“ON SHOW”: VERSAILLES & THE WORLD EXHIBITION PODCAST
In this new episode of our podcast, we visit the exhibition “Versailles & the World” with the exhibition’s curators Hélène Delalex and Bertrand Rondot.
Listen to the episode
Marine Botton (MB): Hello and welcome, you’re listening to On Show, the Louvre Abu Dhabi podcast that takes you on a tour.
For this new episode, we’re taking you to 17th and 18th century France, to the beating heart of French Monarchy. Not only is it a house for kings, a landmark that attracts millions of visitors each year and a palace that inspired Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, it has also been a place of wonder and exchanges since its creation in the 17th century. You may have guessed, today we’re taking you to the Palace of Versailles.
I’m Marine Botton, Acting Senior Interpretation and Mediation Officer at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. And with the curators of the exhibition Versailles & the World we will discover that the palace was an open house, welcoming a world of international visitors such as ambassadors, scientists, artists and merchants and even the common people; and the role it played in positioning the French monarchy at the forefront of the diplomatic, scientific and artistic endeavours of the time.
For this special tour, I have the pleasure to be with Hélène Delalex and Bertrand Rondot, curators of the exhibition.
Hélène Delalex, Bertrand Rondot, thank you very much for being here with us today. It’s a real pleasure to visit the new exhibition Versailles & the World with you both. Hélène, you’re a Heritage Curator and Bertrand Chief Heritage Curator, both at the Department of Furniture and Decorative Arts at the Musée National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Versailles is like a second home for you both. But set the scene a little bit for us, how would you describe is a few words the Palace of Versailles to someone who’s never visited it?
Bertrand Rondot (BR): The Palace of Versailles is a huge building, it’s one of the largest palaces in the world, I’d say. Not only that, it’s an amazing place with beautiful architecture and gardens. It has always fascinated visitors and not only the French. And for a good reason: according to the will of Louis XIV, Versailles was a public place, from the moment it was built; it was open to everybody, regardless of wealth or social status. That’s also what made Versailles so unique, so peculiar in Europe and the world.
MB: That’s wonderful. In the exhibition which timeframe are we talking about?
Hélène Delalex (HD): The artworks on display span from the mid-17th century, the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV, to the eve of French Revolution in the 18th century.
MB: The name of the exhibition is Versailles & the World. Give us a bit of context, what was the place of the Kingdom of France in the world at the time?
HD: The influence of France at that time, in the 18th century, and during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, is unparalleled. France was at the time was the first military power in Europe. But somehow it set the tone for the arts, literature and lifestyle, that French style called à la Française in the decorative arts and fashion, for example.
MB: Hélène, we are in the very first room of the exhibition. And it’s quite a bold room, quite a statement. What was the intention for this introduction?
HD: When visitors enter this exhibition, they discover this film, and the many mirrors that decorate the room, reminiscent of the famous Hall of Mirrors; and the film plays with the reflections of mirrors. This film is also important because it is made for visitors who don’t know Versailles; it offers a private visit of the palace, and the various places on the estate. And at the same time, its purpose is to convey to contemporary visitors the same fascination that the 18th century visitors may have felt when they discovered Versailles for the first time. It’s a bridge between yesterday and today; we see that nothing has changed and that these beautiful images still convey the same emotions.
MB: That’s great. Before we discover the actual artwork of the exhibition, can you tell us about the structure of the exhibition?
HD: The exhibition is organized in three main parts. In short, the first is the world coming to Versailles, looking at the embassies that came to the palace. The second part of the exhibition is the commercial and artistic exchanges between Versailles and the East, especially the trade of luxury products. And the third part of the exhibition, in a reverse movement, is Versailles discovering the world.
MB: As we open the first chapter of the exhibition, we enter this room where the walls, painted in this dark red, deep red colour, and their wooden details, give it a very refined aspect. Bertrand, what was the intention for this room, the message you wanted to convey through the exhibition design?
