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When I saw that one of the stops in ‘Paris to the Past’ was a return trip to Versailles I was less than thrilled. The crowds, the lines, the disorder was just not something I wanted to take on again. But, as the book called for me to go to the Petit Trianon versus the actual chateau I figured I would give it a go. I was just hopeful that I could buy tickets for the Petit Trianon somewhere other than at the chateau where the lines can often times be hours long!

I arrived at Versailles and immediately went to the first person that worked there to ask if I could get tickets at the Petit Trianon and thankfully the answer was yes. The small house (small for the monarchy anyway) is located about a thirty minute walk from the main chateau through Versailles’ beautiful gardens. On a beautiful spring day I headed out to this little house in the woods that was the retreat of Madame de Pompadour and Marie-Antoinette.

Trianon used to be a village before Louis XIV annexed it to his gardens. The Petit Trianon was built there in 1768 as a home for Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour and for Louis’ gardens. He was fascinated by exotic plants and scientific gardening and it was here that he was able to watch over his mistress and his plants. Sadly the Madame de Pompadour died in 1764, four years before the Petit Trianon was completed. Jacques-Ange Gabriel, Madame de Pompadour’s favourite architect, designed the house and despite the fact that she did not live to see its completion there is a lot of her influence throughout.

Its other, more famous inhabitant, was of course the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. Growing up I think we all have a completely over the top image of Marie-Antoinette – a lavish lifestyle, spending money while the population of France starved, ‘let them eat cake’, etc. In 1770 when Louis XVI became King he gave the Petit Trianon to his young bride as a gift. You see, Marie-Antoinette never liked the opulence of the Chateau de Versailles and longed for a simpler and more intimate place to pass her time.

When Marie-Antoinette arrived in France from her native Austria she was fifteen years old. She was a mere nineteen years old when she became Queen. It is true that she outfitted the Petit Trianon with expensive furniture but it is also true that in her bedroom she hung paintings of her beloved father and aunt. In order to feel more comfortable “she added grottoes and created lakes fed by winding streams. She had rustic, thatched-roof cottages built around the lake, and called the area the Queen’s hamlet. She wanted the Petit Trianon to appear to be in the countryside and not at Versailles, which she hated.”

Walking through the Petit Trianon you see a number of places to play games – cards, billiards, and it is even said the Queen liked to play blind mans bluff in the gardens. Marie-Antoinette was young and her interests express that. Unfortunately her desire to distance herself from the Chateau de Versailles (I can completely relate) unfortunately was part of her downfall. The Petit Trianon was small and therefore was unable to host the full court. She tended to only include her favourites at dinner parties and many in the court began to feel snubbed, most notable the Duke of Orleans who began to spread rumours about the Queen throughout Paris. Her husband, Louis XVI was not much better and only liked to greet the court for brief periods of time on Sundays. The aristocracy began to move back to their homes in Paris and in the country as life in Versailles no longer held the same importance.

It was around 1715 that rumblings began about the legitimacy of absolutism and the monarchy and these rumblings continued through the century. Unwittingly Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette contributed to their fates by not giving the aristocracy the attention they felt they deserved. Additionally, by not interacting more with their peers there was no proof to discount the rumours being spread throughout Paris that Marie-Antoinette was furnishing the Petit Trianon in diamonds and gold and delighted in dressing up as a milk maid in her hamlet.

While there was in fact no famine rampant in France in 1789 there was a growing economic crisis and the people of France were growing weary with what they perceived as the incompetence of their king and the indifference of the aristocracy. The economic situation in France was becoming dire due to a series of ill conceived wars over the past 100 years which had left France virtually bankrupt. One of these wars was the naval battle France waged with England during the American Revolution. I cannot complain as the French’s involvement led to the defeat of the British and the forming of the United States but it was unfortunately one more nail in the coffin for the monarchy of France.

There are hundreds, if not more, books written about the French Revolution so I will not go into more detail here. Suffice it to say that on October 5, 1789 an angry mob arrived at Versailles and forced the royal family to leave. The royal family was brought to the Tuileries Palace (sadly this palace no longer exists). Louis continued to rule, in a much weakened state, until 1793 when both he and his wife were sentenced to death for “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety”.

Next we will go to the Conciergerie where Queen Marie-Antoinette spent her last months before her execution. Before we move on, however, there is one piece of history that I would like to clear up. Historians all agree that at no time did Marie-Antoinette ever utter the words ‘let them eat cake.’ The phrase was found in a book written 100 years before she was even born. While Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette certainly lived in luxury it was no more opulent than any other French monarch. While I do not fault the French for starting a revolution to bring about reform and change it seems that they went a bit overboard with the beheading of a King and Queen who were maybe misguided but not to a point warranting execution.

Next stop – The Conciergerie

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