Boxes are an invention that probably predates recorded history, but were certainly present after the Neolithic revolution with a more sedentary lifestyle. By the Middle Ages every home had at least one chest given as part of the bride’s dowry. The chests in the Middle Ages were usually pretty simple affairs but that all changed in the Renaissance. The emergence of a wealthy merchant class meant that the the chest had to be more ornate, more expensive and bigger. The cassone (“large chest”) was one of the trophy furnishings of rich merchants and aristocrats in Italian culture, from the Late Middle Ages onward. The cassone was the most important piece of furniture of that time. It was given to a bride and placed in the bridal suite. It would be given to the bride during the wedding, and it was the bride’s parents’ contribution to the wedding. The casson pictured above would have been an extravagant wedding gift. I have collected photos of a number of beautiful chests and cabinets from around the world, from different time periods and I will show them here along with some very interesting history.
We decided to take a day trip to the Château de Vincennes on the far east side of Paris. Dating back to the 12th century, a little before the Louvre, Vincennes is one of the few castles which, from the Middle Ages to our time, has consistently found itself at the center of French History. In 1178, Louis VII (1137-1180) signed a deed at Vincennes which proves that there was a royal residence there. Thus, the first major construction period probably dates back to the middle of the 12th century, that of the original manor, followed by consistent repairs and additions up to the middle of the 14th century. A few kilometers east of Paris, in a wooded estate belonging to the monarchs, Vincennes was a sort of secondary residence or hunting lodge which Saint Louis, Louis IX (1226-1270), turned into his main place of stay after the Palais de la Cité (La Conciergerie). This is how it remained through the 13th and 14th centuries. Between 1361 and 1380, the construction of the donjon (central keep and tower) and of the enceinte (enclosed outer area) of the Château of Vincennes was without a doubt one of the biggest building endeavors in Europe. Before he was King of France, from 1364 to 1380 (during the Hundred Years War), the young Charles V, born at Vincennes, was Regent during the captivity of his father, Jean II the Good, in England (1356-1360) and met with the Parisian revolt of Etienne Marcel and the Jacquerie. He had to accept the disastrous Franco-English Treaty of Brétigny (1360). With the help of Du Guesclin, he took part in the reconquest of almost all the territories relinquished to the English, managed to defeat Charles the Bad, in 1364, and pushed back the Free Companies into Spain.
The interior of Chenonceau is full of history and a remarkable collection of art. The entrance hall, shown above, is covered with a series of rib vaults whose keystones, detached from each other, form a broken line. The baskets are decorated with foliage, roses, cherubs, chimeras, and cornucopia. Made in 1515, it is one of the most beautiful examples of decorative sculpting from the French Renaissance period. The entire interior is full of inventive architecture, art treasures and above all the history of France.
One of the first things you notice when you approach Les Invalides is the row of cannons facing outward across a small moat. These are not little cannons, they are for the most part giant beasts requiring iron trolleys just to stay in place. These pieces are part of the Musée de l'Artillerie (Museum of Artillery, founded in 1785 in the aftermath of the French Revolution and expanded under Napoleon). It was moved into the Hôtel des Invalides in 1871, immediately following the Franco-Prussian War and the proclamation of the Third Republic. The collection was augmented by collections from the National Library, the Louvre, the Artillery of Vincennes, the Hôtel des Monnaies and many private collections. Another institution called the Musée Historique de l'Armée (Historical Museum of the Army) was created in 1896 following the World Fair. The two were merged in 1905 into the Musée de l'Armee.
We returned to Versailles to see the afternoon fountain display. they have scheduled it between 3:30 and 5 PM this summer. That is not a lot of time to see much of the gardens, but I thought I would present the pictures I got. The Ballroom (Bosquet Salle de Bal or Bosquet des Rocailles) was created by Le Nôtre between 1680 and 1683. The grove was the last made before the installation of Louis XIV at Versailles. The Salle de Bal was inaugurated in 1685 with a ball hosted by the Grand Dauphin. The Ballroom is also called Seed Grove because the stones and shells came from the Madagascar coast over which water flows in the cascade. The musicians stood above the waterfall, across a tiered amphitheater with grass covered steps allowing spectators to sit.