BR: The intention in the exhibition design of this room is to give a sense of the grandeur of Versailles, we’re not reproducing any element of the décor of Versailles, but with the colours, the dark, strong, rich red and with some mouldings we give a sense of the magnificent space even though it’s much more muted that Versailles would have been. It was designed for visitors to feel the sense of grandeur and to be the best background for the artworks here, that section, which are grand portraits and grand views of Versailles.
MB: Let’s have a look at the first artwork for this chapter. Our attention is immediately drawn to this large painting, right in front of the entrance. It’s a view of the Palace of Versailles from the gardens. Let’s take a closer look together.
BR: It’s a view of the palace from the gardens, from the South, through the Orangerie in the foreground. And you see the magnificent side of the palace which is over 600-meter long. And you may notice on the left-hand side, on the steps of the grand staircase, three visitors wearing turbans. Obviously, people from the Middle East, most probably Persians, given the size and the shape of their turbans. They are with a French man, most probably a courtier, who is their guide during their stay in Versailles. A guide to visit the palace, the estate, the gardens, etc. Who are they? We don’t know, but it was quite common to see foreigners in their national outfits in the galleries and the gardens of the palace.
MB: What kind of visitors visited Versailles at the time, whether the gardens of the palace?
BR: We must remember that Versailles was a public palace, open to anyone, and that’s really quite unique in Europe and indeed in the world. Just think of the Forbidden City in Beijing, no-one could see the Emperor, and no-one could see the palace unless invited to do so. Whereas Versailles was the opposite, Versailles was open every day to all visitors without any condition of wealth or social status whatsoever; so anyone could enter the palace and visit the apartments, the galleries and the gardens. It was quite unique as I said, which made it a wonderful attraction for visitors, not only from Europe but from further parts of the world. That’s why it was quite common to see foreigners here in Versailles.
MB: Does it mean that anyone could have seen the King or the Queen?
BR: Yes, the rule was that the palace was a public place, so that one could see not only the structure, the beauty of the architecture, the collections, the furniture, but also the King. He’s the power, he embodies power, and as such – that’s a French rule – he has to be visible, not accessible but visible, to his subjects and to anyone. Therefore, unlike in other courts, when you come across the King or the Queen you don’t have to bow. That means that you can look at him, look at his face, see his face and remember his features. And that’s very important. And again, that’s why visitors and tourists liked Versailles so much, because the main attraction was the King himself and to be able to see his features.
MB: I’d like now to turn to our right and discover a rather astonishing piece.
HD: Yes, this impressive model is a large staircase that leads to the King’s State Apartments the throne room and then to the Hall of Mirrors and it was quickly called the Ambassadors’ Staircase because it was reserved for great processions of embassies from all over the world. And you see on the first floor, the paintings represent the “Nations of the Four Parts of the World”, the most prestigious nations of the world, which were painted here by Charles Le Brun. And near this model, we have sketches of the paintings. And you can imagine that, as the ambassadors walked up the stairs, the most prestigious nations of the world were there to welcome them.
MB: Today, we have a pretty fair idea of what can be a reception for heads of States or ambassadors in our modern countries. Do we know exactly what the etiquette was, or the ceremonies for the ambassadors back in those days?
BR: There were two etiquettes. One was for the European ambassadors who were staying in Paris at their own ambassies in Paris. They were received on simpler standards: they would see the King in his bedchamber. Since in Europe they all knew each other there was no need for the King nor the Ambassador to impress one another. Whereas for embassies from non-European countries, which had no permanent embassy in Paris, then obviously the etiquette, the protocol, was much grander. It was to honour and impress the ambassador, and the impression was reported back to the sovereign far away. These embassies were received mainly in the Throne Room and sometimes in the Hall of Mirrors. And that’s why they had to climb this grand staircase, which was mainly there for these grand ceremonies.
