Versailles: A Visit to the King’s Private Apartments, Part 1.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, given my longstanding interest in the place and the fact that I have a degree in French, that I didn’t visit Versailles, or even Paris, until April of this year. Basically, I was distracted for nearly 20 years by my work and travels in Asia, which you can read more about on my other blog and gallery website, Lotus & Persimmon.
I’m happy to say that Versailles lived up to 30 years of expectation. My visit did not proceed quite as planned, though. I had devised a very specific program for myself:
Day 1: Take a midday train from Paris to Versailles; check in to my hotel; scout the town; but my tickets for the Chateau for the next day; wander in the gardens of the Chateau; dine in the town; turn in early.
Day 2: Join a guided tour of the Private Apartments; see the State Rooms; have lunch in the town; see Mesdames’ Apartments; visit the Musee Lambinet in the town; dine in the town again; turn in early.
Day 3: Visit the Trianons in the morning; have lunch in town; take an early afternoon train back to Paris.
Needless to say there was a fly in the ointment, which in this case was the weather. Late March and early April 2016 were very wet in France (and Portugal, as I subsequently experienced). I saw very little of the gardens because of the frequent downpours, and by the end of Day 2 I simply abandoned the idea of visiting the Trianons, which was just as well because the Chateau was closed on Day 3 due to a transport strike! I was lucky even to make it back to Paris.
Nonetheless, I was enthralled by the whole experience from start to finish. The indisputable highlight was the guided tour of les Petits Appartements du Roi, the King’s Private Apartments. These rooms, on the first floor of the Chateau (I mean the first floor in the European sense, i.e. the floor above the ground floor), were created by Louis XV and left largely unaltered by Louis XVI — with one important exception.
As Versailles enthusiasts will know, Louis XIV lived almost entirely in public. His day started with the formal ceremony of the Lever (getting up), in which the principal courtiers handed the King’s garments to him while a crowd looked on, and ended with the Coucher (going to bed), both of which occurred in the vast and surely rather chilly King’s Bedroom in the State Apartments on the 1st floor. Louis XIV did arrange some more private rooms, referred to in his day as les Cabinets du Roi (the King’s Rooms) on the north side of the Cour de Marbre (the Marble Court, the great black-and-white-tiled courtyard in front of and below the King’s Bedroom at the heart of the Chateau), but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time in them. In any case, they were not really residential rooms, but just rooms in which he kept his private collection of artwork and conducted confidential business. They were only private insofar as the King’s permission was needed to enter them, but he seems to have given such permission readily enough.
Louis XV, the Sun King’s great-grandson and successor, was a very different character. He respected his ancestor’s example and dutifully carried out the daily ceremonies, but also hankered for a more private existence. When he was still quite young,* he began to sleep in another, truly private bedroom which no one but his servants and mistresses ever saw — when he slept with the Queen, he would go to her bedroom — and would then scurry to the King’s Bedroom in his nightshirt for the Lever. When he retired in the evening, of course, the same procedure would occur in reverse.
Before long, he wanted a private suite of rooms in which to pursue his personal interests. Odd though it may seem to the modern reader, Louis XV liked to work with his hands, cook, and prepare his own coffee, which was more of a task in pre-electricity times than it is now. For this reason, he commissioned a series of small rooms on the top of the floor of the Chateau above his great-grandfather’s Cabinets, but connected to them by several small staircases for ease of access. These rooms included an intimate bedroom, a games room, a small ‘ballroom’ for music and dancing, a gallery with dormer windows overlooking the gardens, and a series of libraries and workshops, including a kitchen where the King liked to make marzipan and jam with his own hands. I’m not making this up. You can read about it in Christopher Hibbert’s Versailles, among many other sources, including contemporary eyewitness accounts. We might also mention that Louis XV was a lifelong, passionate gardener, which is a topic we’ll address in future posts. These little rooms, basically in the attic of the Chateau, were known as the Petits Cabinets. If they still exist, they’re not open to the public. PLEASE comment below if you know anything about their current status. Even in Louis XV’s lifetime, they were little seen because, as we have said, he liked his privacy, but also because they were too small to entertain many people in them.
Eventually, the King decided that he wanted larger private rooms in which to entertain on a grander scale. The only available option was to reconfigure his great-grandfather’s ‘private’ rooms, the Cabinets du Roi, the layout and decor of which had been completed before the turn of the century, and which must by the time of Louis XV’s young manhood in the 1730s have seemed old-fashioned. He then commissioned the renovation of these rooms in order create his Petits Appartements, which are the rooms we see on the north side of the first floor today.
In the next post, I’ll walk you through the rooms in the same order that I went through them on the guided tour.
* Louis XV succeeded his great-grandfather at Versailles when he was just 5 years old. His minority was spent in Paris under the regency of his older cousin, the second Duke of Orleans. Louis returned to Versailles permanently on attaining his majority in 1723.