Versailles today is rather a sad place. The titanic mass of the chbteau is obscured by the crowds of buses which spew fumes and tourists on to the Cour Royale. The famous gardens retain their magnificent views, but without the attentions of their thousand gardeners they can seem as soulless as a scrubby, shrubby municipal park. Inside, the long coil of visitors shuffles over cheap, squeaky parquet, through huge doorways whose marble mantels have been replaced by painted wood. The crush, the crowd and the heat of the massed bodies in the vast rooms are perhaps all that remain true to the life of the house.
On the evening of 14 May 1664, the first of all the huge gatherings Versailles was to witness assembled for Les Plaisirs de l'Ile Enchantie. That night, Louise de La Vallihre was the most envied woman in Europe. For four months, a small army of artisans had labored in the park of the simple hunting lodge that was to become the great palace of Versailles to create "the Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle"-seven days of ballets, banquets and balls which astonished the world with their magnificence. Six hundred gorgeously dressed courtiers crowded together in the cool, early-summer evening to watch the finale of the fjte, and the scents of ambergris, rosewater and jasmine melded with the acrid fumes of gunpowder as fireworks swooped great arabesques of intertwining "Ls" across the sky for Louise and her lover, King Louis XIV of France. Aged twenty, this blond-haired, blue-eyed country girl was the beloved mistress of Louis the God-Given, the most powerful monarch in the world.
Louis opened the fjte with a procession on the theme of the Italian poet Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso," riding a bejeweled charger and carrying a silver and diamond sword. Louise was lucky in that her lover, as is not commonly the way with kings, was genuinely goodlooking, "the most handsome and well-built man in his kingdom." True, at only five feet four, he had not attained quite the regal stature of his cousin Charles of England, but he had inherited the same exotic dark eyes and thick coffee-colored hair - which he wore long and curling before the periwig unfortunately came into fashion - from their Italian grandmother, Marie de' Medici, and he had a good physique and well-shaped legs, a prerequisite for handsomeness before the mercies of the trouser. The great Bernini was to make a bust of Louis that has been called the finest work of portraiture of the century, his eloquent marble capturing the sensuous modeling of the young man's face, simultaneously imperious and slightly louche. Louis appears in his true character, a passionate, proud man, and though his was a dignified beauty, it seems easy, looking at the bust, to imagine him laughing.
And the Queen? Louis, so famously courteous to women that he even touched his hat to the chambermaids, would not have dreamed of openly dedicating his gala to his mistress. The enchanted isle was officially for the pleasure of his mother, Anne of Austria, whose Spanish niece, Marie-Thirhse, was his wife and Queen of four years.
Poor Marie-Thirhse. Her most interesting feature is that she was painted by Velazquez. On the diplomatic mission to Spain that preceded the royal marriage, the Marichal de Gramont commented tactfully on the Infanta Maria Theresa's looks by likening her to Anne, but the spiteful eyes of the courtiers observed that Louis turned visibly pale when he saw his bride for the first time. The Hapsburg genes were exhausted by consanguinity, and Marie-Thirhse was so short as to resemble one of her beloved dwarfs (thoughtfully, Louis included a few in the tableaux vivants). She had a lumpy, limping figure and short, stubby legs, black teeth and bulbous eyes, hardly compensated for by her flaxen hair and fine, fair skin. A childish, stupid woman, she would never learn French properly, and was bewildered by the sophisticated banter of the courtiers, which her husband increasingly appreciated. The playwright Molihre had produced his risqui anticlerical comedy Tartuffe for the fjte, and if the pious Queen was not scandalized, like her mother-in-law, it's because she could not understand the jokes.
Was Louise delighted with the enchantments her lover had procured for her? The orchestra played new compositions by Lully, great basins of fruit and ices were served by waiters dressed as fairy gardeners while the Four Seasons and the Signs of the Zodiac danced a ballet. Nymphs and sea monsters and whales emerged from the lake to recite poems; lions, tigers and elephants were led among the delicate pavilions, draped in rippling colored silks, which had been erected amid the trees. Louise loved the King for himself. She was shy, perhaps even ashamed. Or perhaps she realized that it was France Louis aimed to seduce with plays and masquerades and fireworks, since he was a king who would govern through pleasure, whose tyrannies were calculated as elegantly as the measures of a dance.
