Monday, June 9, 2014

The Long Shadow of Versailles

If you could speak what tales your tongues could tell,
   You voiceless mirrors of the storied past!
Do you remember when the curtain fell
   On him who learned he was not God at last?
Edward van Zile, reprinted in The Story of Versailles by Francis Loring Paine
Hall of Mirrors

There is perhaps no palace as famous in the world as Versailles; in fact, I would hazard a guess that it might be the only palace name that comes automatically to mind for most people.*  In part, this continued familiarity is a testament to Louis XIV, who sought to create the most splendid palace of his day, and in fact was so successful that it remains the most well-known palace three centuries later.  But the reason that it has remained so pertinent has changed over time, and with two (relatively) recent (and prominent) Versailles references, I wanted to revisit it as a historic--and sometimes not so historic--site.

Last week, I rewatched the documentary 'The Queen of Versailles,' which documents the Siegel family and their attempt to build America's largest home just outside of Orlando, FL--a home that they named, without any trace of irony, Versailles.  One of the reasons that they chose the site was that they could see another faux palace nearby, with the nightly Disneyworld fireworks visible from their home.  Adding to the irony was David Siegel's primary source of income, which was derived from timeshares.  One of his most prominent properties was in Las Vegas, another place that takes the re-creation of faux palaces and historic sites seriously.  Regardless, the financial crash of 2007-08 brought work on Siegel-Versailles to a halt since the time-share industry--along with any other industry based on mortgages--fell apart.  The trailer gives you a good sense of them:

If you're curious, yes, they do have such gaudy knick-knacks all over the home.  The trailer missed out on some of the many paintings that re-create famous paintings, only with the Siegels in them.

The Siegel Versailles is remarkably similar to the original in a sense.  Louis XIV also wanted to make a palace that he could fill with amazing items to show off to his guests, all of French provenance.  In fact, he commissioned many of the works and even bestowed a patent of nobility on Gobelin, the maker of tapestries.  My favorite new fact about Versailles is that they hired and repatriated Venetian mirror makers to create the Hall of Mirrors, but that Venice then tried to assassinate them to keep the mirror-making business in Venice.  The Siegel Versailles is more global in its scope, bringing the 'best of' goods from around the world to adorn their home.  However, the outcome is, presumably, the same: to project a sense of awe to their guests.  If their current home is any indication, that sense of awe will likely be tempered with a sense of gaudy--that is, if they even manage to complete their dream home.

Construction stopped in 2010 because of a lack of funds and the Siegels put it on the market.  With no takers, they maintained possession of it, and still hope to complete it.  This, too, is a bit like Versailles, which was constantly being renovated and changed.  They have not yet come up with the idea to throw a pageant and raise money, as Louis XIV did in the early stages of construction, but I'm sure they'll figure it out eventually. 2016 update: still not done

The second recent Versailles reference is, of course, Kimye, who purportedly wanted to get married there but were purportedly denied by the French government.  Fortunately, a suitable replacement palace was found in Italy (Fort Belvedere) and the ceremony took place there instead, much to the chagrin of local royalty Prince Ottaviano de Medici.  While I am simply dying to cut this post short and research what the Medicis are up to these days, for now, let's get back to Kimye and their wedding celebration.  As you undoubtedly guessed, the wedding and its pre-game celebrations were completely over-the-top, particularly as documented by André Leon Talley, who was a guest.  His account of the brunch at Valentino's chateau the day before the wedding reads like something out a historical document in its attention to detail and excessive....well, excess.  We are not too far off from Louis XIV here.

Is the semi-sepia meant to convey a sense of history here?

As an aside, I am thrilled to report that Kanye seems to have located a giant marble table--so giant, in fact, that it was hauled into Fort Belvedere by crane.  Now he can finally host those conferences that he was so excited about back in August 2010.

Since Versailles has long been the palace of excess, why deny Kimye the opportunity to marry there?  Undoubtedly, this denial is in part to fend off the inevitable slew of social media mogul/hip hop luminary weddings that would follow (or, more realistically, the nouveau 1%).  But it also suggests that Versailles is now, in the eyes of French authorities, officially a museum piece, a place that should be celebrated for its history but not put to use in the present.  The understanding of what Versailles should be has also morphed over the years as the palace has served as a home to royalty, soldiers' hospital (in Napoleon's time), art museum, and crucial site of diplomacy.  After all, it was in Versailles that Germany was created, when Kaiser Wilhelm crowned himself there in 1871, and it was in Versailles that Germany was humiliated after the First World War.

This is the coronation, not the humiliating defeat

But in hosting such pivotal events, Versailles remained living.  Now it is more of a shadow, despite its vivid appearance, a place where re-creations of royal furniture and furnishings gives the impression of a long-ago time.  The wedding of Kimye might be little more than a paean to excess, but surely this is precisely what Versailles has accommodated for much of its history.

Lastly, a fun piece on The Daily Beast by Kevin Fallen that asks which wedding was more ridiculous: Wedding #2 (Humphries) or #3 (Kimye)--we have already eliminated Wedding #1, making this a Monty Hall Problem.  His summary of the Versailles caper:

The rehearsal dinner? That took place at Versailles. Versailles. Did you read that? I remember going to a rehearsal dinner that had lobster tail on the buffet and thinking that was decadent. Theirs was at a flipping palace. Guests were greeted at the palace gates with glasses of champagne and chauffeured in horse-drawn carriages to be met for their private tours of the palace grounds. Then came the actual dinner party, which included a performance by Lana Del Rey. The grand finale was a fireworks display outside palace. Good lord.

I think this makes Lana Del Rey the modern Lully.  There is some food for thought.   Someone warn her about large conducting staffs.

*I'm cool with viewing Neuschwanstein as most recognizable since it was the model for the Disney castles, but I suspect that far fewer people know its name.

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