Saturday, August 6, 2011

A trip to Louis Land

Today Courtney and I went to Louis Land, also known as Versailles, the home of the French monarchy before the French Revolution came along and crashed the party.  Talking to Jackie the other day, I jestingly referred to Versailles as a French Royal Disney World, which turned out to be fairly apropos.  You head outside of town, pony up alot of cash, stand in alot of lines, and when it rains, you can buy a giant yellow poncho with Louis XIV on it.  I desperately wish that last bit was true, but alas, it is not.  While you can buy a number of things with Louis on it, a poncho is sadly not one of them.  While this sort of thing might rub you the wrong way, for being "touristy" or perhaps "exploitative," be comforted in the fact that Versailles has been putting Louis' face on things for years, so we are just replacing divine right monarchism with commercialism.  At any rate, I feel certain that if Louis XIV was going to have tourists walking around his palace, he would have liked them wearing ponchos with his face on them.  

While there is alot of Louis around, my favorite must be Bernini's bust of the Sun King.  Not only can Bernini really work some marble, but I really prefer my drapery to be described as "gravity-defying."  I have long desired to see this particular bust, as Bernini is not only fairly awesome in general, but I have always found this bust to be especially spectacular.

17th-century big hair.
While this next work has no specific purchase on my dissertation, it does figure in the history of public commemoration in France, which makes it of viable interest to me.  In addition to that, it is also quite large, epic, and strange.  I had no idea this work was in Versailles, so I was pleasantly surprised to turn a corner and find this bronze behemoth in a stairwell.  I was also under the impression that the bronze cast was fairly diminutive, so it was pretty fun to find it was the size of a small mountain.

Big, giant, bronze thingy.
Better yet, this work was actually intended to be the size of an actual small mountain.  Originally, it was supposed to be a large-scale monument to great French authors.  Sculptural commemoration was still being worked out in the 17th-century, so the idea was to have sculptures of French authors hanging out on a 60-foot bronze rendering of Mount Parnassus as to symbolize their literary greatness.  The monetary and technical drawbacks to casting this sort of thing proved prohibitive (even for the culture that gave us a giant gold palace), so the project fell through.

As nice as it is seeing things that I've researched, like many academic dropouts, I strongly prefer teaching to researching, so I get perhaps the most excitement from seeing things that I have taught.  Teaching the same objects for years means that you acquire a deep and intimate familiarity with them, even though you have often never actually seen them in person.  My experience coming across such a work for the first time is often characterized by a feeling of profound recognition mixed with the strangeness and wonder that something so familiar could also feel so new.  There is a gap between the image of something and the thing itself, and the experience in that gap is always interesting, and often very beautiful.

The famous Galerie des Glaces.  Here, glaces means mirrors, not ice cream.
When teaching Versailles, art historians tend to show the most famous room, the Gallery of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces), a long hallway stretching across the back of the palace.  One side of the hallway is lined with windows, the other with mirrors, so the the manicured gardens and fountains of the palace are reflected in the chandelier filled corridor.  It is one thing to see a photo of the room--photos are always incomplete, partial, and can't even begin to capture the real tangibility and grandeur of the space--and it is another thing entirely to walk down that hallway, and see how the palace unfolds from the Gallery in every direction.

Actually traversing the palace and grounds of Versailles has made the palace more clear and legible in my mind than I could ever accomplish with any amount of images and texts.  Before, Versailles has always felt rather difficult to teach.  Architecture is often tricky, and particularly when it is so incredibly vast.  As a result, I end up just showing a couple of semi-random images, and saying something like, "MAN they had some serious money.  So they got guillotined.  Let's move on to that, shall we?"  (Note that this version also discards the entire 18th century, which has been known to happen in my version of French art history). 

There were alot of reasons to overthrow the French monarchy, the egregiously expensive palace being just one of them, but the thing that brought it home for me was not the ostentation of the palace, but rather the charming little hamlet Marie-Antoinette built for herself in the late 18th century.  A fun little art historical tidbit is that Marie-Antoinette got so tired and bored of royal life, that she would leave the court for a bit in order to go play shepherdess. 

Where Marie-Antoinette went to relax.
When the French royalty did something though, they went all out.  Marie-Antoinette did not just put on a cute dress and play with some sheep, nor did she just have a little cottage somewhere.  No, no--she built herself her own village in a corner of Versailles.  A village.  Completely equipped with all the normal things a village has--houses, a mill, farmhouse, dairy, gardens, orchards, ponds, boudoir, pigeon coop, dovecote, and a tower.  Everything is ridiculously, absurdly charming--the sort of place we might imagine fairy tales and animated movies to take place.  I can't help but wonder if Marie-Antoinette ever realized that the people she ruled over did not live like this, or if, in all seriousness, she truly believed that the French people lived in a quaint rustic countryside where the flowers always bloom, the sheep are always fluffy, and there is always cake for dinner. 

French sheep in the "country" side.
Many elements of the hamlet were functional during Marie-Antoinette's time (except the mill, which turned only for decorative purposes), so today, cows, goats, and sheep still populate the farm as they did in the queen's day.  While these are not the only sheep I've seen on my travels, they are certainly the only ones whose ancestors might just have gotten milked by a queen brandishing custom-made Sèvres porcelain buckets.  These sheep might not be quite so posh, but if you're lucky, you might just be able to find a nice Sèvres bucket coffee cup at the gift shop.