Road to Versailles.—Origin of Versailles.—The present Chateau.—The
two Trianons.—La Petite Suisse.—Royal Pastime.—Gardens of Versailles.
—The State Apartments.—Marie Antoinette's Chamber.—Death of Louis XV.
—Oeil de Boeuf.—The Theatre and Chapel.—A
Quarry.—Caverns.—Compiègne.—Chateau de Pierre-font.—Influence of
Monarchy.—Orangery at Versailles.
To R. COOPER, ESQ., COOPERSTOWN, NEW YORK.
We have been to Versailles, and although I have no intention to give a laboured description of a place about which men have written and talked these two centuries, it is impossible to pass over a spot of so much celebrity in total silence.
The road to Versailles lies between the park of St. Cloud and the village and manufactories of Sèvres. A little above the latter is a small palace, called Meudon, which, from its great elevation, commands a fine view of Paris. The palace of St. Cloud, of course, stands in the park; Versailles lies six or eight miles farther west; Compiègne is about fifty miles from Paris in one direction; Fontainebleau some thirty in another, and Rambouillet rather more remotely, in a third. All these palaces, except Versailles, are kept up, and from time to time are visited by the court. Versailles was stripped of its furniture in the revolution; and even Napoleon, at a time when the French empire extended from Hamburgh to Rome, shrunk from the enormous charge of putting it in a habitable state. It is computed that the establishment at Versailles, first and last, in matters of construction merely, cost the French monarchy two hundred millions of dollars! This is almost an incredible sum, when we remember the low price of wages in France; but, on the other hand, when we consider the vastness of the place, how many natural difficulties were overcome, and the multitude of works from the hands of artists of the first order it contained, it scarcely seems sufficient.
Versailles originated as a hunting-seat, in the time of Louis XIII. In that age, most of the upland near Paris, in this direction, lay in forest, royal chases; and, as hunting was truly a princely sport, numberless temporary residences of this nature existed in the neighbourhood of the capital. There are still many remains of this barbarous magnificence, as in the wood of Vincennes, the forest of St. Germain, Compiègne, Fontainebleau, and divers others; but great inroads have been made in their limits by the progress of civilization and the wants of society. So lately as the reign of Louis XV. they hunted quite near the town; and we are actually, at this moment, dwelling in a country house, at St. Ouen, in which, tradition hatch it, he was wont to take his refreshments.
The original building at Versailles was a small chateau, of a very ugly formation, and it was built of bricks. I believe it was enlarged, but not entirely constructed, by Louis XIII. A portion of this building is still visible, having been embraced in the subsequent structures; and, judging from its architecture, I should think it must be nearly as ancient as the time of Francis I. Around this modest nucleus was constructed, by a succession of monarchs, but chiefly by Louis XIV. the most regal residence of Europe, in magnificence and extent, if not in taste.
The present chateau, besides containing numberless wings and courts, has vast casernes for the quarters of the household troops, stables for many hundred horses, and is surrounded by a great many separate hotels, for the accommodation of the courtiers. It offers a front on the garden, in a single continuous line, that is broken only by a projection in the centre of more than a third of a mile in length. This is the only complete part of the edifice that possesses uniformity; the rest of it being huge piles grouped around irregular courts, or thrown forward in wings, that correspond to the huge body like those of the ostrich. There is on the front next the town, however, some attempt at simplicity and intelligibility of plan; for there is a vast open court lined by buildings, which have been commenced in the Grecian style. Napoleon, I believe, did something here, from which there is reason to suppose that he sometimes thought of inhabiting the palace. Indeed, so long as France has a king, it is impossible that such a truly royal abode can ever be wholly deserted. At present, it is the fashion to grant lodgings in it to dependants and favourites. Nothing that I have seen gives me so just and so imposing an idea of the old French monarchy as a visit to Versailles. Apart from the vastness and splendour of the palace, here is a town that actually contained, in former times, a hundred thousand souls, that entirely owed its existence to the presence of the court. Other monarchs lived in large towns; but here was a monarch whose presence created one. Figure to yourself the style of the prince, when a place more populous than Baltimore, and infinitely richer in externals, existed merely as an appendage to his abode!
