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LIFE AT VERSAILLES IN 100 QUESTIONS

Mathieu Da Vinha

(Tallandier, 334 pages, 2018)

 

 In the 1660s, the area surrounding the future Palace of Versailles was an inhospitable swamp, unpleasantly windy and without direct access to spring water. Yet it is in that very place that, in 1682, Louis XIV decided to move the court and the government. So why did he choose Versailles?

 Mathieu Da Vinha, the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center, deftly answers that question as well as ninety-nine others. Using a playful question-and-answer approach, Da Vinha invites us to understand Versailles from different and complementary perspectives: architecture and garbage disposal; food procurement and sleeping arrangements; transportation and hygiene; entertainment and working conditions for all those who contributed to the realization of the Sun King’s grand vision, one that was not fully completed by the time of his death. Was Versailles a safe place? Was the food good? Who could visit? Did you have to be rich to live there? Could you die there?

 Da Vinha takes pleasure in challenging common misconceptions and legends surrounding the habits and customs of the royal court. Did courtiers live in cramped quarters, no better than “rats’ nests”? Is it true that the Sun King only took one bath in his life? These simply framed questions serve as a point of departure to explore broader themes. Thus the story on Louis XIV’s bathing preference leads to observations on seventeenth-century medical practices, and the co-opting of mirror craftsmen from Venice exemplifies European commercial and artistic rivalry in the Age of Enlightenment. Strict etiquette—the hallmark of Louis XIV’s reign—defined an art of living that became famous throughout Europe.

 Foreign observers were particularly taken by another aspect of the life at Versailles: the wide public access to the palace’s grounds. Just about anyone, they marveled, could stroll around in the gardens and catch a glimpse of the Sun King from afar. He constantly lived in the public eye. To maintain that legacy could be a burden to his successors, and most famously so for the Queen Marie-Antoinette. The chapter entitled, “Did the king and queen appeared naked before the courtiers?” details the intricate rules attached to dressing the queen. The anecdote is amusing, but also perfectly captures the absurd and oppressive quality of court protocol.

 Da Vinha brings his erudition and expertise to answer the questions that someone visiting the palace might ask. The responses he provides offer a vivid and comprehensive portrait of the first two hundred years of Versailles, from its conception up to the French Revolution. Beyond the myths of royal opulence that continue to hold sway over the public imagination, he illuminates the lives of the thousands of people who built, maintained, and populated the palace. With Life at Versailles in 100 Questions, Da Vinha offers the perfect resource to gain an accessible, entertaining, yet knowledgeable understanding of Versailles.

 

Mathieu da Vinha is currently the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center. He is the author of several studies and biographies relating to life under the reign of Louis XIV, including Versailles: Enquête historique (Tallandier, 2015), Au service du roi. Dans les coulisses de Versailles (Tallandier, 2015), Alexandre Bontemps, Premier valet de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2011), Le Versailles de Louis XIV: Le fonctionnement d’une résidence royale au XVIIe siècle (Perrin, 2009), Louis XIV et Versailles (éd. Arts Lys/Château de Versailles, 2009), and Les Valets de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2004.) He is also the co-author of Versailles. Histoire, dictionnaire et anthologie, published by Robert Laffont in 2015.