When I first arrived in Paris I kept thinking that there was something about it that set it off from just about any other city I had ever been in. Big public spaces, large parks, wildly outsized heroic statues of national heroes like Napolean or Greek gods, or just generic, scantily clad men and women from antiquity. They’re posing as emperors (Napolean), or riding in chariots pulled by even more immense muscular horses. Standing in the chariot, hands held high in triumph (“Look Zeus, no hands!”), they all proclaim France’s greatness. They celebrate France’s greatest people, whether scientists, kings, queens, military leaders, you name it. Even the Eiffel Tower itself, with all its grace on a gigantic scale, can be seen in this light. It’s all, all, outsized and larger than life.
Buildings also have this grandeur to them. At least those built (I’m guessing) into the 19th century. Any buildings after then (and there are some of these) are knockoffs of that earlier style. The Arc de Triomphe has immense sculpture friezes on four sides depicting one or another moment in France’s glory. It’s all a grand visual rhetoric that I’ve seen in few other places carried off with such consistency and style. It’s overstatement that has been made to really work. I really do feel thrilled to be in these spaces or near these statues.
The only city in the US that I think really resembles Paris is Washington DC, and that’s probably by design since the man hired to design that city, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, was himself a Parisian who was actually born not far from where we’re staying. Washington has those wide open spaces. Think of Dupont Circle, or the biggest of them all the National Mall. And plenty of statues of generals, statesmen, presidents and other leaders, and monuments to military campaigns. It’s an idea that has its roots in French culture. (What? Not just freedom fries??)
When you’re in all this larger-than-life stuff you think to yourself “What could possibly be grander than any of this?” And then you get on the train and go to Versailles.
I won’t go into the history of Versailles. Click here to learn more about that. It’s actually very interesting. Just know that it was a grand hunting lodge that was greatly expanded by King Louis XIV and kings after him. Its elegance and opulence has to be seen to be believed. And the immense palace (Palaces, really, since there are at least two other great homes on the property) is even outdone by the acres and acres and acres of landscaped gardens and sculptures and fountained pools for as far as the eye can see. It’s over two miles from the back edge of the palace to the far west end of the grand canal — with all its gardens, fountains, sculptures, manicured trees, etc.) Visitors interested in walking this are advised that it takes an hour to complete. And there’s no information on what it would take to walk the entire circumference of the estate. Suffice it to say, it’s all very vast, vast being something of an understatement.
As our friend Chris Parsons said in a comment on my Facebook page that one minute inside of all of this would tell you volumes about why there was a French Revolution against all of this. It’s excess on top of excess on top of excess. Gold gilt on everything around. No space left unsculpted or unattended to by one artisan or another.
And remember. If it wasn’t for Versailles, we wouldn’t have all the faux tacky tastelessness of Trinity Broadcasting Networks’ fake Versailles look on their set. Or the mega-timeshares billionaire’s ugly Florida home. (If you haven’t seen the documentary film “The King of Versailles”, it’s a must for understanding this phenomenon.) And to be sure, you only have to go through any number of furniture stores to see these looks and styles being aped for a consumer public that would have dearly wanted a part of this action. Even looking at the chandeliers in Versailles, the cut glass pieces on those are mimicked by similar brass and glass knockoffs at any Wal-mart or American Furniture.
But here it’s the real thing. This is where it all started. And for all the grandeur of the building and its contents, I found the grounds to be of much greater impact. The vastness, the attention to detail, even the way the plants are planned and arranged, leaves you breathless thinking about its own unique architecture.
Versailles also contains a great chapel and even an opera theater. Through some massive stupidity on my part, I totally forgot the latter and we did not see it. But the chapel, again, was one of the most beautiful spaces in the palace.
Really great films leave me with lots of questions and thoughts afterward. For days afterward the greatness of the film sinks in on me and realizations and discoveries and understandings come to me only much later. Versailles was like that for me.
It’s a greatness that leaves me at some loss for words, needing some kind of time for reflection. So I may add to this section as any new insights come to me.