Versailles is well known for its extraordinary opulence and beauty. But it is not often appreciated that it was originally constructed as a finely honed political weapon.
Louis XIV inherited a throne that had been historically precarious, weakened by the nobility, clergy and political revolt. This was particularly due the clientele system that involved large networks of social obligation able to be leveraged upon by the French elite to sway or even topple the reigning monarch. Yet, within twenty-five years of rule, Louis XIV transformed the state and bolstered his position without resorting to military might or open degradation. Louis XIV was a very modern master of propaganda, and used architecture to shift the perception of his position and power amongst his nobility and upon the international stage
Versailles was not just a testament to the King’s power, but actually facilitated its acquisition. Before his reign it was just a royal hunting lodge (okay probably the most amazingly opulent hunting lodge ever, but still just a hunting lodge). Louis made it his central base and expanded it enormously during his reign, so the building itself alone stretched a mile wide.
He also suggested important members of the nobility come and live with him, a suggestion that was not an easy one to refuse. If you were at Versailles you could access all sorts of cushy postings if the King looked kindly upon you. If you were not, you were ignored, or worse, subject to the King’s displeasure (eep).
Now Louis XIV was being very clever here. By inviting the nobility, the most likely people to rise up and depose him, to live by his side he could keep a very close eye upon them and their activities. He could also divide them physically from the lands they ruled, and hence reduce their influence there.
It also let him brainwash them. Versailles was a kind of gilded cage filled with messages blaring at you from every angle about how mighty the king was and thus how foolish it would be to mess with him. Carvings like one in the Salon de la Guerre depicting the king mounted on horseback trampling his enemies were not exactly open to wide interpretation.
Louis filled his sprawling gardens with exotic flowers and fruits like pineapples (gasp!) to impress visitors with his mighty wealth. Everything was geometrically laid out in Roman inspired designs filled with statues of gods and goddesses, suggesting France was the rightful heir to the legacy of cultural ascendency and military might of the Roman Empire. This became fairly well accepted, which is actually pretty odd. Why France as opposed to another European country? And not Italy? Louis was particularly keen on statuary of the Sun God Apollo, whom he equated with himself, transforming Versailles from a European court to the home of a demi-god who ruled by divine right.
The area south of the Petit Parc is a pretty prime example how Louis XIV used Versailles’ gardens to silently, yet blatantly, convey his supremacy. The south terrace fell dramatically to expose the Parterre du Midi below where the prize trees from the King’s were displayed in the summer. The Parterre was flat and bare, stripped forcefully of vegetation, excepting the boxed orange trees brought in by cannon carriers on the king’s direction.
The Midi was a southern region in France known for growing oranges that in the past had been resistant to the King’s rule. The King’s control of the orange trees, many originally initially from Midi itself, moving in and out of the forcefully cleared area on military equipment was a statement of Louis XIV’s ability to dominate French land to his will. Just beyond the parterre was a great basin dedicated to the Swiss Guards, the formidable soldiers dedicated to guarding the King, further underlining the King’s power.
I rather wish modern politicians would think to build pretty things to convey their strength. “Look at my amazingly exotic orchids and my stunning interior design skills – vote for me!” It would be rather pleasant.
PS. For those of you who like puzzles I have one for you: Eponymous boys of Orwellian age would do well to look in boxes of snails.