Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Taylor Speer-Sims
September 14, 2011

Politics of Versailles

Plan of the Park, Palace and Town of Versailles

Louis XIV of France used realpolitic in his palace at Versailles. He was an authoritarian monarch with a huge personal ego. He built his palace to remind visitors that he was the sun king, and his symbols were everywhere in the palace. Other countries’ power politics were satiated because they believed that when Louis was building, he was not enlarging his armies. It was the use of soft politics of the palace that really influenced the other countries. Many countries emulated France by building their own palaces to imitate, or rival that of Versailles.
            Louis XIV was born to be the king of France. His father died when he was young, and left him under the guardianship of his mother. The country was his, but he was not allowed to rule until he came of age (Spalworth 2008, 1-2). France was an authoritarian monarchy before Louis XIV. But, when Louis finally did get control of the throne, he made sure that everyone around him knew that he was king. Because he was not able to attain this position when he was younger, he did exactly as Freud suggested. He compensated and identified himself with that position, and set it up against his ego (Wolman 1982, 24).
            The king’s ego was shown to everyone by his manner of dress, as well as through his personal insignias (Wolman 1982, 5). He chose the sun because he wanted to be called the “Sun King” and would create the gardens, the walks and building structure at Versailles in the design of a central unit with rays emanating outward. This can still be seen in the plans (Wolman 1982, inside and outside cover). Louis’ favorite fruit was the orange, which he planted in plentiful groupings at the “orangaree” where he gave as gifts to visitors of any significant. This too has the meaning of the sun in the shape and color. “The Sun King used all available symbols to create and impose his power” (Hilton 2002, 116)’
             The realpolitics of Louis XIV was magnified in his palace at Versailles. Of course, Louis believed that all diplomacy was derived from power, his power specifically. He wanted everyone in the world to know that he was powerful. His might was the mightiest. God had given him the authority to rule, so he was providing the world with a visual reminder of his power. Only a wealthy nation could afford to have such a powerful ruler that could build this magnificent palace. He was making sure that everyone that came to visit would be impressed with his wealth (Wolman 1982, 4; Hilton 2002, 116). At Versailles, politics were joined with aesthetics in a “constant symbiosis” (Hilton 2002, 116).
            Dignitaries were acknowledged in his personal apartments. These rooms were built one to another so that a door joined them. There was not a hallway, but one would have to have entered one room by going through another room. These doors would create a magnificent view when they were all opened at the same time. This was built in this manner due to Louis’ “Preoccupation with impressing rival European powers” (Spawford 2008, 9).
Many other European countries used Versailles as a meter for their own power politics. They believed that if the palace were under construction, Louis would not be building up his arsenal (Hilton 2002, 116). When there was cause for war, they believed that construction slowed down, or stopped due to the diversion of funds and troops. When troops were not needed for fighting, Louis would bring them in to assist with manual labor in the building works (Dubois 1983). So, Versailles was like a type of war barometer for the other European nations (Hilton 2002, 116). The construction of the palace created an atmosphere that showed that Louis was politically defying the world. This showed that his coffers, were not wanting. It should have also showed that his ability to pay for his military was not in want either. “Louis always knew how his expenditure would demonstrate his power internationally” (Hilton 2002, 116).
            The real impact of other European nations is the use of soft politics. Here is where Versailles excels. The beauty and grandeur of the grounds and building was so magnificent that many a person would have been shocked.  This was a building that reflected the grandiose personality of the monarch who lived there. When a visitor arrived, they would have believed that this monarch must be very rich indeed. At the time of Louis XIV, there were other palaces throughout the world, but none could rival Versailles (Dubois 1983).
            Versailles was originally a small hunting lodge that Louis’ grandfather purchased. Louis’ father loved that location for hunting far more than any of the other lodges that the crown owned (Chateau 2011). One reason was the fact that the stag’s at Versailles far outnumbered those at the other locations. The stag was considered a royal beast. This animal was a trophy that only the best of men could subdue. In fact, only the manly prince was capable of bagging this prize (Spalworth 2008, 4). Perhaps Louis wanted to be as manly as his father and claimed the prize of Versailles. Or, he may have believed that he was a better man, or prince, than his father, which was why he built to such grandiose magnitude. What ever the reason for the large scale building, Louis wanted “the eyes of all Europe” to see that he was the “Preeminent monarch” (Fraser 2006, 169).