In 1668, Louis XIV purchased Trianon, a hamlet on the outskirts of Versailles, and commissioned the architect Louis Le Vau to design a porcelain pavilion (Trianon de porcelaine) to be built there, to escape the pomp and rigid formality of court life with his mistress Madame de Montespan. In only a few years the fragile porcelain tiles deteriorated and Louis XIV had it torn down to be replaced with a more robust building.
In 1687 Jules Hardouin Mansart built the Grand Trianon, considered the most refined group of buildings anywhere in the domain of Versailles, on the site of the “Porcelain Trianon”. It is located at the end of the right end of the cross of the Grand Canal seen in the map to the right by the red box. In 1717, Peter the Great of Russia, who was studying the palace and gardens of Versailles, resided at the Grand Trianon; the Grand Palace at Peterhof is copied on Versailles.
We happened to visit during a special exhibition, Les Dames de Trianon (Ladies of the Trianon) which features all the kings’ women, the wives, the daughters, the sisters, the mothers, the ladies-in-waiting, the mistresses. Versailles is trying to revive interest in the often-overlooked Grand Trianon by hosting exhibitions here, like last year’s successful “A Taste of the 18th Century,” which brought together modern designers’ creations inspired by the 18th-century. I will be presenting images of the paintings from the exhibition in addition to images of the Grand Trianon.
The Hall of Battles is longer than the Hall of Mirrors, 394 feet, and is lined with huge paintings of French victories through the ages, including oils by Delacroix and Fragonard. Its creation was the idea of Louis-Philippe I, King of the French and it replaced apartments which had been occupied in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are literally hundreds of busts and 39 paintings, I will not present them all.
I saw this at Versailles. This beautiful terrestrial globe from 1705 is also a map of the night sky if you look closely at the inner surface of the upper half of the globe. It is the creation of Guillaume de L'Isle, mathematician Jean Pignon, engraver Rene Delure and sculptor Bercy. It was originally made for the duc de Chatres. The title of duc de Chartres was given by Louis XIV of France to his nephew, Philippe II d'Orléans, at his birth in 1674. Philippe II was the younger son and heir of the king's brother, Philippe de France, Duke of Orléans.
A program of how best to educate a prince was drawn up exclusively for him by Guillaume Dubois, his preceptor. Each course of study taught the duc de Chartres the “principles” or “elements” of a subject. Some of the best historians, genealogists, scientists and artists in the kingdom participated in this educational experiment, which started around 1689. The globe is from his study of geography and astronomy by Guillaume de L'Isle. Pretty cool to have the best cartographer in France build you a fabulous globe to teach you the basics.
This is the interior of the Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailes. Begun in 1689, construction was halted due to the War of the League of Augsburg; Jules Hardouin-Mansart resumed construction in 1699. Hardouin-Mansart continued working on the project until his death in 1708, at which time his brother-in-law, Robert de Cotte, finished the project. The marble floor is beautiful and to my eye the chapel has a very modern feel, not as much ostentatious gilt as the rest of Versailles. Dedicated to Saint Louis, patron saint of the Bourbons, the chapel was consecrated in 1710. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were married here. The chapel was de-consecrated in the 19th century and has since served as a venue for state and private events. Musical concerts are often held in the chapel of Versailles as seen to the right.
In 2008 the Palace of Versailles instituted a somewhat controversial contemporary art program. The first woman to exhibit is Joana Vasconcelos, born in Paris and working in Lisbon. The Bride is one of her most famous works, although this not exhibited at Versailles. Taking the form of an 18th-century candelabra, it is made entirely of white tampons. Vasconcelos is inclined to see Marie Antoinette as a women's lib heroine. “She is no longer the wife of the king, but a political woman, executed for that reason. Her execution was one of the first steps towards female emancipation. Without her, I wouldn't be here,” she says. Seen above in the 1830 Room is the Lilicoptère, a Bell-47 helicopter, which she has decorated with glass studs and ostrich feathers. But why ostriches? “Because Marie Antoinette loved them and bred them in the gardens of the chateau to decorate her hats,” she says. To me, those are the little details that help bring the Palace of Versailles alive.