of my reign." It was, indeed, the whole of his reign; for the life of the king and the fortune of France, — above eight hundred millions of francs, it is said, — had been employed in raising these walls, in planting these gardens, in forcibly leading to this dry ground sparkling fountains! When once the royalty of France had been hunted from these dwellings, when the king, Louis XVI., the queen, and the dauphin had been led to Paris, to die there, the Palace of Versailles ought to have crumbled into dust, as a useless and valueless thing!

Cabinet de Verdure(Versailles)

It would be difficult to imagine any turn of events under which Versailles can again become a royal or imperial residence. Not the restored Bourbons, in all their efforts to replace the vestiges of ancient royalty, — not King Louis Philippe, who did restore and augment the material glories of Versailles, — not Napoleon I., in the plenitude of his power, — not even Napoleon III., in his attempts to enact the part of a "grand monarque," — neither of these kings or emperors deemed it expedient or prudent to revive the grandeur of Louis XIV. in the Palace of Versailles, or fill its halls with so sumptuous a court. Time has produced its revolutions in opinion, and Versailles could not longer be the abode of a population of courtiers, or the Olympus of a monarch, still less of the President of a Republic. For it to become the concentration of all the glories of France, and without being despoiled of the type of grandeur now passed away, to be clothed with other grandeur, new and national, was a destiny not less splendid than that first assigned to it.

Such was evidently the design of King Louis Philippe, when, having restored Versailles with infinite skill, and at a vast expense, he devoted it thenceforth to the glory of France and the service of the people, with whom that sentiment is most predominant. The "Musée Historique," founded there by Louis Philippe in 1832, occupies an almost interminable suit of apartments in the palace. It is the most extensive collection of modern pictures and sculptures in the world; but as the historical object was always predominant, numerous works were necessarily received without much regard to their merits as works of art. The critical eye will therefore detect very inferior productions intermingled with the efforts of transcendent genius.

As seen from the court, the Palace appears an intricate and interminable mass of buildings: but if you pass from the eastern to the western or garden front, you begin to appreciate the vastness of the whole structure. The, western façade (see page 106) is nearly sixteen hundred feet, or over one quarter of a mile, in length. This great façade is broken by a central projection of three hundred feet front, the whole relieved by numerous porticoes, statues, and columns. The Gardens, with their small park, their ornamental sheets of water, and their celebrated "Orangerie," are nearly in the same condition as when first laid out by Le Nôtre. They are adorned with countless statues and vases, some of which are copies from celebrated antiques, others originals of the seventeenth century. Immediately in front of the central projection lies the "Parterre d’Eau," consisting of two oblong basins, surrounded by twenty-four bronze groups. The terrace is adorned with flower-beds and two fountains, — those of the Crowns and the Pyramids; the first is so called from the water issuing from crowns of laurel; the last from the basins rising one above the other in a pyramidal form. Below the Basin of the Pyramids are the Baths of Diana, the centre of which represents the Nymphs of Diana at bath. North of this bath lie the "Basins de Neptune," and "du Dragon." The former is the finest display of water in the world. Twenty-two vases are arranged around the borders of the basin, and against the side are three immense groups, representing Neptune, Amphitrite, Proteus, and Ocean, and on each side of these groups is a colossal Dragon bearing a Cupid on his back. These figures all pour out immense streams of water, while lofty jets are thrown from the vases on the border, and from pipes placed at certain points in the basin. This Fountain is only played on state occasions, and every play, which lasts only twenty minutes, costs over two thousand dollars.

At the west end of the terrace a flight of stairs leads down to a lawn, called the "Tapis Vert," which extends to the Basin d’Apollon" (see page 105), the largest, next to that of Neptune, at Versailles. The God of Day is here represented drawn by four horses, surrounded by Dolphins, Tritons, and Sea-monsters. In front of the Orangerie formerly was seen the Labyrinth, so called from its winding alleys, at every turn of which was found a fountain (see page 109), illustrating a fable of Æsopus. The Labyrinth and its fountains were destroyed in 1776, and replaced by the beautiful and celebrated grove called the "Bosquet de la Reine."

On each side of the Tapis Vert are the "Bosquets," or Groves, planted with trees, and laid out with perfect symmetry, the paths and avenues being arranged in straight lines, and skilfully contrived, so as to afford vistas, points of view, &c. It is impossible to describe them; but you may wander through them for hours, admiring the numerous fountains and statues with which they are adorned, and still you can find something new and worthy of admiration. Seen when the fountains are in full play, and sending their sparkling jets high above the shrubbery and the tree tops, the effect is indeed beautiful and imposing.

