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Versailles: Treasures from the Palace

Richard Watts

A fascinating glimpse into the pomp and power of the French court under the reign of the Sun King and his descendants.
Versailles: Treasures from the Palace

The Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles © Jose Ignacio Soto / Shutterstock.com

Under the 72 year reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, the Château de Versailles – formerly a small hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris, some 20km from Notre Dame – was transformed into the French seat of power; a small city housing up to 20,000 people, including both the court and the government of France.

From 1661, when work began on the construction of the palace, its grounds and fountains, until 1789, when Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were forced out during the French Revolution, Versailles embodied the pomp and power of France. After the revolution the palace became the Museum of the History of France, while today ‘Versailles’ is a byword for grandeur and luxury.

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A taste of that opulence is currently displayed at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where the exhibition Versailles: Treasures from the Palace is on show until 17 April 2017. Featuring 130 objects from the collection of Versailles, including lacquered fans, marble busts, tapestries, carpets and portraits, the exhibition – exclusive to Canberra – is a tantalising glimpse of the palace – and the Ancien Régime – at its peak.

Read: Sex, scandal and politics – is Canberra our Versailles?

Intelligently curated, the exhibition opens with a wordless video presentation – ideal for tourists of any nationality – providing insights into a day in the life of Versailles. Watching ornate clocks being wound, paintings restored, fountains cleaned and hidden doors swung open to reveal the private apartments beyond gives viewers a vivid sense of the scale and magnificence of the palace and its grounds.

A gilded gate flanked by marble busts and reproduction Roman statues ushers visitors through to the exhibition proper; a suitable visual flourish upon entering but also a reminder of the ways the Sun King adopted symbols of past empires – Rome and Egypt – as tools of propaganda to reinforce his own status and the power of Imperial France.

While ​occasional elements of the exhibition detract – the looped soundtrack in certain rooms quickly becomes repetitive and the lack of costumes from the era, showcasing the fashions of the court, feels an oversight – others are clever references to the architecture and features of Versailles itself. A miniature Hall of Mirrors has been constructed in the section of the exhibition showcasing the creation and manufacturing of French style, while a massive marble fountain, Latona and her children (a morality tale in sculpted form warning peasants to know their place) is backed by a vast, curved screen on which water jets and bubbles – bringing the gardens and fountains of Versailles inside the gallery without the expense and complications of piping in real water.

The nearby section detailing the construction of the Machine of Marly, and related attempts to pipe water to Versailles, fascinates, though may be a little dry for some visitors; nonetheless it's indicative of the level of detail invested throughout the exhibition that even the palace's plumbing is given appropriate coverage.

Other ​elements are equally fascinating, especially more personal objects such as lacquered fans and ornate watches, and Marie Antoinette’s own harp and dining ware, which provide an intimacy absent elsewhere.

At the other end of the scale, vast tapestries, a golden barometer, exquisite items of furniture, and portraits of Kings Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI provide insights into the splendor of the court and changing trends over time.

Occasionally the exhibition feels like it’s only scratching the surface – 130 objects are barely enough to convey the scale and luxury of Versailles – but for lovers of history, the decorative arts and Francophiles alike, Versailles: Treasures from the Palace will nonetheless provide entertainment and enlightenment in equal measure – and possibly a degree of envy at the glory days of old.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Versailles: Treasures from the Palace
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
9 December 2016 – 17 April 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

 

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