A visit to Versailles

Andrew Tierney

24 February 2023

A recent excursion to Paris to attend a conference on historic interiors allowed a fresh glimpse at Europe’s most famous palace. Versailles sprawls outwards on its hilltop site, the great wings of Le Vau and Mansart dwarfing the dinky hunting lodge at its core built for Louis XIII (1631-34). Up-close this is a toy-like edifice, in warm brick, with rich red marble columns fronting its wings, in turn flanking a black and white paved cour de marbre.

Louis XIII’s hunting lodge at Versailles

Gilding spreads skittishly across its roofline and errant triglyphs couple-up in the mannerist Doric frieze as if to suggest a temporary structure for some festival or masque.

Paired triglyphes on Louis XIII’s hunting lodge at the core of Versailles

In contrast, the vast later seventeenth-century ‘Enveloppe‘ (as it was nicknamed), in which the lodge sits, is more sober, employing a pale yellow limestone throughout except for the white limestone in the balustrade course of the ground floor and columns and balustrade courses of the principal floor or premier étage.

The horizontal rustication is gentle and the facades have little of the restive energy we associate with the Baroque. The Ionic columnar projections that break up the otherwise monotonous facades have wide intercolumniation that depend on flat arches for support.

Architrave on the ‘Enveloppe‘ at Versailles

The voussoirs run right through the architrave, as they do on Perrault’s east front of the Louvre, a system of construction proposed by Philibert d’Orme in his Premier tome de l’architecture (1567).[1] It is a testament to the quality of the workmanship that these voussoirs are so hard to see in the photograph above. The supporting columns are monoliths, except for the capitals which are cut just below a series of ornamental drops that fall like a permed headdress from the volutes. Low-relief military, theatrical and musical trophies fill the spandrels flanking the windows, a type of whimsical sculptural elaboration that would find its way into the entablatures of Vanbrugh’s northern English houses at Castle Howard and Seaton Delaval.

Carved ornament at Versailles

In the front-facing the pavilions (planned in the 1670s but not executed until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Ange-Jacques Gabriel and Alexander Dufour, respectively) the stonework of the giant Corinthian columns syncs with the stonework of the walls, divided into sixteenth small drums. So too the window architraves. In contrast, the magisterial Corinthian capitals are carved out of single blocks. Here the flat arches extend not just through the architraves but through the frieze as well.

Pavillion Gabriel at Versailles completed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel dating to the 1770s

The present approach to the royal apartments is through a long gallery of white limestone (the Galerie de Pierre) on the ground floor of the north wing, the wall surface blending seamlessly with that of the barrel-vaulted roof. One passes the Grand Degre staircase, constructed entirely in pristine white limestone, which  has festooned Ionic capitals derived from the lower storey of Michelangelo’s palazzi on the Campidoglio in Rome. Elegant restraint presides, only the cordoned off door into the Chapelle Royale offers a flash of the exuberance and colour to come. Visitors are directed up the north staircase, its urbane arched flights springing upwards in effortless single bounds. A trap for the unwary seeking the court of Louis XIV, the stair is a mid-nineteenth century insertion by Charles-August Questel, taking its cue from that by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in the Petit Trianon.

The north stairs in Versailles by Charles-August Questel

Already the soft limestone treads are hollowed out on one side. From here extends a suite of seventeenth-century lodgings, occupied by Louis XIV’s senior advisors – simply a series of boxes into which painters have been ushered to marble the dado panelling and doorcases, each distinguished by variations in colour. The wainscotting is not dissimilar to the raised panelling found in Britain and Ireland in the early-to-mid eighteenth century, though with mouldings that are somewhat wider and more complicated – particularly the use of an additional inner bolection frame, which is occasionally enriched with carving.

Faux marble panelling in the north wing of Versailles

The parquetry floors, comprising a criss-cross weave design, are synomous with Versailles and appear in almost every room with no apparent variation. Although accomplished, there is none of the spectacle found in later European examples, as previously discussed by Nele Lüttmann. The switch to real marble begins in the Salon de la Chapelle (a vestibule to the gallery of the Chapelle Royale), where a polychromatic marble floor is offset against walls of grey monochrome limestone.

What is impressive here is the disciplined integration of the constructional stonework with the ornament on its surface, suggesting that architect, stone cutters and carvers worked hand in hand.

The Salon de la Chapelle

Complicated schemes of vegetal and figurative enrichment are bisected by structural voussoirs in the round arches over the doors, the hemispherical heads of niches, and the flat arches of the entablature. In the centre of the niches, a single voussoir contains part of a cartouche, part of an architrave and a slice of scallop shell – no small task for the carver.

