Versailles in 1668, festivities and entertainments
The palace of Louis XIII and its small park covering 312 hectares in 1643 was one of the favourite hunting areas of Louis XIV. The young king then sought a new place of residence, and after picking Versailles his enthusiasm for the site kept growing.
The palace was then used to put on sumptuous festivities and entertainments for the court. Louis XIV then instructed his architect Louis Le Vau to design a programme of new embellishments.
The completed Palace was built on a terrace surrounded by a dry moat.
The façades featured stone tables decorated with consoles holding busts of Roman emperors, while the ironwork of the balconies was painted and gilded. The slopes of the slate roofs were decorated with gilt lead features. The inner apartments were redesigned and refurbished. The courtyard was closed off by a gallery of arcades bearing a balcony that went all round the first floor for admiring the flower-beds of the gardens.
The small square pavilion is the Thetys Grotto, an artificial grotto with complex water features that housed the sculpture group of Apollo served by the Nymphs. The grotto was demolished to make way for the construction of the North Wing.
The canvas shows a panoramic view of the palace of Versailles and its gardens circa 1667-1668. The artist has placed here with very great precision the different buildings of the Palace at the end of the first embellishment works ordered by Louis XIV from the architect Louis Le Vau who in 1634 had already modernised the brick and stone architecture of the small hunting lodge of Louis XIII. The king still stayed occasionally in Versailles for hunts and festivities. The painter has accentuated the axis of the gardens which were to become the “Grand Perspective” by the invention of steep hills on the sides.
In the foreground we discover the new Place d’Armes, and on the left the old village of Versailles. The royal procession led by guardsmen on horseback enters the paved forecourt flanked by the two wings of the Communs built in 1662 which on the left house the pantries and the kitchens, and on the right the stables and storehouses for carriages.
The Palace is built on a terrace surrounded by dried moats. The façades of the Palace feature stone tables decorated with consoles holding busts of Roman emperors, while the wrought ironwork of the balconies is painted and gilded. The sloping slate roofs have gilt lead decorative details. The courtyard is closed off by a gallery of arcades with a balcony all round on the first floor for admiring the flowerbeds of the garden.
On the right, the three tanks built in 1667 supplied water to the ponds and fountains of the garden, and the small square building shelters the Thetys Grotto. In the background we can see the line of the Grand Canal, which has not yet been given its present outline with its two side branches. On the left is the Menagerie, designed in 1663.
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The plan of the palace of Versailles is contemporaneous with the view painted by Pierre Patel. It shows the Place d’Armes and the different buildings, along with the first embellishments of the Palace undertaken in the programme of works entrusted to the architect Louis Le Vau. The latter included the construction in the forecourt of the two wings of the Communs and Stables in 1662. On the right, the tanks supply the fountains and ponds of the garden and the Thetys Grotto. In the distance, the Grand Canal does not yet have its definitive form, nor do the parterres of the gardens and the ponds which look like a modest miniature sketch of the future groves of the park of Versailles designed by André Le Nôtre.
In this portrait, Louis XIV, aged 22 or 23, is depicted shortly after the death of Cardinal de Mazarin in 1661, when he decided to govern the kingdom personally. On 10 March 1661, a few hours after the death of Cardinal de Mazarin, the king summoned his Council in the palace of Vincennes. All the court was expecting the appointment of a new Prime Minister, but the young monarch declared: “Gentlemen, I have assembled you with my Ministers and Secretaries of State to tell you that up until now I was happy to have my affairs governed by the Cardinal; it is now time for me to govern them by myself. You will help me with your advice when I ask for it.”
Up until this date, the king had only been involved in organising his amusements; the Ministers and all the court were surprised by his announcement. Until the end of his reign in 1715, Louis XIV reigned absolutely over the internal and foreign policy of France.
The portrait by Charles Le Brun shows the noble figure of the young king. He wears a suit of armour with the fleur-de-lys pattern, a white lace collar and the blue sash of the Order of the Holy Spirit.
The two queens accompanied the king to Versailles during the stays of the court when it was still itinerant. This double portrait is that of two Spanish queens and princesses. The mother of Louis XIV, the queen-mother Anne of Austria, is depicted here with the attributes of Minerva. By her side, the king’s wife, queen Maria Teresa symbolises Peace holding an olive branch in her left hand. The contrast of colours and materials reinforces this allegorical metaphor of the artist who submitted the painting as his reception piece to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1664. The canvas belonged to the collection of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts before entering the collections of Versailles.
The painting shows the palace of Versailles at the southern end with the king’s garden located above the first orangerie built by the architect Louis Le Vau. The pond in the background was to become the Swiss Guards ornamental lake (pièce d’eau des Suisses) and further off we can see the silhouette of the church of Saint-Julien demolished in 1682 to build the Grand Commun.
These architectural details allow us to date the work precisely in 1664. The principal scene is centred on the king on horseback who seems to be giving orders, perhaps for the development of the lands close by, as we know how much attention the king payed to the laying out of the Palace surroundings.
Van der Meulen painted several views of the royal residences, and he also painted the palace of Versailles from several other angles. The first orangerie was demolished and replaced by the current one built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart from 1683 to 1686.
During his early childhood, Louis XIV lived in the different royal residences of the Crown refurbished by Louis XIII. Louis XIV was born in 1638 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye where he spent most of his childhood, between the old medieval castle and the new palace built alongside the terrace by his grandfather Henri IV. The site of Saint-Germain had a fine location on a height at a distance from the Seine, and it boasted fine gardens adorned with grottoes containing water features which inspired Louis XIV and his gardeners for Versailles.
