Visitors to Versailles: 1682-1789

For those of us who have visited the famed Château de Versailles in Versailles, France, we  fondly remember the feeling of awe and unapologetic pomposity of the gilded creation that Louis XIV, made his home and the seat of French court in the 17th century. With its famed former residents, masterful works of art, French baroque furniture, Sèvres porcelain collection, famous mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and extensive gardens, the Château attracts millions of tourists to visit every year.

(Trivia question: Why is Versailles titled a “Château” and not a palace like most royal residences? Is it because, A) it’s not big enough, B) it’s not located within the city, C) it’s not old enough, D) royals no longer live there. Keep reading to find out the answer!)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, Visitors to Versailles: 1682-1789 brings the life of seventeenth and eighteenth century French court to New York City. The exhibit covers the period of time from when Louis XIV established the new seat of government in 1682, through the reign’s of Louis XV and Louis XVI. Instead of focusing on the life within the palace, the exhibit centers around the experience and stories of Versailles’ visitors during its 107 years of courtly occupation. The exhibition brings together nearly 200 items including dress, furniture, paintings, weapons, and sculpture from the Met collection, the Palace of Versailles, and many private lenders.

The audio guide is the key to this experience, as it brings to life the personal accounts and experiences of the guests of Versailles. Using a brand new high-quality headset developed specifically for this exhibit, the noise-cancelling, binaural, over-the-ear headphones immerse you in court life. The museum researchers gathered together letters, journal entries, articles, and other primary documents to account for each guest’s experience. The translations and re-tellings are played according to each section that you are in. What’s more, background sounds have been added, including footsteps going up a marble staircase, a door squeaking closed, and whispers of guests behind you, which truly allows you to feel the full experience of court life.

Sectioned into five galleries in the museum’s Tisch Galleries, the exhibit has been modeled to look like the State Rooms at Versailles. The sections feature topics from “Getting Dressed for Court” to “European Diplomats” to “American Visitors”, and each section features voice-overs of experiences of the guests of the king. While I was in the “Getting Dressed” section, I remembered from my lectures in grad school, that anyone could attend court at Versailles if they were properly dressed. The catch with this was that (primarily) only members of the upper class and nobility were able to afford the proper materials, embellishments, and labor that went into making garments that would be worthy of being in the king’s presence.

During my visit to the exhibition, I stumbled upon a lecture being given by a curator about court dress. Standing in front of several court dresses, she said, “Women couldn’t sit in their wide hoop skirts, but very few people could sit in front of the king anyway. Wearing this kind of dress was an art; they had to know how to maneuver themselves in crowded rooms without constantly bumping into other guests. And since their skirts were so wide, they couldn’t walk through doorways the way that we do now, straight on, they had to turn to the side to be able to move from room to room … It is remembered that Marie Antoinette wasn’t the smartest or most beautiful woman of her day, but that she had the most beautiful carriage when she moved”. I always find hearing stories like this so interesting!

As you move through each room, the audio guide narrates guests’ sometimes humorous experiences of Versailles. In the garden section when looking at two bronze animal-shaped water fountains from the gardens behind Versailles, the audio guide recalls a male guest saying, “I don’t think it’s very appropriate to be seeing the animals out of Aesop’s Fables vomiting water”.

The final gallery is “The Last Visitors” section, which focuses the reasons that Louis XVI moved the court back to Paris. Many reasons including the influence of Enlightenment era, the large divide between the wealth of the nobility and poverty of the French populous, and the growing debt of the crown, all led to the decline of Versailles and eventually the French monarchy as a whole. Through its recreation of interiors and recounting of tales at Versailles, the Met is offering museum goers the chance to experience the French court as guests themselves, without having to leave Manhattan, and without having to travel back in time.

(BTW: the answer to the question above is B! Versailles is titled a Château because it is not within the city! Places titled “palace” like Buckingham Palace in London, Palais du Louvre in Paris, Palazzo Pitti in Florence – are all in the city! [A few exceptions apply to the palace rule] Places titled “castle” or “château” like Windsor Castle or Château de Versailles, are located in the country!)

The show runs from April 16 – July 29, 2018.

Are you going to see the exhibit?!

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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