Saturday, March 08, 2008

A silver afternoon in Versailles

Perhaps it is because I'm an American, but I am fascinated by Versailles. Weekends are as likely to find us strolling the grounds of the château as anywhere else in Ile de France, and when my husband took this Friday off work, my one thought was to seize the opportunity to see the silver furniture exposition before it was too late.

Picture the Hall of Mirrors, with its cobweb of flowery gold embracing paintings of Louis XIV victorious in battle, and everywhere mirrors reflecting the garden from the nearest fountains to the end of the Grand Canal. Now imagine that it was once furnished with solid silver furniture. It seems too much even for Versailles, an extravagance impossible to picture, gilding the most heavily gilt lily in all of Europe. It wasn't to last long, anyway, as the silver was all melted down in 1689 to pay for the war against the League of Augsburg.

I'd heard tell of the famous silver furniture, and when I learned that an exhibition sought to recreate the rooms clad in that sumptuous silver, I simply had to see it for myself. Luckily for the conservators, silver furniture was all the rage among the royalty of 17th and 18th century Europe. Even though the pieces, many of which were solid metal, were considered a decorative treasury and readily melted down to pay for wars and other national expenses, enough have survived to the present to assemble a brilliant collection to adorn the king's state apartments.

I just finished reading Le Roi-Soleil se lève aussi by Philippe Beaussant. As he describes a day in the life of Louis XIV from his ceremonial and scripted rising from bed to his slipping off for trysts with his mistresses at night, I started to finally glimpse Versailles as it really was. The king's apartments were part of the set of the most elaborate ballet-opera of the time. It was a spectacle written for a cast of the nobility, directed by and starring Louis XIV. Versailles was not just the product of the ego and ostentation of a king, it was a carefully constructed golden cage to keep the court, and thus any opposition to the king's power, a very captive audience.

Les soirées d'appartement were Louis XIV's new diversion for the court after it moved to Versailles permanently in 1682. Billiards, banquets, and balls succeeded one another each evening according to a fixed weekly schedule. When I walked into the first of the suite of official rooms, the lights were low and faux candlelight reflected off silver chairs, candelabras, and mirrors. I could easily imagine the silk satin, the murmuring voices behind fans, the towering plates of fruit and sweets, the hush as the king took to dance.

And there I was in my sneakers and it felt incongruous enough to be comic. Was the ghost of Louis XIV here, and if so, what did he think of me? Or did I even catch his notice between the disciplined line of uniformed Japanese schoolchildren pushing past and the tour guide waving a flower-shaped plush toy over her head?

Then le Petit made sure that all present, ghosts included, would notice us all: from his perch in the Bjorn on my husband's chest, he started to make short cries which carried embarrassingly well above the din of the crowd. He soon started to cry in earnest, and I realized he was overdue for a feeding. We fought our way upstream to the anteroom at the start of the visit and found an empty bench, where I took him into my arms and started trying to find a way to position him to nurse him.

One of the museum guards, a kind-looking man in his fifties, came up and tried to console le Petit, cooing and talking to him in French. I must have looked a tiny bit embarrassed, and then we made eye contact and he understood: "Oh, he's hungry!" he said, "One moment," and he rushed into an adjoining room. I realized that we were sitting in the middle of a chaos of people and the guard wanted to find a calmer place for us. In a couple seconds he was back, and directed us to the relatively secluded alcove of a giant window where he'd placed a bench just for us.

I was touched and thanked him heartily. Thus le Petit nursed in front of a monumental window with a commanding view of the gardens of Versailles, seated on a bench covered with blue velvet while the organ played in the adjacent royal chapel. A meal fit for a king, indeed.

Le Petit was calmer but hardly quieter after he ate, and we finally realized that he wanted to be carried facing out so he could admire the apartments for himself. He found the chandeliers particularly fascinating, and stared up with his mouth agape. "Ha! Ha! Ha!" he cried in joy or amazement, or just happy to hear his own voice echo about the high ceiling. He smiled at everyone who wandered past. He looked over the furnishings with a proprietary air, staring intently at a pair of lion statues and the silver throne as if they were placed there just to amuse him. He was holding court himself, my Petit, and I could only think that if the ghost of the Sun King was looking on, he would smile.

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