MB: And do we know about any famous faux pas in this protocol?
BR: Actually, more than faux pas, we know about adaptations of the protocol according to the demands and habits of the other party. For example, the Persian ambassador in 1715 requested that the standard of Persia could be displayed throughout the ceremony, the processions, when arriving in Versailles. This wasn’t done actually, but Louis XIV agreed because it was to honour the Shah of Persia. So, we see, for each of these visits, there were negotiations between the French and the visiting country to make the visit as grand and as fruitful as possible and to enable each party to honour their own traditions.
MB: Before we meet some of these ambassadors, I’d like to continue and turn left to discover another masterpiece of this exhibition.
We’re looking at the set of prints that are depicting scenes of a very special occasion at the court of Louis XIV. Can you tell us more about it?
HD: Here is a unique and quite exceptional work of art: six plates from Louis XIV’s personal painting book embellished with gold and silver. Here’s the history behind it: Louis XIV gave this grand Carousel in 1662 in honour of the birth of his son, the Grand Dauphin. It was the most dazzling equestrian feast in the Ancien Régime [i.e., the name given to the political and social system in the Kingdom of France between the 16th century and the French Revolution in 1789] that we could ever imagine. Firstly, this work of art is very interesting because in France, prior to that event, the Carousel tradition used to be a total spectacle, it had fireworks, presentations of exotic beasts, processions, etc. Louis XIV decided to draw inspiration from the Arab horse-riding tradition, in which the horse was given a sublime, poetic role. So in this Carousel, Louis XIV decided to only keep the horses. And this plate shows the extraordinary luxury of the harness of the horses. And secondly, what is very important for us is the theme of this Grand Carousel, because it displays the five most prestigious nations of the world. And you see each nation is symbolised by a colour, a precious stone and a star. You see, for example the Roman Empire symbolised by the colour red and the diamond, Persians by the colour pink and ruby, the Turks by the turquoise stone and the colour blue, the Indians with the pearls, and the American quadrille, which is rather strange because the continent wasn’t that known at the time.
MB: Thank you very much. Let’s know discover the third room of this chapter.
MB: As we enter this last room of the first chapter of the exhibition, this rather wonderful gallery of portraits awaits us. Bertrand, can you tell us who they are?
BR: They are huge portraits of ambassadors who came to Versailles, or very important visitors who came to Versailles during the 17th and 18th century. For example, there’s a Chinese man who came in 1684. There’s a Turkish ambassador who came in 1642. And, last but not least, there’s a young prince from Annam, present-day Vietnam, who came in 1787.
MB: Let’s have a look at this painting.
BR: This is the portrait of a very young boy; he was not even eight years old when he came to Versailles. His father – the Emperor of Cochinchina, or Annam – had been toppled by a revolution and he asked for the help of the French army to reclaim his throne. And as testimony of his good will, he sent his young son, his first son, and his mentor – who at the time was a French bishop – to France to ask for the help of the court. It was a very long journey. They eventually reached Versailles, and the Prince Phúc-Cảnh became immediately very popular, because he was very young, and, of course, he looked quite unlike anything the court had ever seen. For instance, he wore this strange turban with a bit knot on his forehead, and immediately he set a fashion for ladies at the court, who started to wear a turban à la Cochinchine.
MB: And these paintings, like the other portraits around us, do we know who commissioned them and for whom?
BR: Most of these paintings were commissioned by the royal administration to keep a record of these very important visitors, and of their outfits, of their splendid appearance. But Phúc-Cảnh’s portrait was actually commissioned by the missionaries to whom the bishop belonged. That’s a slightly different story but anyway, it has kept the memory of this young Vietnamese prince.
MB: Let’s now discover the next chapter of the exhibition that deals with the exoticism in Versailles.
MB: In this new chapter, as our focus changes, so does the colour palette of the exhibition; we now see this rich deep blue, royal blue maybe. What does that colour palette symbolise?
