Category Archives: France

The Making of a Fun Palace

Versailles, 17 April 2005

A matter of years before the birth of Louis XIV, Versailles was little more than a geographical expression. It denoted a thinly populated site on the southern flank of the Val de Galie, some twenty kilometres to the south-west of Paris. The site’s history was as undistinguished as its geography. The discovery in 2006 of a Merovingian cemetery lying to the south of the present-day palace suggests habitation as early as the 8th century, but written records start to mention ‘Versailles’ only from the mid 11th century. The place name derives from the Old French versail, meaning a ploughed field. Though dominated by thick woods and low-lying marshland, the medieval landscape did, in fact, include, alongside vines and orchards, open fields where grain was cultivated; this was ground at a windmill located on a mound where Louis XIV would later create his palace.

Thick woodland made Versailles an ideal spot for hunting game, notably deer, boar, wolves and hare, and King Henry IV went to Versailles to hunt on several occasions from 1604 onwards. Situated close to Saint-Germain-en-Laye – where Renaissance kings had established a stylish château that became a favoured royal residence – Versailles was a convenient destination for a day-long hunting trip, but Henry IV sometimes passed the night here, too, normally in the Gondi manor house. In 1607 he took his five year old son on his first hunting expedition to Versailles.

In 1610, following Henry IV’s assassination, the boy became king. The reign of Louis XIII (1610–1643) was perturbed by religious conflicts, provincial revolts and urban commotions, and then, from 1635, open warfare with Austria and Spain in the Thirty Years War. The king was engaged in a seemingly endless sequence of campaigns across the country, and when he returned to the Île-de-France, his preferred choice of residence was Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In the late 1610s he began to make hunting trips out to Versailles. Shy, ungregarious and mildly misogynistic, Louis seemingly preferred the company of a small group of male hunting cronies to his court at Saint-Germain. In 1623 he confirmed his leisure priorities by deciding to construct a small hunting lodge here on the elevated ground by the village windmill.

This little dwelling, in which he stayed for the first time in 1624, was situated exactly on the spot now occupied by the cour de marbre at the heart of Louis XIV’s palace.

Further building at Versailles between 1631 and 1634 the hunting lodge into something resembling a country house – helped transform miniscule and even a tourist destination. In 1639 Claude de Varennes’s Le voyage de France urged visitors to the Paris region to pay a visit to Versailles: this was the first of very many guidebook recommendations. The king, moreover, was inordinately proud of his new possession. He arranged rendezvous there so that he could show it off to eminent foreign dignitaries.

On the afternoon of December 5, 1637, Louis XIII stopped in at the convent of the Visitandines in Paris, to see Louise de La Fayette, now a nun, and formerly his (chaste) love. He was on his way from Versailles to Saint Maur, where he planned to spend the night, while the queen was settled at the Louvre for the winter. And since, in the 1630s, royal residences were largely empty shells furnished only when the king lived there, Louis XIII’s bed, linens, and other necessities preceded him to Saint Maur.

The king found his conversation with Louise de La Fayette so absorbing that by the time he decided to leave, night had fallen, and a torrential rainstorm was in progress. In spite of this weather, he persisted in his earlier plan of travelling to Saint Maur, but M. de Guitaut, the captain of the guard, suggested that he go to the Louvre instead. Louis XIII immediately pointed out that his apartment there was unfurnished, only to have M. de Guitaut suggest that he spend the night with the queen, adding that it would be inhuman on the king’s part to expect his escort to ride out to Saint Maur in a rainstorm.

Instead, Louis decided to wait for a break in the weather. After a few moments, Guitaut repeated his suggestion. This time, the king gave in.

The king and queen shared the same bed because there was no other; nine months later to the day, France celebrated the birth of a baby boy whom his contemporaries and posterity alike have called the Sun King.

It was, many people said, a miracle, an act of God. After twenty-three years of unfruitful and increasingly bitter union, the king despised the queen and avoided her whenever possible. It was not only that Louis XIII vastly preferred the company of handsome young men, or that in the early days of their marriage Anne of Austria had miscarried three times; since then, she had joined the group at Court who fought the prime minister, the cardinal de Richelieu, on every issue; worse still, she had actually engaged in a traitorous correspondence with her brother, King Philip IV of Spain, in the midst of a raging war.

Still, in spite of their hatred for each other, the king and queen both wanted an heir. As things stood, Louis XIII’s brother Gaston, duc d’Orléans, would inherit the throne and destroy all he had accomplished, and the queen dreaded being sent away in disgrace. Unfortunately, the birth of a dauphin (girls, in France, could not inherit the throne) was hardly possible as long as Louis and Anne abstained from all physical contact.

There can hardly be any doubt that the birth of the dauphin was the direct result of that unexpected encounter on the night of December 5, 1637. Exactly nine months later to the day, the queen gave birth to the long-awaited heir to the throne, and because neither parent had any doubt that this arrival was the work of Providence, the baby was named Louis-Dieudonné, Louis, the Gift of God.

As a baby, Louis XIV was said to have been terrified of his lugubrious father and screamed whenever he saw him. Despite this early aversion, the child would inherit from his father a deep love of Versailles. But while Louis XIII valued the small size of Versailles, the privacy it offered away from the court, its highly masculine ambience and its fortress-like appearance, Louis XIV would turn the modest country house into a palace.

Louis XIV waited until he was a young man before turning his mind to Versailles. When his father died in 1643 he was only four years old and power passed into the hands of his mother, Anne of Austria, who ruled as Regent, advised by Cardinal Mazarin. Anne based the court in Paris, preferring the Palais-Royal, the former home of Cardinal Richelieu, to the cramped accommodation of the Louvre. Versailles was effectively abandoned and fell into disrepair for a decade. In 1651, during a quiet period of the turbulent civil wars known as the Fronde (1648– 52), Louis made a visit to the site. Once the wars were ended, he started hunting more regularly in its environs. He seems to have seen potential in the semi-abandoned building, ordering its renovation in 1660 and visiting it with his new queen, Marie-Thérèse. These events took place just before he overthrew Mazarin’s successor, Nicolas Fouquet, and determined to rule directly and without a principal minister.

Louis appears to have been nurturing this political strategy in advance of a celebrated moment in July 1661 when he visited Fouquet in his sumptuous château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, some 56 kilometres south-east of Paris. Fouquet’s star had risen very high and the sheer splendour of Vaux – its buildings, its gardens and the magnificence of Fouquet’s festive reception for his ruler – must have dazzled Louis. The ‘audacious luxury’ that Louis charged Fouquet with displaying only confirmed suspicions about Fouquet’s probity and ambitions that Louis had already developed. In September 1661 Louis ordered d’Artagnan, the Commander of the King’s Musketeers, to arrest Fouquet and cast him into a prison from which he would never emerge. Louis now held his destiny in his own hands.

The château at Vaux-le-Vicomte constructed between 1658 and 1661 by Louis XIV’s ill-fated finance minister Nicolas Fouquet

If Fouquet’s corruption was no surprise for Louis, what appears to have opened his eyes on his visit to Vaux was the handiwork of the creative triad behind it: architect Louis Le Vau, garden designer André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun. Almost straight away, Louis conscripted these men to the project he had developed for Versailles in his mind’s eye. At this stage, his ideas were still more than a little hazy, and Versailles did not yet fully monopolise his attention: he was simultaneously commissioning important new work for the Louvre and the Tuileries, as well as at the Château de Vincennes. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis’s new post-Fouquet ministerial factotum, was also hatching plans to make a magnificently redesigned Louvre the centrepiece of a new Paris that would match ancient Rome for grandeur. Yet it was soon apparent that Louis’s overall plans for Versailles were far bigger and better than his father’s. In addition, with the outstanding creative talents of Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun at his disposal, Louis wished not simply to emulate his finance minister’s achievement at Vauxle-Vicomte, but far to surpass it.

Louis XIII had started expanding Crown property around the Versailles château, ending the Gondi clan’s local influence. Louis XIV followed this lead, consolidating Bourbon holdings so as to enlarge the park and gardens. By the time that Louis brought his queen back to Versailles in 1663, change was well under way. Yet the queen was increasingly out of the picture at Versailles. From 1662 Louis was escaping here with the numerous mistresses he was to enjoy over the following years. In May 1664 he staged a themed festival in the palace grounds, Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée. Ostensibly in honour of his mother, the Regent Anne of Austria, the event also marked a stage in his newly hatched love affair with teenage lady-in-waiting Louise de La Vallière. The three days of festival events, attended by several hundred courtiers, and showcasing gardens in which Le Nôtre was already hard at work, included La Princesse d’Élide, a new comedy-ballet by Molière with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, tournament jousting, dancing, pageants, firework displays and sumptuous, candle-lit banquets.

The pace of festivity relented in the mid-1660s: the War of Devolution of 1667–8 attracted most of the king’s attention. But military victory only strengthened Louis’s desire to expand and make further embellishments. He celebrated victory with a lavish fête in 1668, the so-called Grand Divertissement Royal, with more contributions from Molière and Lully (which he planned as a homage to another new mistress, Madame de Montespan). Louis XIII’s private hunting lodge was being transformed into a Fun Palace where Louis could ostentatiously take his pleasure.

Managing the expansion of Versailles proved to be a fraught process. Louis XIII’s original château was in increasingly bad shape, and royal advisers argued that it was impractical to retain it. But the king, driven partly by filial fidelity to his father’s memory, and partly too by a realisation that complete renovation would put Versailles out of commission for some time, dug in his heels. He threatened, ‘with some feeling’, that even if it were demolished entirely, ‘he would have it rebuilt unchanged in its entirety’. Architect Louis Le Vau devised the ingenious solution of not only retaining it, but also expanding it considerably by loosely encasing it on three sides with extensive further building, disposed around two new courtyards. Le Vau’s ‘envelope’ thus kept Louis XIII’s hunting lodge as the symbolic and actual centre of a complex primed for even further expansion. It was from around this time too that Louis XIII’s little open courtyard was tiled in marble and received the name the cour de marbre.

The famous cour de marbre at the heart of the palace complex.
This panoramic view by painter Pierre Patel shows how ambitiously Louis XIV had already developed his father’s château by 1668

The War of Devolution of 1667–8 was followed by Louis’s Dutch War of 1672–8. The king really needed an uninterrupted period of peace to oversee the kind of changes he was envisaging for Versailles. As chance would have it, this is what he got: France would fight no wars between 1678 and 1688; a decade of tranquillity allowed Louis’s Versailles plans to blossom.

In 1677, Louis XIV revealed to the world that Versailles would become the home of both his court and his government. The château would not lose its earlier vocations as hunting lodge and palace of pleasures: far from it, for Louis remained an avid huntsman and Versailles would continue for many years to be celebrated for the splendour of its festivities. Yet Louis’s announcement marked a quantum leap in his thinking. The five years after 1677 would be spent on the huge operation of readying the site for its new role as monarchical hub and governmental nerve centre. This would involve a substantial part of the government bureaucracy and the entire royal court (not simply certain choice members) being relocated, installed, accommodated and entertained.

For this work, Louis could count on the continued guidance of Le Brun and Le Nôtre, both still at the height of their powers, although the other member of his original creative triad, architect Louis Le Vau, had died in 1670. His role was assumed by an equally imaginative and effective operator, Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Mansart would make significant contributions to the task of remoulding Versailles for its new vocation.

The expansion of the Versailles complex proved a convenient canvas for the display of royal symbolism. Louis’s youthful enthusiasm for Alexander the Great, whose military exploits he admired, led to early decorative references to the Greek commander. But in 1662 Louis chose as his personal emblem the sun, giver of life and centre of the universe. It represented, the king opined, ‘assuredly the loftiest and finest image of a monarch’. Emblems of the sun and the sun god Apollo (also the patron of peace and the arts) began to appear throughout the royal estates. Le Brun, whom Louis ennobled in 1662, then made Premier peintre du Roi two years later, worked with his team to decorate the great Apollo Room (Salon d’Apollon), at the heart of the enfilade of state rooms disposed along the northern side of the château. The other ceremonial rooms in the suite were named after planets that rotated around the sun (Venus, Mars, etc.). ‘Since the sun is the king’s device and since poets conflate the sun with Apollo,’ antiquarian (and royal sycophant) André Félibien wrote in 1674, lauding the ubiquity of the solar leitmotiv, ‘so there is nothing in this superb residence which does not relate to this divinity.’ Louis’s Fun Palace was becoming a Sun Palace.

The solar fixation was also evident in the château’s gardens. Particularly striking in this respect was the Grotto of Tethys, constructed in the 1660s around one of the château’s reservoirs as a private royal bathing suite, and decorated with shells, stones and mirror fragments. The decorative conceit here was of Apollo the sun god bathing in the waters of Tethys, the water goddess wife of Oceanus, at the end of his passage through the skies. The Apollo link was also referenced in key fountain displays established at the heart of the gardens.

Versailles needed workers as well as aristocrats, and Louis encouraged the formation of a new neighbourhood on the northern flank of the château, where a migrant army of building workers and artisans of every description came to reside. Colbert was tasked with purchasing old houses, demolishing them and then encouraging new housing developments. A royal charter in 1671 offered all comers a plot of land in addition to a range of inducements, on condition they built a dwelling that used approved building materials and conformed to the style and height of the château. The building of the huge administrative block on the southern side of the château known as the Grand Commun (1682–4) involved the destruction of the village’s parish church of Saint-Julien and its neighbourhood. The area would be reconstructed around the château and subsequently endowed with the parish church (now cathedral) of Saint-Louis, while the northern neighbourhood was restructured around the new parish of Notre-Dame. By the last years of Louis’s reign, the urban population of Versailles was some 45,000.

Such expansion meant that by the 1680s the château no longer stood in splendid isolation in the midst of the unpropitious terrain that Louis XIII had found when he constructed his hunting lodge. While new housing was sprouting up all over the northern and southern sides of the château, there were also significant developments behind the château to the west. Louis XIII had carved out of the wild forest a sizeable space for a park and gardens. It needed to be mastered, its combination of hilly terrain and aquatic marsh regulated and made fit for purpose. Louis XIV set in motion a massive project of earth removal, using military engineering techniques usually employed in fortification works. Soon, little trace was left of the mound on which had stood a windmill whose sails had once cast a shadow over the rooms of the château. Neatly levelled and terraced space offered a perfect environment for garden development. Between 1668 and 1672 some 130,000 trees were planted on the estate.

These gardens, however – together with an expanding royal court and a mushrooming adjacent service town – simply guzzled water. And therein lay a huge problem, which highlighted the scale of the difficulty of subordinating Nature to Culture in such a barren site. Oddly, considering how waterlogged the soil in the region was, water was a rare commodity here and water supply the long-running Achilles heel of Versailles. The Val de Galie in which Versailles was set had no major river running through it, only a number of small streams. Louis set his engineers to work in draining the marshland in ways that created a number of large reservoirs fed by the natural watercourses of the locality. The engineers lent Nature a helping hand by skilfully constructing pumps and watermills and installing subterranean aqueducts and piping. Marshy land adjacent to the south side of the château – the colourfully named ‘Stinking Pond’ (Étang puant) – was drained so as to provide a water supply to the royal kitchen garden or jardin potager, created here between 1678 and 1682, and also to source the huge nearby lake known as the pièce d’eau des Suisses.

This view from the Orangerie faces south across ornate parterres towards the pièce d’eau des Suisses , a huge lake which watered the nearby royal kitchen garden

It was soon apparent, however, that the water problem could not be solved locally and would necessitate going further afield. In the late 1660s the river Bièvre, which flowed into the Seine in Paris, was dammed to produce an inflow and this technique was then tried elsewhere. Notorious among such projects was the diversion of the waters of the Seine near Marly-le-Roi – about 9 kilometres away from Versailles, but also, more problematically, some 150 metres lower. This was an engineering challenge that was begun in the 1680s and involved the creation of the so-called ‘machine de Marly’, a huge and ingenious set of pumps of pharaonic scale. The results it achieved were, however, meagre. Nevertheless, the Marly scheme encouraged Louis to consider an ambitious plan to bring water from the river Eure, some 80 metres distant. The idea proved chimerical and had to be abandoned after France went back to war in 1688.

The so-called ‘Machine de Marly’ by Pierre-Denis Martin, 1723, was viewed as a technological marvel but was in fact spectacularly unsuccessful in meeting all Versailles’ needs in water

The water problem at Versailles never entirely disappeared; however, by 1682, when the court moved to Versailles, the environmental challenges of the site had largely been met. Louis’ achievement at Versailles appeared all the more striking to contemporaries because of the scale of the physical problems (more or less) solved along the way. Even Saint-Simon had grudgingly to admit that Louis ‘delighted in tyrannising nature and taming it by dint of arts and treasures’. Louis’s fairy-tale castle, sprung magically from barren soil, thus accrued all the more emphatically to his renown. In his own as well as many of his contemporaries’ eyes, such apparent miracles justified the sobriquet the king acquired in the 1670s of ‘Louis the Great’.

Versailles, 17 April 2005

Louis the Great’s transfer of court and government to the site on 5–6 May 1682 signalled the creation of the enduring myth of Versailles that was to be endlessly celebrated by royal propagandists, historians and art connoisseurs from that moment to the present day. The palace of Louis the Great did not spring into life fully formed, it was the result of compromise and negotiation, tinkering and amending, new directions and second thoughts. The royal chapel, for example, was housed in four different locations around the palace before a permanent home was found for it in the North Wing – and then only in 1710, five years before Louis’s death. Moreover, some of the king’s plans – for an opera house, for example – were never fulfilled. Construction stopped and started according to the king’s micromanaging whim – but also sometimes in a rhythm dictated by the state of the royal treasury at times of war. Louis changed his mind ceaselessly, forcing work to stop and then restart in a different direction. The palace swarmed continuously with building workers, decorators and artisans as much as with courtiers and government clerks. There was not a single spot in the whole enterprise, the Princesse Palatine, second wife of Louis’s brother Philippe, duc d’Orléans (who lived here for over thirty years), complained, with an exaggeration born of frustration, ‘which hasn’t been modified ten times’. For more than half a century Versailles was probably the biggest building site in Europe – and on the king’s death in 1715 was still not complete. Even so, it was indubitably the period from 1682 down to the king’s death in 1715 that represented the Golden Age of Versailles, in which the palace took on the shape and éclat that visitors and tourists encounter today.

As late-17th century tourists approached Versailles along the wide Avenue de Paris that led, up a slight incline, towards the palace, their eye-line was invariably drawn towards the cour de marbre at its heart. This initial glance paid involuntary homage to Versailles’s origins. The courtyard’s outline exactly traces that of Louis XIII’s little hunting lodge, which his son had insisted should be retained as his palace’s focal point. The combination of red (brick), white (marble and stone) and blueish-black (tiles) reproduces the colours that first triggered the comment that the original building was little more than a ‘house of cards’. The same design scheme was followed in the wings jutting forward at both sides of the cour. (The latter would only be transformed into stone-faced, neoclassical structures in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.)

The rustically archaic façade of Louis XIII’s original buildings around the cour de marbre was thoroughly worked over from the late 1670s by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who added the sculpture busts and the clock ensemble – each overflowing with political and allegorical messages. When the clock struck the hour, a statue of Louis XIV appeared, which was crowned with laurel by a passing goddess. The balcony, too, was Mansart’s creation: it was located in what towards the end of his life became the king’s bedroom at the very heart of the palace, thus giving the retiring ‘Sun King’ an appropriately majestic sunrise. It also allowed him to look down familiarly, for example, on Parisian market-women and fishwives (poissardes), who customarily came to the cour de marbre in delegation to congratulate the king at various ceremonial moments. Such encounters symbolised the axiom, as Louis XIV was to instruct his son, that ‘free and easy access of subjects to the king’ was an ancient singularity of the French monarchy – and one he desired that Versailles should always observe.

The Avenue de Paris took the visitor approaching the ornate outer gate of the palace complex between two magnificent stable blocks that Mansart had completed in 1681. On the right side of the Avenue, the Grande Écurie housed ceremonial and royal mounts, as well as a riding school and the school of royal pages, while the Petite Écurie to the left provided stabling for draught horses and included the palace blacksmith (the maréchalerie). Passing between the Écuries, any well-dressed individual (beggars, monks, prostitutes and recent smallpox victims were specifically excluded) could enter the palace gates from the huge parade ground (the Place d’Armes) into the Ministers’ Court in front of the palace itself. This was bounded to left and right by two long buildings jutting out from the palace façade, containing the offices of royal ministers. These structures partially hid from view the very considerable lateral palace extensions on the garden side of the inner courtyard, the South Wing (to the left on entering) and the North Wing (to the right).

Visitors advanced to the gate leading into the cour royale. Here, if they were wearing a sword denoting gentility (and they could hire one on the spot if necessary), they could enter the palace and its grounds. Once within, they might catch sight of the king or queen on their way to daily Mass in the chapel, or perhaps exercising in the gardens. Louis ordained the daily schedule in Versailles – in much the same way that he micromanaged everything else in the palace – in a highly ordered and ritualistic manner. Although only select courtiers were allowed to witness some of those rituals – notably the lever and the coucher, the moments of the king’s day in which he rose and retired – the general public were admitted to others, including the so-called grand couvert, the moment at which the king ate his evening meal. As this example suggests, visitors to Versailles were there not as participants in but as spectators of court life. Their assigned role was to goggle and be awestruck.

The Hall of Mirrors became one of the most celebrated and admired features of the palace

Tourist hotspots within the château always included the great Hall of Mirrors (Grande Galerie or Galerie des Glaces). An open terrace originally designed by Le Vau to look over the gardens had not been a success: it was useable only in the summer and it leaked. The Hall of Mirrors thus started as an elaborate repair job. Constructed by Mansart in 1678 and then decorated by sundry painters, sculptors and skilled artisans over the next five years, it stretches for some 73 metres and is flanked at each end by the superbly appointed Salon de la Guerre and Salon de la Paix. The rich, multi-coloured marble, silver furnishings, exquisite Boulle marquetry and parquet flooring paled when set against the huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors stretching down one wall, with which French artisans threw down a challenge to the Venetian masters who had formerly dominated the glass-making craft. On the ceilings the Premier peintre du Roi Charles Le Brun composed a series of paintings that depicted eighteen years of the king’s victories between his assumption of personal power in 1661 and the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678. This iconography needed clearance by the royal council, for there were some who feared (probably rightly) that its chest-banging triumphalism would be taken amiss by other European powers.

Aesthetically, Le Brun’s ceiling paintings marked a significant representational shift. Hitherto, Louis’s claims to greatness at Versailles had been expressed through comparisons with mythological figures or else through the iconography of the sun. Now, however, it was Louis in person who dominated each image (albeit dressed in Roman military cuirass, with bare arms and legs, together with an improbable combination of wig and fleur-de-lys mantle). The shift from myth to history implied that Louis’s actions were elevating him to the status of legend. The central image, moreover, was captioned ‘Louis governs by himself’, and commemorated the moment in 1661, following the overthrow of Fouquet, when he decided to dispense with a principal minister and govern by direct personal rule. Versailles was irredeemably Louisocentric.

Despite the aura of openness and accessibility which Louis encouraged in the palace, strict hierarchy was the rule, and life was dictated by unwritten but strictly observed rules about access to the royal presence. The state apartments – the Grands Appartements – could be strolled through in normal times, but they were closed to outsiders for special events and for the private parties that the king held for his courtiers in the evenings – the so-called soirées d’appartement. Similarly, only the closest and most trusted members of the court – his own family, the most august aristocrats and maybe some favoured hunting companions – were admitted to the royal presence in more informal settings. Private accommodation was also out of bounds. The royal apartments were thus split into two: the state rooms for display and formal business, and a smaller and more intimate set of rooms in which the king could feel simply chez soi. Yet solitude and close intimacy were not really Louis’s style. On one occasion when the Dauphine, complaining of the vapours, asked to be excused from attending a ball, Louis replied sternly: ‘We are not like private individuals. We owe ourselves entirely to the public.’ As Jean de La Bruyère, satirist of court life, noted, ‘A king lacks in nothing, save only the charms of a private life.’

Depicted on Charles Le Brun’s ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors is Louis XIV assuming sole power in 1661: the caption reads ‘Le Roi gouverne par lui-même’ (‘the king rules by himself’).

If Louis felt that he owed himself in some way primarily to the public, he also believed that the courtiers housed in Versailles owed everything of value in their lives to him as reigning monarch. There was nothing new about a royal court – kings had long had them, though much about their ceremonies and protocols had emerged from the Renaissance onwards. What Louis did at Versailles was, however, genuinely innovative: he planned the court as a place which his mightiest subjects would feel compelled to attend and which would also, as Saint-Simon put it, make them feel ‘in certain disgrace for not being present’. As the Italian envoy Primi Visconti, writing in the 1670s, noted: ‘the passion of courtiers to make themselves noticed by the king is unbelievable’.

Three factors incentivised courtiers to adapt so eagerly to the new Versailles. First, the court was the main source of state patronage, and presence at the new palace was viewed as a sine qua non of royal favour. Both honour and income were involved. Moreover, the expensive court lifestyle led high nobles increasingly into dependence on handouts from the state treasury. Second, the court offered an exciting and unmatchable social and cultural life. Third, there was the fact that Louis provided them with lodgings at the state’s expense. Initially, Louis’s encouragement to relocate in Versailles had been targeted at getting the high nobility to build hôtels particuliers in the town. The construction of the Écuries in the 1670s and early 1680s had, in fact, involved the destruction of several aristocratic residences opposite the palace gates. Although many courtiers retained town lodgings, all state and court officials were in theory housed in the palace and its dependencies. Courtiers were non-paying guests at Versailles.

The more successful this Versailles formula was, the more space it required, particularly as government ministries were now also based in Versailles. Building programmes were instituted in order to produce more suites of rooms. This had been the motivation behind Le Vau’s ‘envelope’, whose encasing of the original château more than doubled available space. Mansart then followed this up by building a lateral southern wing between 1679 and 1682, with an identical northern wing bringing the requisite symmetry from the late 1680s. Space for lodgings was also created by relocating service functions. The wings of the cour royale, for example, had housed stables, kitchens and offices in the 1660s. Stables were subsequently moved to the new Écuries on the Avenue de Paris, while the massive quadrangular Grand Commun was constructed behind the southern ministry wing for administrative staff and for service functions, as well as providing overflow lodgings. With these bulky new structures in place, it was clear that Louis had established Versailles as a new kind of monarchical institution: a hub of government, a brilliant artistic and architectural showcase, and home of the high aristocracy.

Versailles is a palace of two faces. Anyone approaching it from the town side in the east along the Avenue de Paris immediately observed the traces of the original Louis XIII structure. Despite some modernisation, the façade as a whole retained its red, white and blue palette. Yet for the visitor who successfully ran the gauntlet of gateway checks on entry, and then ventured into the gardens, a completely different Versailles opened up. The style imposed by Louis Le Vau on the western side of his ‘envelope’ structure – and continued by Mansart for the exterior of the Hall of Mirrors and for the façade of the two lateral wings – was more in accordance with classical precepts: stone replaced brick and no roof was visible behind an ornamental balustrade. The extraordinary width of the palace, partly obscured from the town perspective, was very apparent from the garden side: the ‘enveloped’ original château together with the wings stretched more than a quarter of a mile in all. It was majestically imposing – as well as quite unmissable – from vantage points in a garden and adjoining park that stretched out to the horizon across huge expanses of open land and reflective expanses of ornamental water.