Salon de Venus, Versailles

Louis XIV had a gargantuan appetite for marble, which in the subsequent suite of rooms (the State Apartment) invades the wainscoting in contrasting reds, greens, whites and blacks, emulating the Italian mastery of marble in interiors during the previous century. The green (Vert Campan) and white was brought all the way from the Pyrenees (Saint-Beat) and from Carrara, reds from Belgium (rouge de Rance), and black from Dinant, also Belgian – just a few of a dizzying and confusing, and often historically confused, number of French, Belgian, Spanish, and Italian marble varieties.[2] In turn, these marbles sometimes frame quadratura paintings featuring the same marbles in illusionistic architectural prospects. Discussion of recent research on European marble production can be found in an earlier blog on this website by Christine Casey.

Awkward junctions in the State Apartment, Versailles

The king’s taste, the architect’s designs, and the craftsmen’s skills battled with each other in this prodigious stone outpouring. One can’t but notice that the symmetry is all askew, the enfilade set closer to the outer wall (on the north side) than its twin sequence of doors on the south side, pushing the marble panels into uncomfortable configurations at the corners. For so large a palace, there is a lot of squeezing going on in Versailles suggesting some disconnect between the conception of the interiors and the scale of the shell in which they sit. The large size of the window and door openings leaves little room to satisfactorily resolve decorative schemes around them.

One of the most lavish uses of marble is the Queen’s Staircase, though it is only half the size than the vanished Staircase of the Ambassadors. With its parade of Veronese-like figures in a painted gallery, it looks forward to William Kent’s work at Kensington Palace.

The Queen’s Staircase, Versailles

The console frieze is a notable feature of several of Versailles’s state apartments. The architects must have looked to Vignola, who in his discussion of the composite order, offered a merging of diglyph and console in the frieze as an invention of his own, and which he used on many of his buildings (plate 32, 1563 edition). But the treatment in Versailles is closer to that found on examples in Late Roman architecture, such as the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek (Lebanon), the Temple of Trajan Pergamum, Bergama (Turkey), or the Temple of Apollo (Manavgat, Turkey), but it seems unlikely these were sufficiently well-known in France at this date to be a source.

Hercules Room, Versailles

Mansart and Le Brun’s Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces) dazzles. Everything is at so great a scale that details are easily overlooked. The treatment of the Corinthian order is unique – responding to a desire for a new French order (incorporating Apollo and the Fleur-de-lis), and abandoning the acanthus in favour of clustered palm fronds. [3] Arranged in untidy groupings vaguely similar to that of the acanthus, the reduced volutes barely register amidst their profusion.

Above this, something odder still. Louis XIII’s amorous triglyphs have returned, this time in outlandish scallop-shell and fleur-de-lis formal wear that curls its way forward into a modillion. The borrowing is perhaps not so surprising when we consider the position of the gallery directly behind the earlier building, which Louis XIV was keen to retain in honour of his father. Perhaps the flighty mannerism of the old Louis XIII hunting lodge is then partly responsible for the console friezes that eventually migrated all the way to England and Ireland.

A paired console frieze at Castle Howard, Yorkshire

But they perform an important function in the Galerie des Glaces in giving some vertical punctuation to the wall above the level of the pilasters, which might otherwise seem unduly flat. It takes a camera zoom to see that the gilded enrichments of the entablature were all modelled by fingers and thumbs, each individual detail only vaguely consistent with that next to it. None of Ruskin’s slavish classicism here, though no doubt tedious work in a room so long. It is a reminder of the extraordinary labour and manual craft that went into this most resplendent of palaces.

For further analysis of interior craftsmanship, see CRAFTVALUE’S new book Enriching Architecture free to download from UCL Press.

[1] For the marble at Versailles, see Sophie Mouquin, ‘On serai ten etat de se passer du marbre d’Italie’. In Splendor Marmoris: I colori del marmo tra Roma e L’Europa, da Paolo III a Napoleane III edited by Grégoire Extermann and Ariane Varela Braga. De Luca Editori d’Arte, 2016, 305-318; Julien Pascal , ‘Crowned Marbles’ ,  Bulletin of the Palace of Versailles Research Center [Online], 6 | 2012, published on February 04, 2016 , consulted on February 20, 2023 . URL  : http://journals.openedition.org/crcv/13622; DOI  : https://doi.org/10.4000/crcv.13622; ; Éric Groessens ‘Les marbres de Flandres et du Hainaut à Versailles : Flanders and Hainaut Marble in Versailles.’ Bulletin du Centre de Recherche du Chateau de Versailles 6 (2012). https://doi.org/10.4000/crcv.11973;

[2] See H. Günther, ‘Philibert de l’Orme and the French tradition of vaulting’. Original veroffentlichung in: Aedificare: revue internationale d’histoire de la construction 2 (2017), Nr. 2, 119-142 at 124.

[3] Guy Walton, Louis XIV’s Versailles. Penguin: London, 1986, p. 97.

Further reading:

Tadgell, Christopher, The Louvre and Versailles: the evolution of the prototypical palace in the age of absolutism. London: Routlege, 2020.

Jones, Colin. Versailles. London: Head of Zeus, 2018.

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