From the western side of the "Basin de Neptune," a broad avenue, lined with stately trees, leads to the Palace of the "Grand Trianon," which stands near the extremity of the grounds. Louis XIV. was not altogether satisfied with Versailles, and soon grew weary of its pomps and splendors; and the vast number of courtiers with which he had surrounded himself tired him so much, that he determined to build him a retreat close by, where he could sometimes go and be at rest. Accordingly he bought a piece of ground from the parish of Trianon, and built a small château or pavilion, which, from its ornamentation, was called the "Trianon of Porcelain." The fine view of this royal fancy, given on page 112, is a perfect copy of an engraving of the seventeenth century, in the Gallery of Versailles. Some years later, in 1688, Louis XIV. wanted a palace instead of a pavilion; the Trianon of Porcelain was demolished, and on its site Mansard built what is now the "Grand Trianon." It is Italian in design, and is built entirely on one floor, with neither basement nor attic. It is arranged in suits of handsome apartments, and is very interesting in consequence of its historical associations. Some of the state apartments would seem more beautiful if one had not come to them from the magnificent halls of Versailles. The gardens are extensive, and are regularly laid out, and adorned with statues and fountains. It was in this palace that, the famous trial of Marshal Bazaine took place, in 1873.

To the left of this château is the pretty palace of the "Petit Trianon," which is represented above, — a handsome edifice, of a smiling aspect, quite small, and more like a gentleman’s country residence than a royal palace. Louis XV. built it to please Madame Dubarry, and often went there to forget the annoyances of that royalty of France which was so heavy when it was idle. In the dining-room, it more than once happened that Louis XV., urged to it by the vivacity of the discourse, was obliged to strike upon the table, saying, "The king, gentlemen." Suddenly each one would return to the attitude of respect. Another time, in a moment of good humor, Louis XV. gave a box on the ear to M. de Richelieu, who was seated at his right hand. He was certainly in a delicate position. What should he do? How should he behave? How prevent himself from being vexed and looking red? And, on the other hand, how receive such an affront without complaining? M. de Richelieu recovered from his astonishment, and gave the blow to his next neighbor, saying, "The king wishes it to pass round!" The blow passed; but we have yet to understand how the gentleman who was seated on the king’s left hand extricated himself from the difficulty.

Louis XV. gave the Petit Trianon to Marie Antoinette, and it became her favorite residence. To this turf which she pressed with so light a step, the Queen of France came to forget the ennui and the etiquette of royal majesty. Once at the Petit Trianon, the lovely queen felt more happy. All her diadem was the flowers of her garden; she held, with a joyous hand, the light crook; in her Swiss dairy, which is still standing on the banks of a little brook (see page 115), she herself prepared — with such delightful awkwardness — the milk of her cows! Poor queen! how much she must afterwards have regretted the sun, the waters, the flowers, the cream, and the strawberries, the sheep and the heifers of the Petit Trianon.

The water which supplies the fountains in the park and the town of Versailles is raised from the Seine at Port Marly, a little village on the river shore, and at the foot of the town of Marly, eight miles distant from Paris, and about half that distance from Versailles. The water-works were built for this purpose by Louis XIV., and were regarded as a wonderful piece of mechanism at the time. Port Marly is one of the prettiest places in the vicinity of Paris, and richly merits a visit for its beautiful scenery. Back of the hills on which the town of Marly is built is the site of the splendid "Hermitage" which Louis XIV. built in his last years. The old fairy-like hermitage, where the great king made a mock of penitence in the arms of his two mistresses, has passed away, like his dynasty, and the spot is only marked by a few broken columns, some beautiful shades, and the ruins of the pavilion that we give here — not as it is, but as it was. We also give (see page 116), a beautiful view of the magnificent Palace that Louis XIV. called the Hermitage. These two illustrations are copied from original paintings in the Louvre.

The last place of the suburbs of Paris that we visited was Rambouillet, a small, dull town, lying some twenty miles west of Versailles. It is only remarkable for its Château, which was the residence of many of the kings of France. Francis I. died here. Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medicis, Charles IX., Louis XIV. and Madame de Maintenon, Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette, also lived here at different times. In the Park is a beautiful Doric Pavilion, called the "Laiterie de Ia Reine," where Marie Antoinette and her suite used to partake of basins of fresh milk. In the background is a beautiful artificial Grotto, with a marble basin; in the centre is an exquisite marble statue of Venus entering the Bath, by Beanvallet. From a reservoir on the top of the building the water falls over her shoulders, and jets spout up from the pavement.

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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman