Gilded and Forgotten: Portraits of Versailles

I couldn’t help but ponder that time-honored question about walls and their voices as I navigated the tourist-plagued halls of Château de Versailles. What would they do with what they had seen and would it change their shape, even if just a little? Fractures, patina, and even embellishments grown out from under the weight of history’s great weathering.

The palace is a spectacle to behold; Baroque shapes curve and twist, and high domes and complex shapes offset further intricacies. Inside the silent walls are yards of brocade spun from red and gold; even more gold is gilded onto molding set against the mottling of marble. It is at once the exemplar of Louis XIV style, and the ruined vignette of an absolute monarchy.

As we wandered the halls I eventually stopped capturing pictures of the rooms at large; from a distance they were gaudy and every detail took something away from the beauty of another. My eyes were drawn to the smallest subjects: little known door fixtures, hidden faces, stories shaped from gold, metamorphosed limestone, and strange, disavowed details.

What stories could they tell us about the royals that lived within and the shapes they made before their great fall—the Women’s March on Versailles, the cries outside her gates, the revolution that followed, and the subsequent movement of the monarchy and their belongings out of these halls and into others. Then, the restoration—a season of forgetting—returning the palace and it’s features back to their original appearance prior to the revolution.

To me, these small portraits were beautiful given their imperfection; and given the history that bent their backs and scratched their faces. Once forgotten, they will never be wholly original, but have been made new again through the art of retelling. 

There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.
— Marie Antoinette (attributed)

Fancy a Visit?

When you make your visit to Versailles don’t miss the palace itself, but the real gems lie outside the palace walls and behind the mass of gardens. Take the little train if you wish—it will allow you further views of the unconquerable gardens and Neptune’s Basin—and stop off at the Grand Trianon. After your visit there, walk through the French Pavilion toward Petit Trianon and then on to the Queen’s Hamlet. Constructed in 1783, the Hamlet was built for Marie-Antoinette as a place of refuge from the pomp of the court and where she could engrain herself back into the country life of her upbringing—it shows quite a different side of the cake-eating Queen we’ve come to know. Wander back from the Hamlet to catch the train outside the Petit Trianon so you have enough time to grab an afternoon glass of wine. It’s what the French would do.

"I've seen you, beauty": A Paris Story

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
— Ernest Hemingway
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It starts small, Eiffel-tower-figurine-small, and grows from there—an interest in all things French that evolves into a Bogart sized we’ll-always-have-Paris obsession with those strange, beautiful people and their romance beholden city of lights. I didn’t start out as a Francophile, in fact I was bit turned off by the tower figures themselves and the seemingly Proustian way that people talked about a Paris they hadn't visited or recalled only from memories of long ago. What is it about Paris?

I myself visited one time long ago with a backpack and a budget and group of adored friends to celebrate the incoming New Year. Due to the aforementioned accessories of backpack and budget, we stayed in a lovely urine-scented hostel miles outside the city where if you squinted enough you could see Eiffel himself—much like the way that we pedestrians look for the Mensa constellation. Still, I enjoyed the city and could have aged a few years inside the museums themselves, but didn’t garner that unbridled thing for Paris until I read more of the Lost Generation. A feast it was, moveable or not, to discover Paris through the eyes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Pound and Miller. Imagining this group of writers and artists thriving in Paris in the 20's is enough to send any modernist into a frenzy that might rival some of their evening benders.

Upon closer read and a second visit this fall, I learned that Paris is not just for young girls or fervent lovers. It’s a home for the writer, intellectual, revolutionary, certainly the poet, and the craftsman. It is a city of contradictions, but not in an ironic way. Alarmingly romantic, but still welcoming to the contemporary. Quaint, but insurmountable. It inhabits the bohemian quality of the left bank, while the right side of the Seine laps up luxury and carries the whisper of that old world glamour downstream.

There’s something intoxicating in the air in Paris and it’s not just the smell of fresh baked bread and aged cheese that wafts down every corridor like freshly spritzed lust. It’s the café where Hemingway penned The Sun Also Rises, the smells of the Latin Quarter, strolling through the Marais district, everything about the D’Orsay (and every other museum for that matter), the Jardins and their perfect green chairs that somehow no one steals. A Rimbaud poem scripted onto the wall of Rue Férou, that ridiculous and still exciting Eiffel light show, Ill Saint-Louis at dusk looking toward the blushing behind of our lady the Dame, the unexpected charm of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, eating in the shade of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and of course the steak frites. Oh, the steak frites.

Everywhere there is a sense of possibility that something truly alarming, truly beautiful could happen—or perhaps already did and is alive here—and this feeling in Paris can only be described as magic.

Don't Close Your Eyes

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New found Land: The Paris Garden