The celebrated garden contains two or three hundred acres of land, besides the ground that is included in the gardens of the two Trianons. These Trianons are small palaces erected in the gardens, as if the occupants of the chateau, having reached the acmé of magnificence and splendour in the principal residence, were seeking refuge against the effect of satiety in these humbler abodes. They appear small and insignificant after the palace; but the Great Trianon is a considerable house, and contains a fine suite of apartments, among which are some very good rooms. There are few English abodes of royalty that equal even this of Le Grand Trianon. The Petit Trianon was the residence of Madame de Maintenon; it afterwards was presented to the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, who, in part converted its grounds into an English garden, in addition to setting aside a portion into what is called La Petite Suisse.
We went through this exceedingly pretty house and its gardens with melancholy interest. The first is merely a pavilion in the Italian taste, though it is about half as large as the President's House, at Washington. I should think the Great Trianon has quite twice the room of our own Executive residence; and, as you can well imagine, from what has already been said, the Capitol itself would be but a speck among the endless edifices of the chateau. The projection in the centre of the latter is considerably larger than the capitol, and it materially exceeds that building in cubic contents. Now this projection is but a small part indeed of the long line of façade, it actually appearing too short for the ranges of wings.
Marie Antoinette was much censured for the amusements in which she indulged in the grounds of the Little Trianon, and vulgar rumour exaggerating their nature, no small portion of her personal unpopularity is attributable to this cause. The family of Louis XVI. appears to have suffered for the misdeeds of its predecessors, for it not being very easy to fancy anything much worse than the immoralities of Louis XV. the public were greatly disposed "to visit the sins of the fathers on the children."
La Petite Suisse is merely a romantic portion of the garden, in which has been built what is called the Swiss Hamlet It contains the miniature abodes of the Curé, the Farmer, the Dairywoman, the Garde-de-Chasse, and the Seigneur, besides the mill. There is not much that is Swiss, however, about the place, with the exception of some resemblance in the exterior of the buildings. Here, it is said, the royal family used occasionally to meet, and pass an afternoon in a silly representation of rural life, that must have proved to be a prodigious caricature. The King (at least, so the guide affirmed), performed the part of the Seigneur, and occupied the proper abode; the Queen was the Dairy woman, and we were shown the marble tables that held her porcelain milk-pans; the present King, as became his notorious propensity to field-sports, was the Garde-de-Chasse, the late King was the Miller, and, mirabile dictu, the Archbishop of Paris did not disdain to play the part of the Curé. There was, probably, a good deal of poetry in this account; though it is pretty certain that the Queen did indulge in some of these phantasies. There happened to be with me, the day I visited this spot, an American from our own mountains, who had come fresh from home, with all his provincial opinions and habits strong about him. As the guide explained these matters, I translated them literally into English for the benefit of my companion, adding, that the fact rendered the Queen extremely unpopular with her subjects. "Unpopular!" exclaimed my country neighbour; "why so, sir?" "I cannot say; perhaps they thought it was not a fit amusement for a queen." My mountaineer stood a minute cogitating the affair in his American mind; and then nodding his head, he said:—"I understand it now. The people thought that a king and queen, coming from yonder palace to amuse themselves in this toy hamlet, in the characters of poor people, were making game of them!" I do not know whether this inference will amuse you as much as it did me at the time.
Of the gardens and the jets d'eau, so renowned, I shall say little. The former are in the old French style, formal and stiff, with long straight allées, but magnificent by their proportions and ornaments. The statuary and vases that are exposed to the open air, in this garden, must have cost an enormous sum. They are chiefly copies from the antique.
As you stand on the great terrace, before the centre of the palace, the view is down the principal avenue, which terminates at the distance of two or three miles with a low naked hill, beyond which appears the void of the firmament. This conceit singularly helps the idea of vastness, though in effect it is certainly inferior to the pastoral prettiness and rural thoughts of modern landscape gardening. Probably too much is attempted here; for if the mind cannot conceive of illimitable space, still less can it be represented by means of material substances.