The most frequent stays of the king were in the palaces of the Louvre, then the Tuileries, Vincennes and Fontainebleau where the court came for the autumn hunts, and even Chambord on the bank of the Loire.
After the death of Cardinal de Mazarin in 1661, the young monarch sought a new place of residence and picked Versailles, located close to Paris. The small hunting lodge of Louis XIII was transformed and refurbished to become a place for festivities and amusements.
Van der Meulen shows here the still very rural aspect of Versailles which was to become the favourite royal residence of the itinerant court.
The grand festivities of Versailles in 1664.
Versailles took over from Paris as the new setting for the festivities and entertainments of the king. Although it was hostile in several aspects, the place pleased Louis XIV who decided to entrust the architect Louis Le Vau with the project for the Palace while André Le Nôtre was in charge of the gardens.
Versailles was the setting for the festivities of the Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle from 7 to 9 May 1664 directed by the Italian decorator and stagehand Carlo Vigarani in front of over 600 guests. The Menus-Plaisirs administration had built the architectural sets for the carousel, the banquet, the comedy-ballet, the ballet and the sumptuous fireworks display, all illustrating the theme of “Orlando Furioso”, from an episode of the verse novel by Ariosto. Louis XIV wanted to astound his court and in particular Mademoiselle de La Vallière, his young mistress.
The memory of these festivities has come down to us thanks to these nine plates engraved by Israël Silvestre (1621-1691). The king is recognisable in the centre, seen from behind and wearing a hat, surrounded by close members of the royal family.
In this portrait Jean Nocret has captured the fresh beauty of the young lady when she was receiving all the favours of the king. The mistress of the young Louis XIV, Mademoiselle de La Vallière was only seventeen when he dedicated to her the festivities of the Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle from 7 to 9 May 1664. She was supplanted by Madame de Montespan five years later but she never left the court and stayed in the close entourage of the king.
The broken sculptural folds of the drapery, the colourful palette and the treatment of the flesh tints are key features of the portraits of Jean Nocret, painter to Monsieur, the king’s brother.
The Grand Royal Entertainment of 1668
Louis XIV signed in May 1668 the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which sealed the peace between France and Spain and put an end to the War of Devolution. France received part of Flanders with important towns such as Lille, Douai, Dunkirk and Tournai.
In Versailles, during the summer of 1668, the event was celebrated with a new grandiose festivity. On 18 July before an audience of over a thousand people, the king acting as master of ceremonies officially dedicated this “Grand Divertissement Royal” to his new mistress, Madame de Montespan. The celebrations took place in the Small Park in the late afternoon and lasted until the middle of the night. As if out on a stroll, the guests were guided by the king along the new walks laid out in the gardens. They could enjoy collations, Molière’s play George Dandin with music by Lully, and an open-air ball held in a greenery room built by Le Vau. An illumination of the Palace concluded the evening’s entertainments. This festivity remained in the minds of contemporaries as the most original and the most baroque of all those put on by the king, as can be seen in the series of engravings by Jean Le Pautre.
The origin of grottoes with water features goes back to the Renaissance. The construction of a raised water tank in 1664 was designed for this type of entertainment under the vaults of the building. The palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye also possessed a grotto with a water attraction and the court had often gone their for amusement. In the grotto of Versailles, Charles Perrault took his inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to stage the scene in which Apollo, after his ride across the sky, takes his rest in the grotto of the nymph Thetys.
The engravings by Le Pautre give a faithful image of the façade and the interior. The monument featured three arched doorways closed by gilt gratings designed by Mathurin Breton and decorated with the sun’s rays. The imposing pillars had decorative panels of stones. In the spandrels of the façade, the four delicately carved tondi of Cupids riding dolphins were by Gérald van Obstal, as were the three low reliefs on the parapet that masked the tank. Here we see Apollo on his chariot surrounded by tritons and nereids.
Inside, the grotto had a richly decorative marble pavement and its vaults consisted of three naves covered in stone decorated with shells made by the rocaille sculptor Delaunay in 1665. The niches highlighted the central group of Apollo served by the nymphs of Thetys carved by François Girardon and Thomas Regnaudin in 1675. Two other groups flanked Apollo: The Horses of the Sun, Eous, Aethon, Pyrois and Phlegon groomed by Tritons carved by the sculptors Guérin and the Marsy brothers.For the construction of the North Wing in 1684, Hardouin-Mansart demolished the grotto whose location corresponded to the present lower vestibule of the Royal Chapel. The marble sculpture groups were then placed in the park of Versailles.
Plan of Versailles circa 1680, engraving by Israël Silvestre
Louis XIV circa 1662, by Charles Le Brun
Anne of Austria and Maria Theresa, queen of France, by Renard de Saint-André
View of Versailles from Satory, by Adam Frans Van der Meulen
The royal procession arriving in Versailles, by Van der Meulen
Festivities of The Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle given by Louis XIV at Versailles in 1664
Mademoiselle de La Vallière, by Jean Nocret
The Grand Royal Entertainment given by Louis XIV in Versailles in 1668
The Grand Royal Entertainment given by Louis XIV in Versailles in 1668
Façade of the Thetys Grotto
View of the interior of the Thetys Grotto