HD: Yes, this very beautiful, deep blue fits perfectly with this section that displays many decorative arts, and it wonderfully highlights the gold and bronze shown here.
MB: Having seen mainly paintings we now turn to a new chapter with decorative arts and many precious objects.
HD: Yes, the topic here is the exchanges of luxury items such as porcelain, perfume, jewellery, diamonds, pearls, even coffee and chocolate.
MB: Before we move to our next artwork, was Versailles considered an exotic palace? And what traces of exoticism could we have found at the time?
BR: Versailles was not really an exotic palace, it had to be a French palace to show French art. The palace itself was a political statement. So in the official rooms, there’s not much exoticism. There are some influences. Some elements, but overall, style of the palace is French. But in the private apartments, in the rooms where the members of the royal family gathered their collections, it was very exotic, and we’ll see some examples of these marvellous exotic objects that the royal family collected.
MB: So now let’s turn to this spectacular candelabra on the right-hand side. Hélène, why is it an exceptional piece?
HD: We’re exhibiting here these fabulous masterpieces, the candelabra and the reclining camel fire-dog, which both come from the Turkish cabinets of royal residences. The first one from the comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s brother, and the second one from the Turkish cabinet of Queen Marie Antoinette. These are masterpieces of decorative art, showing the extreme richness of these cabinets, fully adorned by Turkish patterns on the walls and furnished with items of the same inspiration. And the realistic rendering of the animals in bronze is due to the perfect carving of the best bronzesmiths of the crown. The general craze for Turqueries in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in high society, sparked the creation of these precious Turkish cabinets in royal residences. They illustrate an oriental fantasy. These animals gave a sense of exoticism, of a distant elsewhere that fascinated that high society but also reminded them that these animals were also actually in Versailles, in the Ménagerie, in the gardens.
MB: And moving on from Turkish influences, we now turn to Chinese influences, with this exceptional installation that we can see from across the room. Bertrand, let’s go there.
MB: Can you describe this wonderful room for us?
BR: I believe this is one of the most stunning parts of the exhibition because not only do we have paintings on the walls, but they are inserted into the boiserie, the décor itself as it was in Versailles. This room doesn’t exist in Versailles anymore, not since the 18th century. But we have kept the drawings made by the architect for the model of the wood paneling and we have blown up these designs to actual size so as to insert Maria Leszczyńska’s actual paintings for her Chinese cabinet. Maria Leszczyńska, Louis XV’s wife, was a painter herself and she wanted to decorate this cabinet with her own paintings. She was helped by a team of professional painters, but the hand of the Queen is there. And it’s very important because it is not only a fantasy about China, Chinese art, Chinese architecture, garments. But these four paintings also tell us the story of tea. In one painting you see bales of tea leaves brought from the fields once they’ve been collected. In another painting, you see the ladies rolling up the tea leaves in their hands. In a third painting, you see an official from the tea plantation meeting with an official from the administration. And in the last painting, you see men closing crates for the export this precious tea, to Europe. So it’s really the whole story of tea production that is being depicted by the queen herself for her private drawing room in Versailles.
MB: We tend to forget that some of our most common products nowadays come from very far away and were actually very precious at the time.
Now, let’s discover the third and last chapter of the exhibition.
HD: Under the reign of Louis XIV the power became aware of the strategic issue of launching a real science policy. Louis XIV launched a science policy and in 1666 created the great Royal Science Academy and gathered all the most prestigious scientists in Europe. And this new academy launched research on botany, zoology, geography, astronomy that has changed the world. It is very important for visitors to understand that Louis XIV wanted to be the most modern sovereign of his time and add to his military and artistic glory. And at that time, modern means knowledge of the world, awareness and openness to the world.
MB: The chapter is called “Between Earth and Sky. Discovering the World.” What type of discoveries are we talking about?
HD: We’re talking about discoveries in botany, astronomy and zoology. It was a great period of research where science and power were interconnected.