We examined the interior of the palace with melancholy pleasure. The vast and gorgeous apartments were entirely without furniture, though many of the pictures still remain. The painted ceilings, and the gildings too, contribute to render the rooms less desolate than they would otherwise have been. I shall not stop to describe the saloons of Peace and War, and all the other celebrated apartments, that are so named from the subjects of their paintings, but merely add that the state apartments lie en suite, in the main body of the building, and that the principal room, or the great gallery, as it is termed, is in the centre, with the windows looking up the main avenue of the garden. This gallery greatly surpasses in richness and size any other room, intended for the ordinary purposes of a palace, that I have ever seen. Its length exceeds two hundred and thirty feet, its width is about thirty-five, and its height is rather more than forty. The walls are a complete succession of marbles, mirrors, and gildings. I believe, the windows and doors excepted, that literally no part of the sides or ends of this room show any other material. Even some of the doors are loaded with these decorations. The ceiling is vaulted, and gorgeous with allegories and gildings; they are painted by the best artists of France. Here Louis XIV. moved among his courtiers, more like a god than a man, and here was exhibited that mixture of grace and moral fraud, of elegance and meanness, of hope and disappointment, of pleasure and mortification, that form the characters and compose the existence of courtiers.
I do not know the precise number of magnificent ante-chambers and saloons through which we passed to reach this gallery, but there could not have been less than eight; one of which, as a specimen of the scale on which the palace is built, is near eighty feet long, and sixty wide. Continuing our course along the suite, we passed, among others, a council-room that looked more like state than business, and then came to the apartments of the Queen. There were several drawing-rooms, and ball-rooms, and card-rooms, and ante-rooms, and the change from the gorgeousness of the state apartments, to the neat, tasteful, chaste, feminine, white and gold of this part of the palace was agreeable, for I had got to be tired of splendour, and was beginning to feel a disposition to "make game of the people," by descending to rusticity.
The bed-room of Marie Antoinette is in the suite. It is a large chamber, in the same style of ornament as the rest of her rooms, and the dressing-rooms, bath, and other similar conveniences, were in that exquisite French taste, which can only be equalled by imitation. The chamber of the King looked upon the court, and was connected with that of the Queen, by a winding and intricate communication of some length. The door that entered the apartments of the latter opened into a dressing-room, and both this door and that which communicated with the bed-room form a part of the regular wall, being tapestried as such, so as not to be immediately seen,—a style of finish that is quite usual in French houses. It was owing to this circumstance that Marie Antoinette made her escape, undetected, to the King's chamber, the night the palace was entered by the fish-women.
We saw the rooms in which Louis XIV. and Louis XV. died. The latter, you may remember, fell a victim to the small-pox, and the disgusting body, that had so lately been almost worshipped, was deserted, the moment he was dead. It was left for hours, without even the usual decent observances. It was on the same occasion, we have been told, that his grandchildren, including the heir, were assembled in a private drawing-room, waiting the result, when they were startled by a hurried trampling of feet. It was the courtiers, rushing in a crowd, to pay their homage to the new monarch! All these things forced themselves painfully on our minds, as we walked through the state rooms. Indeed there are few things that can be more usefully studied, or which awaken a greater source of profitable recollections, than a palace that has been occupied by a great and historical court. Still they are not poetical.
The balcony, in which La Fayette appeared with the Queen and her children, opens from one of these rooms. It overlooks the inner court; or that in which the carriages of none but the privileged entered, for all these things were regulated by arbitrary rules. No one, for instance, was permitted to ride in the King's coach, unless his nobility dated from a certain century (the fourteenth, I believe), and these were your gentilshommes; for the word implies more than a noble, meaning an ancient nobleman.
The writing cabinet, private dining-room, council-room in ordinary, library, etc. of the King, came next; the circuit ending in the Salles des Gardes, and the apartments usually occupied by the officers and troops on service.
There was one room we got into, I scarce know how. It was a long, high gallery, plainly finished for a palace, and it seemed to be lighted from an interior court, or well; for one was completely caged when in it. This was the celebrated Bull's Eye (oeil de boeuf), where the courtiers danced attendance before they were received. It got its name from an oval window over the principal door.
We looked at no more than the state apartments, and those of the King and Queen, and yet we must have gone through some thirty or forty rooms, of which, the baths and dressing-room of the Queen excepted, the very smallest would be deemed a very large room in America. Perhaps no private house contains any as large as the smallest of these rooms, with the exception of here and there a hall in a country house; and, no room at all, with ceilings nearly as high, and as noble, to say nothing of the permanent decorations, of which we have no knowledge whatever, if we omit the window-glass, and the mantels, in both of which, size apart, we often beat even the French palaces.
We next proceeded to the Salle de Spectacle, which is a huge theatre. It may not be as large as the French Opera-house at Paris, but its dimensions did not appear to me to be much less. It is true, the stage was open, and came into the view; but it is a very large house for dramatic representations. Now, neither this building nor the chapel, seen on the exterior of the palace, though additions that project from the regular line of wall, obtrudes itself on the eye, more than a verandah attached to a window, on one of our largest houses! In this place the celebrated dinner was given to the officers of the guards.
The chapel is rich and beautiful. No catholic church has pews, or, at all events they are very unusual, though the municipalities do sometimes occupy them in France, and, of course, the area was vacant. We were most struck with the paintings on the ceiling, in which the face of Louis XIV. was strangely and mystically blended with that of God the Father! Pictorial and carved representations of the Saviour and of the Virgin abound in all catholic countries; nor do they much offend, unless when the crucifixion is represented with bleeding wounds; for, as both are known to have appeared in the human form, the mind is not shocked at seeing them in the semblance of humanity. But this was the first attempt to delineate the Deity we had yet seen; and it caused us all to shudder. He is represented in the person of an old man looking from the clouds, in the centre of the ceiling, and the King appears among the angels that surround him. Flattery could not go much farther, without encroaching on omnipotence itself.
In returning from Versailles, to a tithe of the magnificence of which I have not alluded, I observed carts coming out of the side of a hill, loaded with the whitish stone that composes the building material of Paris. We stopped the carriage, and went into the passage, where we found extensive excavations. A lane of fifteen or twenty feet was cut through the stone, and the material was carted away in heavy square blocks. Piers were left, at short intervals, to sustain the superincumbent earth; and, in the end, the place gets to be a succession of intricate passages, separated by these piers, which resemble so many small masses of houses among the streets of a town. The entire region around Paris lies on a substratum of this stone, which indurates by exposure to the air, and the whole secret of the celebrated catacombs of Paris is just the same as that of this quarry, with the difference that this opens on a level with the upper world, lying in a hill, while one is compelled to descend to get to the level of the others. But enormous wheels, scattered about the fields in the vicinity of the town, show where shafts descend to new quarries on the plains, which are precisely the same as those under Paris. The history of these subterranean passages is very simple. The stone beneath has been transferred to the surface, as a building material; and the graves of the town, after centuries, were emptied into the vaults below. Any apprehensions of the caverns falling in, on a great scale, are absurd, as the constant recurrence of the piers, which are the living rock, must prevent such a calamity; though it is within the limits of possibility that a house or two might disappear. Quite lately, it is said, a tree in the garden of the Luxembourg fell through, owing to the water working a passage down into the quarries, by following its roots. The top of the tree remained above ground some distance; and to prevent unnecessary panic, the police immediately caused the place to be concealed by a high and close board fence. The tree was cut away in the night, the hole was filled up, and few knew anything about it. But it is scarcely possible that any serious accident should occur, even to a single house, without a previous and gradual sinking of its walls giving notice of the event. The palace of the Luxembourg, one of the largest and finest edifices of Paris, stands quite near the spot where the tree fell through, and yet there is not the smallest danger of the structure's disappearing some dark night, the piers below always affording sufficient support. Au reste, the catacombs lie under no other part of Paris than the Quartier St. Jacques, not crossing the river, nor reaching even the Faubourg St. Germain.