It is high time that history was hard on Louise de La Vallihre. Of all the Bourbon mistresses (and if the kings of France had shown the same taste in wives as they did in mistresses, the country might well be a different place today), posterity has granted virtue only to Louise, the Sun King's first love. Her reign as mantresse en titre coincided with the blossoming of the Great Century, which developed that spectacular combination of genius in the arts which was to make France, and things French, the arbiter of taste in Europe for centuries to come. Louise's "innocence" and "simplicity" have proved an irresistibly sentimental metaphor for that renaissance, in contrast with the dismal conclusion of Louis's reign. In fact, some contemporaries considered her a sorry creature, as this unkind poem demonstrates:
Soyez boiteuse, ayez quinze ans Pas de gorge, fort peu de sens Des parents, Dieu le sait. Faits en fille neuve Dans l'antichambre vos enfants Et sur ma foi, vous aurez le premier d'amants Et La Vallihre en est la preuve.
This skillful riddle is attributed to one of Louise's fellow ladies-in-waiting, a beautiful, spirited girl named Athinaos de Montespan. Louise had been Louis's mistress since 1661, the year the young king had come into his own. He had inherited the throne of France aged four, and had suffered a confusing, peripatetic childhood during the series of civil wars known as the Fronde. This conflict, which continued sporadically from 1648 to 1652, set the crown powers against both Parlement and the great nobles of France, notably the Prince de Condi and the Prince de Conti, distant relations of Louis through his grandfather, Henri IV. Although his widowed mother, Anne of Austria, aided by her minister, Cardinal Mazarin, had eventually restored security to the crown, Louis was determined that his kingdom should never again be threatened. When his beloved mentor Mazarin died in March 1661, Louis summoned his councillors and told them he intended to act as his own prime minister. No treaty could be signed, no money spent, no mission dispatched without his personal approval. In this way, as part of the strategy later consolidated by his organization of the court at Versailles, Louis hoped to keep the potentially rebellious aristocracy under control.
France, with a population of 18 million, was the largest nation in Europe, and Paris the continent's greatest city. Released from the influence of the wise but penny-pinching cardinal, Louis was free to address the enormous problems facing the country. The state was practically bankrupt, the army in confusion, agriculture destroyed by years of war. The future looked uncertain, but Louis was passionately determined that France should fulfill her potential as a powerful nation. Despite a cloudy horizon, France was at the dawn of a new age.
And France was Louis, as in Shakespeare's plays, in which France can mean either king or country, or both. This symbiotic relationship was reinforced in the coronation ceremony, in which the Bishop of Soissons placed a consecrated diamond ring on the third finger of Louis's left hand, marrying him to the nation (given the state of the royal finances, Anne had to loan one of her own rings for the occasion). To understand the man, then, is to understand his role.
To be a king of France meant more than exercising a power bestowed by birth, it meant enacting a system of beliefs which governed the monarch's entire understanding of the world. To be royal, much more so than nowadays, was to be divided by a vast psychological chasm from ordinary people. When the courtiers teased the newly arrived Marie-Thirhse about her earlier suitors, she replied sincerely, "There was no king in Spain but the King my father." It was inconceivable to her that she could even look at a man who was not one of God's anointed. This is the primary, crucial aspect of Louis's understanding of his kingship: that it was ordained by God. He was the divine representative on earth. In the words of one of his subjects, "Sire, the place where Your Majesty is seated represents for us the throne of the living God." It was largely agreed (though the limits of monarchical power were certainly disputed-witness seventeenthcentury England) that the only stay on the king's divine right was adherence to Christian principle. Accordingly, Louis was also the spiritual governor of his people, and in France, unlike other Catholic countries, the power of the Pope was effectively subordinate to Louis's own, since as king he could vet any papal edict before it was ratified by the Parlement. In short, the king was answerable only to God.