MB: We enter this new chapter and discover changes in the exhibition design and colour palette, it’s now pale green. And right in front of us, there’s this large painting of a pineapple. But not any pineapple, it is the first pineapple.
HD: Yes, the first pineapple of the “Potager du Roi” [the King’s Vegetable Garden] in Versailles. It’s important for visitors to discover another image of Versailles and to understand that at that time Versailles was becoming a little a microcosm of the world: the estate was a place to gather and study all the plants, all the animals that came from all over the world. And the pineapple had center stage at that time because having a pineapple in the royal garden was a huge innovation. Indeed, it was a feat to grow this fruit which is so sensitive to cold and humidity. And it is thanks to the construction of modern greenhouses that after many unsuccessful attempts, the first two pineapples of Versailles grew in 1733. Louis XV tasted his first pineapple for Christmas. And he said that it was excellent. It sparked a pineapple craze because you see it’s a very strange, exuberant fruit. We know that it was also called the “king of fruits” because of its perfect oval shape – like a head – its golden colour, and because of what resembles a crown of leaves above its head. It had a great influence on decorative arts. And this painting is like a portrait of a pineapple; it was Jean-Baptiste Oudry, the famous painter of the king who drew this portrait. Mary Antoinette liked this painting so much that she hung it up in her golden cabinet. Her most precious cabinet of her private chambers.
MB: And this painting is actually hung in this room on the outer wall of the pavilion, at the center of the gallery. Now let’s have a closer look at this pavilion.
HD: One of the most successful sections in terms of scenography is this evocation of the central living room of the famous menagerie that has disappeared today.
MB: A menagerie is a zoo, right?
HD: Yes, it was considered the first zoo in the world. Why? Because while it was quite common to have exotic animals in royal residences, in Portugal, Vienna, for example, it was the first time that these animals were considered not only curiosities but living beings. They were studied and each species put into one of seven categories that made up the newly created classification system. And when these animals died, they were dissected by anatomists and made significant contributions to the progress of comparative anatomy.
MB: And I believe that some animals from the Ménagerie became very famous, didn’t they?
HD: Yes, for instance, the rhinoceros was very famous, and so was the female elephant of Congo, offered by the King of Portugal. As I said, this animal was dissected: it was like a spectacle in the great amphitheatre in the garden of Versailles, and according to the archives, when Louis XIV arrived at the amphitheatre, he asked for the anatomist and the anatomist Duverney came out of the flank of the elephant. All the court was completely astonished by this event. This was the most famous dissection, but many animals were made very famous throughout Europe.
MB: When we exit the Ménagerie pavilion, we will turn left and come to impressive scientific instruments.
MB: If we follow the wall on our right, there are these two very tall scientific instruments. The top part is made of an octagonal metallic sheet with a lot of engravings. What are they used for?
HD: Yes, these are two masterpieces on display here. This is a very, very rich scientific instrument created by the new Royal Science Academy created by Louis XIV in 1666. One shows the movement of the planets according to the Copernicus system and the other the mechanisms of solar and lunar eclipses, and without the help of tables of calculations. So it was a revolution for astronomers to have such instruments.
MB: And on each side of this showcase we find two other showcases with manuscripts and drawings.
BR: Yes, this is an important section of Versailles going out to the world. Because we know that the second half of the 17th century, and especially in China, European astronomers and especially French astronomers were required to lead astronomy in Eastern countries. So they were at the head of the observatory in Beijing, and there were Jesuits priests, who were very learned in astronomy and mathematics…
MB: Who are the Jesuits?