            In any case, this monarch built upon the small lodge and turned it into a palace that sightseers were drawn to from all over the world. Foreign architects were drawn to the palace to get a sense of the new French style that they took back to their homeland (Spalworth 2008, 5). Some people hired French architects and took them back to do their building (Dubois 1983). Either way, there were many other palaces that were built to emulate Versailles. Somerset House in London was built to rival the palace at Versaille (Bergdoll 2000, 30). Other palaces such as Sans Souci at Potsdam that belonged to Frederick the Great had French elements (Summerson 2003, 31).
            Other grand scale houses were built with French elements that Versailles had inspired. These were to be seen throughout England, Holland, and somewhat in America. They were, however, many more near the frontier of France on the Rhine. These palaces would “sometimes reach the scale of Versailles” sometimes due to the intermarriage of the local aristocrats to French nobles. At other times, the French influence was simply the fashion. There were many German palaces that emulated the palace at Versailles, some were small, but others tried to rival the French palace in scale as well (Dunlap 1999, 433).
            If someone was not wealthy enough to build the entire palace to scale, they emulated the princely domicile by using specific parts of the palace. Versailles had very prestigious parts that made up the whole. Paintings and art were essential to aristocrats throughout the centuries, and Versailles had those in abundance (Atwood, 2011, 26-29). Painted ceilings were something that many an envoy appreciated when they visited. Sculptured cornices were another prominent detail was in the apartments where persons of note stayed (Spalworth 2008, 7). This created a fad across Europe for every well to do to try and copy (Dunlap 1999, 433).
The gardens at Versailles were another political maneuver of Louis XIV. Louis used one-fifth of the GDP of France just in the gardens, which “showed the foreign emissaries the power, artistry and control he had at Versailles” (Saunt 2010). There were many statues of Louis as the Sun King Apollo in the garden. The pathways were created in the shape of a sun, with the fixed point in the center circle with rays that shoot off in many directions. This occurred time and again throughout the grounds. (Wolman 1982, inside and outside cover) The Orangeree was another allegory of the Sun King. Visitors were able to smell the orange blossom, and taste the sun fruit of the mighty king (Hilton 2002, 116).
            The grounds were very beautiful. But, they were beautiful with a purpose. Many of the allegories there were state of the art for the time, but had a classical overtone. The statue of Apollo was a contemporary interpretation of the Greek god of light and sun. There are also other Greek inspired statues that give the impression that Louis was one of the great Hellenists. There were waterworks that had not been seen since Rome (Saunt 2010). Although, of course Louis was French, the idea was to compare him, and his country, to the great empires of the past. Louis emulating the past made other Europeans want to emulate him, which was exactly what he wanted.
            Even the buildings that housed Louis’ dogs and horses were envied and emulated. There was the main horse stable that was called the Grand Stable that actually housed the horses, and another smaller version that housed the carriages. Louis’ dogs were housed in another stately building called the kennel, but only the Sun King’s dog’s were allowed to live there. Each one of these three buildings was large enough to be called a grand mansion themselves. They had beautiful stone facades with sculptures on top of the elaborate portals. These animal buildings were built to show that the Sun King could afford extravagant living environments for the lowliest of creatures (Spawford 2008, 11). Emissaries, diplomats, and people who were just regular aristocrats were envious of the wealth that the Sun King was able to display.
            Another way that Louis showed his power and wealth at Versailles was to have the royal births and weddings occur there. He made sure that his wife, and the wives of his sons were physically at the palace when they were giving birth. He even had his daughter-in-law, the Dauphine, carried to the palace in a litter when she was fully pregnant. Marriages were (and still are) a way to bring attention to the monarchy. Louis gave the most spectacular events that were envied throughout Europe (Spawford 2008, 13).
            Events such as parties and fetes were used to raise his profile. Louis knew that aristocrats liked to have fun. So, he used their fun loving ways to his advantage. “He always had politics in view” when he put together an event (Spawford 2008, 5). Parties were given in the palace buildings, as well as in the gardens. These were used for “social engagement and political power” (Saunt, 2010).  Even today Versailles is used as the epitome of locations to throw a party.
Versailles was not just a palace that allowed Louis XIV of France, and his court to live in, but was an instrument of power. Politics were part of the building and decorations. The ego of the authoritarian monarch of France was hugely visible to everyone who visited. The palace was a barometer of Europe’s power politics. Soft politics was the most abundant type of political power that Louis held over his adversaries. Versailles soft politics held sway over local citizens and foreign governments in the same manner. The grandiose beauty of the palace at Versailles made thousands of people want to be exactly like France’s Sun King.

Originally written for class at American Military University.

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