Since the French kings claimed their descent from the Roman emperors, Louis was also considered a demigod by many of his people, a belief which supported the idea that he embodied France. The country, still a collection of provinces with indeterminate borders, had not yet fully emerged as a geographical unit, and Louis's incessant warring on these borders was motivated partly by the need to establish precise national territories.
So the king was not as other men, and this difference was based on something more profound than wealth or political power. Louis well understood how to emphasize his "kingliness" by cultivating an aweinspiring persona. Petitioners were advised to try to catch a glimpse of the King before approaching him, lest his appearance should strike them dumb, and at his magnificent public exhibitions he would adopt the role of Apollo or Jupiter, the classical gods whose imagery was still a part of the vocabulary of the educated of the time. Versailles itself is as much a testament to Louis's power as a cathedral, a feat of architecture which appears to have been created by a superhuman ego. A French peasant from the medieval squalor of the countryside might easily have believed that this was where God held court. It is characteristic of Catholic culture at the time that faith, in gods or kings, should manifest itself externally, in baroque display, and Louis manipulated this so successfully that the monarchy was not laicized until the mid eighteenth century.
In the early part of his reign, the contrast between Louis the man and Louis the King was distinct. Although graceful, athletic and good-mannered, he was a diffident, if not rather shy young man, uneasy in the company of women, awkward at social chitchat. He was self-conscious about the shortcomings of an education which had been interrupted by the wars of the Fronde, and later tried to compensate by giving his son, the Dauphin, a rigorous classical schooling, although thanks to the assiduous thrashings of his tutors, the poor young man ended up far more foolish than his father. Louis was passionately fond of music, and danced beautifully in the court ballets. He adored hunting, riding out nearly every day when he was not on campaign until the end of his life. But he was shy of intellectuals and had little confidence in his own attractiveness. It was his second mistress who taught him to feel as a king.
In public, at least, Louis was determined to show that he had the resolution to carry out his policy of autocratic government and to keep the aristocracy firmly in their place. He enacted this resolve symbolically in the Carrousel du Louvre, three days of equestrian sports performed in the gardens between the Tuileries palace and the Louvre in 1662. Over 600 riders took part, divided into five companies, and Louis, demonstrating the talent for spectacle which was to become the signature of his reign, headed the first company himself, dressed as a Roman emperor in a gold and diamond tunic with a plumed silver helmet. Louis's brother, the Duc d'Orlians, led the second, the "Persians," in satin and white plumes; a former Frondeur, the Prince de Condi, the "Turks," in silver, blue and black; his son the "Indians," in yellow, and the Duc de Guise, wearing a green velvet suit, blazed the trail of the "American Savages," riding a horse draped in tigerskin. In a strategy he was to perfect at the divertissements of Versailles, Louis dazzled the audience with a dragon, pages dressed as monkeys, satyrs on unicorns and with his motto, Ut vidi vici ("I saw, I conquered"). As he was to do throughout his life, he manipulated the vanity of the aristocracy to create a self-regulating order of subjection. Symbolically, the Carrousel enacted the submission of the arrogant feudal privilege which was the source of the Fronde to a new monarchical power that would reside exclusively in the person of the king. It was also, of course, a chance to display himself to advantage to his subjects, and no one in Paris stayed at home. The ladies of the royal household watched from a stand, the colors of the five companies pinned to their fluttering dresses.Would the King notice a shy smile behind a fan, a flirtatiously lowered gaze?
For the present, it was Louise de La Vallihre who had the King's attention. In
the summer of 1661, the court was at Fontainebleau, the exquisitely decorated
palace where Frangois I had launched the renaissance of French art. Amid the
elegant Mannerist eroticism of Fiorentino and Primatice, the young court
gleefully swept away the cobwebs of the troubled past. The former Queen Regent,
Louis's severe, dominant mother, found herself increasingly marginalized, while
the dour pieties of dull, dumpy Marie-Thirhse were confined to her circle of
Excerpted from Athenais by Lisa Hilton Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Hilton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.