The gardens were encompassed within the area that Louis XIV and his father had pieced together through purchases and acquisitions and which became known as the Grand Parc (Great Park). A terrain that came to extend to 15,000 hectares, it incorporated more than 20 villages with an overall population of several thousands, contained within a 3-metres-high wall 40 kilometres long, with 24 points of access. Louis XIII had come to Versailles in the first place to hunt, and the Grand Parc was where he and his successors did just that. Within this sprawling terrain of the Grand Parc, Louis XIV marked out the so-called Petit Parc. Its roughly 1,700 hectares were less wild and more manicured than the Grand Parc, though less ornate and punctiliously designed than the formal gardens nearest the house.

The Hall of Mirrors presents a grandstand view of the gardens, with the eye ranging from Culture (the gardens) to wild Nature (the Grand Parc) by way of tamed Nature (the Petit Parc). A striking visual feature of the latter was the Grand Canal. The principal arm of this cruciform feature extends a mile in length (the transverse arm is slightly shorter) and is in a direct line with the central avenue (the Grande Allée), which symmetrically divides the gardens in two for the viewer standing at the middle of the Hall of Mirrors. The dimensions and depth of the canal were sufficient for it to take all manner of craft, including galleys, gondolas (the gift of the Doge of Venice), Neapolitan feluccas, English yachts, Dutch barges and replicas of French battleships. A small village on the edge of the canal, known as La Petite Venise, housed shipworkers and their families.

The Grand Canal was laid out by the mastermind behind the whole setting of the palace, namely André Le Nôtre. A powerful figure who won the personal friendship and respect of the monarch (who uncharacteristically greeted him with an affectionate bear hug), it was Le Nôtre who laid out the ‘boulevardised’ avenues that approached the palace from the town side. He also ensured that the gardens were not a secondary feature of the palace but integral to its design and impact. Their importance was established early: indeed, the most brilliant moments in Versailles’s early history had precisely been those Arcadian fêtes such as the Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée (1664) and the Grand Divertissement royal (1668), which had revealed the gardens’ charms.

Louis showed the importance that he attached to the gardens in 1679 by sending Le Nôtre, who was already over sixty years old, on a tour of Italy, hitherto regarded as the acme of garden design, to cherry-pick ideas to import to Versailles. On his return, Le Nôtre worked closely with the other principal players in the king’s artistic team, initially ministerial factotum Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Charles Le Brun and Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Water-engineers, most famously the Florentine Francini dynasty, played a role in the placement and functioning of fountains that from the 1660s became one of the king’s special passions. The profusion, variety and height of the Versailles fountains became a thing of wonderment for all visitors.

In what became celebrated as the very archetype of the formal ‘French garden’ style that swept Europe thereafter, Le Nôtre made sure that the Versailles gardens showed Nature disciplined as a kind of mini-kingdom under Bourbon control. They were symmetrically organised around the axis provided by the Grande Allée, which divided the site. Around this, unilinear paths were set out between geometrically shaped parterres and flowerbeds where flowers were displayed to advantage behind box-border hedging and topiarised shrubs. The tight grip over Nature was relaxed slightly in places – notably in the areas given over to groves or bosquets. These were confined modular spaces, multimedia installations combining artfully arranged vegetation with hydraulically controlled water effects, sculptures, follies and garden furniture. Although disciplined shaping and pruning were never far away, they were set in designs planned to surprise, intrigue and delight by their apparent spontaneity. The Bosquet du Labyrinthe, for example, was a maze with 39 mini-fountains (it gave way to the Bosquet de la Reine in 1778). The Bosquet de la Colonnade was made up of an assemblage of Ionic columns, and the Bosquet de la Salle de Bal comprised a cunningly disposed series of waterfalls around a dance floor. From the 1680s, especially as Mansart took a more controlling hand in the design of the bosquets, the solar theme went into decline (as was the case in the Versailles interiors) and references became historical and naturalistic rather than mythical, allegorical or cosmological. Thus the Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe had a mini triumphal arch and a cascade of fountains memorialising the king’s military victories.

Many visitors were also forcefully struck by the profusion and quality of the statues located in the gardens, within the bosquets and without. More than a hundred sculptures, ranging from antique specimens to examples from the very finest contemporary artists, and fashioned in stone, iron, lead and other media, they made (and make) the gardens a huge open-air sculpture museum. Although many were free-standing, they often formed an integral part of the water features and bosquets. From the Hall of Mirrors, for example, the visitor looked down along the Grande Allée towards the famous Bassin de Latone, a complex water feature with dozens of sculptures around the central figure of Latona, daughter of Apollo. Beyond, the eye tracks along a unilinear lawn (the Grand Tapis) to the line of the Grand Canal. Just in front of this lies the Bassin d’Apollon with Apollo on his chariot marking the rising of the sun.

