It happened today - May 7, 2016
No, really. It is very nice, and was probably a lot nicer when it was in a bucolic village miles from the stench and upheaval of Paris instead of being smack dab inside it. It was begun on May 7 back in 1664 by Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” precisely to get away from the rabble and carry on as if they didn’t exist except on tax day.
Actually Louis XIV began the palace proper. His father Louis XIII had built a hunting lodge there and the Sun King expanded it in characteristically grandiose fashion. But it was unfortunately a symbol, and a product, of an arrogant, out-of-touch government that loved to display its magnificence regardless of the cost, one to which humility was not so much a virtue rarely practised as a distant rumour.
It’s also a sobering reflection on the odd business of architecture that the resources of the absolute French monarchy could conjure up such a brilliant building. But living in it didn’t do anything to elevate them in desirable ways. In a fascinating meditation on architecture, philosopher Alain de Botton has written in The Architecture of Happiness that “Taking architecture seriously therefore makes some singular and strenuous demands upon us. It requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings even when they are made of vinyl and would be expensive and time-consuming to ameliorate. It means conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper and that our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread. At the same time, it means acknowledging that buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch.”
Certainly saints have flourished in dumps and tyrants and layabouts have misspent their lives in mansions. And yet most of us try, within the limits of the possible, to make the place we live nice and even, sometimes, the place we work.
I think part of the key is whether the place is nice honestly, because we put the sweat of our own brow into it or, in hiring designers and workers, paid them properly and listened carefully to their advice while retaining independent judgement. If by contrast we coerced others into doing the work or paying for it, if we strove for effect rather than genuine comfort and organic beauty, the chances are that the magnificence would corrupt rather than ennoble us.
Certainly it did not help that Louis XIV forced French nobles to spend much of the year at Versailles rather than in the regions where they actually held land, simultaneously preventing them from developing decentralized power that might have checked the French state before it pranced into revolutionary disasters and from developing genuine organic links with the populace in those regions, thus keeping the revolution from degenerating into such a vicious class war. It cannot have improved the character of the nobles to spend so much time living so high off the hog at other people’s expense while doing nothing more useful than seeking to flatter and intrigue their way into the monarch’s favour. The French thought they were better than the British because they had more spectacular royal palaces. The reverse was in fact true.
Thus Versailles was an incredibly beautiful building that did its occupants, and via them its nation, much harm. You definitely want to visit if you’re in the area. And it should never have been built.