Versailles was built by Louis XIV to be the greatest palace ever constructed. He believed as the Sun King that he was the single greatest person to grace the Earth and endowed himself with divine powers. He believed fully in the divine right of kings to rule. Therefore, his palace should be a suitable retreat for a Divine King. He may have succeeded.
We caught an early train to the suburbs of Paris where Louis built the palace away from the squalor of the city. The location forced the nobles to come to him. He could wine and dine the elite, far from their manipulative networks and property, effectively turning the dukes and generals into fawning domestics. We grabbed breakfast near the train station, and then followed the crowds across a massive parking lot to the golden gates of Versailles.
The tour moves through a series of increasingly opulent rooms including the King's prayer chapel where the congregation faced the monarch rather than the alter. You watched the King worship God. If that doesn’t stir revolution, I don’t know what would (though it took two more Louis to finally get the revolution moving). Every ceiling was festooned with gold leaf and images of Greek gods being hauled around by animals ill equipped to drag a chariot. There were also plenty of Apollo and sun motifs driving your progress to the Hall of Mirrors, arguably the most famous hall in Western Civilization.
Of course hoards of tourists clogged the flow of traffic from one room to the next, but that's completely understandable. It takes a couple of minutes to let the sensory overload work its way through your eyes to your brain where it may or may not actually be processed. This slows things down a bit. But back to the Mirrors...
Many antiquated sites can be a little disappointing because it’s hard to contextualize them. The Egyptian Pyramids are only impressive when you know they were erected four-thousand years ago before the wheel was perfected and writing was in its infancy. A few trucks and an industrious quarry could set one up pretty quickly these days. Notre Dame is only impressive when you realize they had to work daily for 300 years to install every sliver of glass and leering gargoyle. Mirrors are easy to manufacture and plenty of businesses line halls with reflective glass. But, this hall still affects the viewer (or at least it effected me) with its explosion of color and light. The chandeliers line frescos that were once reflected in the carpet. The mirrors face massive windows that overlook a National Park of a garden which disappears into the distance…it wasn’t disappointing.
We walked into the garden to explore the fountains and admire the thousands of statues that line the well-manicured lawns and gravel paths. If walls could talk, or if bushes could whisper you would never be able to leave the palace because the stories would never end. As it is, the packs of tourists never end, but we were fortunate to find a quite bench to enjoy lunch and people watch while Apollo perpetually rose from his fountain to drag the sun across the sky at Louis command.
We caught the train back to Paris and rode directly to the most famous art museum in the world (it was a day of superlatives): The Louvre. After a couple of confused minutes trying to figure out which wing we needed to head towards, we finally launched into the exhibits, starting with Greek statuary. Venus de Milo and her rock-hard abs received our adoring attention as Rick Steves chatted in our iPods, letting us know what we were looking at and why we should care.
Winged Victory then Medieval masterpieces built up to the Renaissance where we turned into the Grand Gallery, an orgy of classical scenes and saints lining an impossibly long hallway covered in marble and oil. Madonna of the Rocks by Da Vinci. Baby Jesus and John by Raphael…then we turned into a cavernous hall and saw a hundred people jostling for a view of a small, dark portrait. The Mona Lisa.
There was something missing from the experience. I know why they need to keep people back and why she needs bullet proof glass over her visage, but the experience of seeing the actual painting was diminished. In fact, a high resolution image in a book or online would offer more time to linger over that smile and the balanced composition. We took pictures, did our best to be wowed, then retreated to the other masterpieces that crammed the room, like the Wedding Feast at Cana, whose scale and detail could never be appreciated in a book or JPEG.
Stirring Romanticism and stoic Neo-Classicism came next with David’s heroes of Rome contending with Delacroix roiling visions of Liberty and Survivors. We scrutinized Michelangelo’s life-like human figures and Canova’s supple marble. Suddenly we stepped into a time warp and rocketed back to the kings of Babylon and saw the first codified laws (Hammurabi’s Code), then forward to French statuary and Napoleon III’s living quarters (the Louvre was a palace remember).
David's 1784 "Oath of the Horatii" and symbol of the French Revolution (state before family or church themes were kinda popular at the time).
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819) La Grande Odalisque. Venus de Milo on a couch with five extra vertebrae (someone did the calculations).
Finally we were able to tumble back onto the pavement as the Eiffel Tower was illuminated, providing a landmark for the evening in the City of Light. After so much visual stimuli, we needed to satisfy our other senses, so we found Le Florimond which was exactly what I think of when I picture a Parisian restaurant. Our waiter had a great repartee with our table and managed to make the whole dining area feel like the kitchen at home. The food was the kind of gastronomic experience the French are famous for, so not what I necessarily have in my home kitchen (no offense, Mom). The portions were heaping. Stuffed with stuffed cabbage, savory crepes and chocolate dumpling, it was time to go back to the hotel to digest a bit and prepare to leave Paris for the Normans…
More pictures of the palace, art, and Paris generally being the capital of culture.