I have taken you so unceremoniously out of the chateau of Versailles to put you into the catacombs, that some of the royal residences have not received the attention I intended. We have visited Compiègne this summer, including it in a little excursion of about a hundred miles, that we made in the vicinity of the capital, though it scarcely offered sufficient matter of interest to be the subject of an especial letter. We found the forest deserving of its name, and some parts of it almost as fine as an old American wood of the second class. We rode through it five or six miles to see a celebrated ruin, called Pierre-fond, which was one of those baronial holds, out of which noble robbers used to issue, to plunder on the highway, and commit all sorts of acts of genteel violence. The castle and the adjacent territory formed one of the most ancient seigneuries of France. The place was often besieged and taken. In the time of Henry IV. that monarch, finding the castle had fallen into the hands of a set of desperadoes, who were ranked with the Leaguers, sent the Duc d'Epernon against the place; but he was wounded, and obliged to raise the siege. Marshal Biron was next despatched, with all the heavy artillery that could be spared; but he met with little better success. This roused Henry, who finally succeeded in getting possession of the place. In the reign of his son, Louis XIII, the robberies and excesses of those who occupied the castle became so intolerable, that the government seized it again, and ordered it to be destroyed. Now you will remember that this castle stood in the very heart of France, within fifty miles of the capital, and but two leagues from a royal residence, and all so lately as the year 1617; and that it was found necessary to destroy it, on account of the irregularities of its owners. What an opinion one is driven to form of the moral civilization of Europe from a fact like this! Feudal grandeur loses greatly in a comparison with modern law, and more humble honesty.
It was easier, however, to order the Chateau de Pierre-fond to be destroyed, than to effect that desirable object. Little more was achieved than to make cuts into the external parts of the towers and walls, and to unroof the different buildings; and, although this was done two hundred years since, time has made little impression on the ruins. We were shown a place where there had been an attempt to break into the walls for stones, but which had been abandoned, because it was found easier to quarry them from the living rock. The principal towers were more than a hundred feet high, and their angles and ornaments seemed to be as sharp and solid as ever. This was much the noblest French ruin we had seen, and it may be questioned if there are many finer, out of Italy, in Europe.
The palace of Compiègne, after that of Versailles, hardly rewarded us for the trouble of examining it. Still it is large and in perfect repair: but the apartments are common-place, though there are a few that are good. A prince, however, is as well lodged, even here, as is usual in the north of Europe. The present king is fond of resorting to this house, on account of the game of the neighbouring forest. We saw several roebucks bounding among the trees, in our drive to Pierre-fond.
[Footnote 13: Pierre-fond, or Pierre-font]
I have dwelt on the palaces and the court so much, because one cannot get a correct idea of what France was, and perhaps I ought to say, of what France, through the reaction, will be, if this point were overlooked. The monarch was all in all in the nation—the centre of light, wealth, and honour; letters, the arts, and the sciences revolved around him, as the planets revolve around the sun; and if there ever was a civilized people whose example it would be fair to quote for or against the effects of monarchy, I think it would be the people of France. I was surprised at my own ignorance on the subject of the magnificence of these kings, of which, indeed, it is not easy for an untravelled American to form any just notion; and it has struck me you might be glad to hear a little on these points.
After all I have said, I find I have entirely omitted the Orangery at Versailles. But then I have said little or nothing of the canals, the jets d'eau, of the great and little parks, which, united, are fifty miles in circumference, and of a hundred other things. Still, as this orangery is on a truly royal scale, it deserves a word of notice before I close my letter. The trees are housed in winter in long vaulted galleries, beneath the great terrace; and there is a sort of sub-court in front of them, where they are put into the sun during the pleasant season. This place is really an orange grove; and, although every tree is in a box, and is nursed like a child, many of them are as large as it is usual to find in the orange groves of low latitudes. Several are very old, two or three dating from the fifteenth century, and one from the early part of it. What notions do you get of the magnificence of the place, when you are told, that a palace, subterraneous, it is true, is devoted to this single luxury, and that acres are covered with trees in boxes?