BR: The Jesuits is a religious order of priests in the catholic church who were very open to the world and very interested in not only bringing catholic faith but also understanding other cultures, other peoples and trying to adapt their faith and European sciences to other communities and nations. And that’s why they were so successful in China. And interestingly, on their way to China, they had to stop, they were on the ship of the French Ambassador to Siam, present-day Thailand. They had to stay several months in Siam, where they made observations with the king of Siam, Phra Narai. And then they became very popular in Siam as well, and Phra Narai built an observatory for them in Lopburi, the summer capital of the kingdom. And here’s a beautiful drawing showing this observatory for the Jesuit astronomers.
MB: Let’s now turn to one of our last artworks for this tour, as we turn our back to the showcase dedicated to scientific instruments and observatories. We’re facing this large painting of three men indoors.
HD: The library of the king.
MB: And they’re looking closely at a very large map.
HD: This is a painting of La Pérouse’s expedition, the most famous and important scientific expedition of the 18th century, which has remained mythical and rather mysterious. And you see, as you said, we are in the library of the private chambers of Louis XVI in Versailles, and the King is there with his Secretary of State for the Navy, the marquis de Castries, and the King is welcoming the comte de La Pérouse, as he is ready to leave for his expedition around the world. The King is giving him his instructions on the road to follow and the places to map out, and de Castries there, the minister, holds in his hands the memorandum all the instructions for La Pérouse.
MB: We shouldn’t forget that, at that time, borders weren’t clear, we were still discovering, exploring the world, from the French perspective, for example. Just next to this painting there’s another showcase showing a rather striking map, displaying the Arabian Peninsula.
BR: Yes, and this map is very interesting because it’s the most precise map of the mid-18th century; it was printed in 1752 – thanks to these expeditions and the studies made by French astronomers in the Far East. They could give much more precise details of the coastline and calculate the distances between different points on Earth more precisely. It was also thanks to new instruments, such as Berthoud’s astronomical clock, which we can see in the next showcase. It’s a very precise document, and we see the Arabian Peninsula very clearly, and although some areas are still missing such as the Empty quarter, the coast with the names of the cities are there. If we look at the section of the map that shows India, there were still areas that had yet to be explored by Europeans and see the geographer wisely wrote on the map “pays inconnu” [unknown country].
MB: Having explored the Earth, I’d like to conclude with exploring the skies, with two very interesting prints, right by the exit of the exhibition.
MB: The one on the left?
HD: Yes, the one on the left. And this engraving indicates the exact plan, the itinerary, the price of tickets of these revolutionary aerostat vessels. It’s the first utopia of the first tourist in the air.
BR (at the same time): In the air.
MB: So that was a dream that had yet to come true. And would you like to say one last word to conclude this tour?
BR: We have conceived this exhibition as a visit to Versailles and to show the openness of Versailles, and all these discoveries. And I think that it isn’t specific to Versailles, obviously, there was curiosity in other courts, in other countries, on other continents. But I think, in a way, Versailles gathered all these interests in one place at one point in time in world history. That’s why we think it’s worth visiting this exhibition and discovering it.
HD: We hope that all these impressive masterpieces from Versailles and other institutions will leave a strong impression on visitors, that it will surprise them, and will give a different image of Versailles, a richer, more balanced image. And therefore, I think it highlights many themes and issues that are still relevant in the world today. Because we speak about humanistic changes, diplomatic relationships, curiosity, collaboration. I think most themes are relevant today.
MB: Thank you very much to you both for having us today. It was a pleasure to visit the exhibition with you.
BR / HD: Thank you very much.
MB: You can visit the exhibition Versailles & the World in the Louvre Abu Dhabi from 26th January until 4th June 2022.
This podcast episode was produced by Louvre Abu Dhabi. Our warm thanks go to Hélène Delalex and Bertrand Rondot for their participation and the team of France Museums for their support.
Preparation by Amine Kharchach and myself, Marine Botton.
Recording by Richard Haggan.
Post-production, music and mix by Making Waves.
This podcast episode is also available in Arabic and French on the Louvre Abu Dhabi mobile app and our website: http://louvreabudhabi.ae
Thank you for listening and stay tuned for our next episodes.