Tuesday, April 28, 2009

#69 - "Versailles: A Biography of a Palace" by Tony Spawforth

I needed a book that started with 'V,' and then I saw Versailles: A Biography of a Palace (2008) by Tony Spawforth on the library display table. I've got a general interest in history, and on one gray and rainy day I even visited the famous palace. As illuminating as it was to wander around the gardens with my umbrella and soaking pants legs, I figured it wouldn't hurt to learn some more about Versailles' famous history.

As the title suggests, Spawforth focuses his book on the history of the palace: from the relatively small chalet Louis XIII had built for hunting, to the grand palace Louis XIV envisioned, to the subsequent additions by Louis XV and Louis XVI. Spawforth even tells of its short use after the revolution by Napoleon, its morph into a war museum, and then its change into the museum modern-day visitors see today. At the same time, Spawforth details the lives of those who lived in the palace.

On the whole, I would have preferred more diagrams and pictures when it came to describing the building and the numerous changes made to it throughout the years. I'm a very visual person and the descriptions and few pictures failed to give me a good idea of the look and scope of some of the details. It could also get confusing when Spawforth jumped around in time or condensed hundreds of years at the palace into a couple paragraphs. At some point unpronouncable French names all just seemed to blend into one unpronouncable person, and I had a hard time remembering how important each Duke, Comte, Madame, etc. were and which king they were associated with in Versailles. However, this probably has more to say about my having never studied French and failing to remember most of my European history than the qualities of the book.

My favorite parts of the book were discussions of how the community of Versailles lived during the reigns of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. Sure, I already had heard a bit about court life, but there's still some fascinating details. Louis XIV was apparently such a womanizer before he secretly married his second wife that the author doesn't even bother to go into details. Louis XV was even worse. He slept with three different sisters in the same family and then set up a house where very young women could be kept for him. He also turned a high-class prostitute from Paris into some kind of Duchess, Madame, or Comtess (or whatever) when she became his mistress. And then the uxorious Louis XVI apparently didn't cheat on his wife, but Marie Antoinette turned the tables and cheated on him. Marie Antoinette was married at 15, but didn't have a child (despite tremendous pressure) until eleven years later. Some said this was because the King had trouble bringing himself to orgasm. Louis XVI also had a more private passage built for him to the Queen's chambers. The original passageway entrance was in a more public place, which would be exceedingly embarassing to Louis XVI when Marie Antoinette locked him out.

Sex scandals aside, it was also fascinating to be reminded of the hygiene of the times. My memories of Versailles were of tourists herded through the carefully and perfectly preserved relics. But Spawforth described the smell of the privies, the lack of bathing, the heat in summer, cold in winter, and the peeing and spitting in the hallways. If there were some way for me to magically morph back into the grand world of Louis XIV, I'm thinking I might prefer to just stay in my little apartment.

The power dynamics and ceremonies were also fascinating. With Versailles as the center of government, the home of the king, as well as the home of all the important nobles, almost everyone with political power could be found under one roof. Women literally fought over their seating positions, and noble men and women played the part of servants, ceremonially dressing and undressing the king and queen in strict ritual. Anyone who had proximity to the royals had power, and the kings manipulated this power struggle to control the court. At first, the discussion of these rituals and power struggles seemed completely absurd, but on further contemplation, I realized it's not that different from today. People are always going to seek power, and people are always going to display their power--even if it's in different ways.

I couldn't put the book down near the end as Spawforth described the dramatic scene when the crowd spilled into the palace looking for the king and queen in 1789. And as much as I cannot condone absolute monarchies--or any kind of monarchy, really, there's something about the majesty and life at Versailles that was hard to let go.

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