Versailles, Latona fountain, 17 April 2005

The king’s fondness for the Versailles gardens was signalled by the fact that between 1689 and 1705 he wrote no fewer than six versions of a personal guide to them, the Manière de montrer les jardins de Versailles. He visited them almost daily and, when gout restricted his mobility in the 1680s, had a little wheelchair specially constructed. He seemed quite as exercised by what his visitors thought of the gardens as by their views of the palace itself. The guidebook included no invitations to linger or to daydream, and permitted no games, picnics or fishing trips. Visitors were there to be impressed and to admire: out of obedience to the king’s command, therefore, their progress around the gardens was to be brisk, disciplined and respectful.

The Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau by Jean Cotelle, 1688, featured some of the numerous fountains associated with the Francini dynasty of water engineers. It could serve as an open-air theatre.

The spectacle that visitors witnessed was designed to mark the king’s mastery and display of Culture as well as Nature in all their richness and superabundance. The range of works of artistic genius from the modern as well as the ancient world, in a dazzling array of forms and media, seemed to endeavour to recapitulate and condense western culture within a single site. Nature, too, was commanded by human ingenuity into miraculous forms. Water – so problematic a presence at Versailles – had been managed and channelled so that brilliant water features could decorate the site. The earth had been reshaped by human heft into geometrical regularity. The Menagerie contained a copious collection of fauna from around the globe – ostrich, flamingo, elephant, camel, lion, parrot, gazelle (a rhinoceros would follow in the 18th century). Parterres displayed plants and shrubs gathered from across France (Norman daffodils, Provençal roses, Languedocian maples), while the new Orangerie designed by Mansart in 1686 to replace Le Vau’s earlier model acclimatised exotic fruits from around the world (displaying the reach of French global commerce), as well as the largest collection of orange trees in Europe, 2,000 in all. And the Potager du Roi contrived to provide the king with figs in springtime and strawberries at Christmas. Nature seemed to genuflect to the Bourbon will.

As time went on, signs appeared that Louis was tiring of his self-assigned task of ceaseless publicity, and of the constant stream of gawping visitors it brought to his palace and grounds. In 1685 he closed the gardens to public access, reopening them only in 1704. Already in 1679 – even before the court’s formal relocation to Versailles – he had started work on a major new project, the building of a château at Marly, which was intended as a more relaxed retreat for him and a select group of his closest courtiers. Situated towards the perimeter of the Grand Parc, Marly was over eight kilometres distant from the palace. Even closer at hand was the blue tiled ‘porcelain’ Trianon which Louis had designed in 1670 as a kind of summer house. In 1687–8 Mansart was commissioned to raze it and to create a much more splendid structure on the site. This was the Marble Trianon (Trianon de marbre), which became known as the Grand Trianon. Louis devoted a huge amount of attention to its superb gardens, which became famous for their flower displays.

The new Trianon was not decorated quite as sumptuously as one might have anticipated. There was a new emphasis on lightness, notably through the use of mirrors and white paint, which was both a financial and an aesthetic choice. The heavy, sumptuous, polychromatic look of early Versailles was coming to be seen as dépassé. In addition, the royal treasury was feeling the pinch. To the expenditure on the main house and garden, and then on Marly and the Trianon, were added the huge demands of European warfare. The extensive makeover of the palace and its gardens had been facilitated by the decade of peace between 1679 and 1688. But the outbreak of the War of the League of Augsburg (1688) inaugurated an international landscape that would remain sombre for France right through to Louis’s death in 1715. Peace in 1697 would be followed by the ruinously expensive War of the Spanish Succession (1701– 14). Moreover, weather conditions in 1693–4 and 1709–10 (the 1709 winter was so cold that wine froze in glasses, ink on pens and birds to boughs) produced near-famine conditions throughout the country, massively reducing the tax take. With warfare increasingly tying the king’s hands, plans for new projects were put on hold and the buildings budget for Versailles was severely reduced. In 1689, as much out of financial desperation as from national solidarity, the king dispatched all his palace silverware from Versailles to be melted down for coin.

In these last decades of Louis’s reign there were still moments when the financial vice relaxed enough for the king to envisage substantial initiatives. Changes to the king’s apartment included the creation – partly out of his former bedroom – of a large antechamber, the Salon de l’Œil de Boeuf (named after the bullseye shape of its main window). This allowed the king’s bedroom, the Chambre du Roi, to be relocated in 1701 to the exact centre of the first-floor apartment in what had formerly been his dressing room. The most significant structural change in this period was the decision to complete the construction of the chapel. Plans had been readied by Mansart in 1687, but it was only consecrated in 1710, two years after Mansart’s death. This huge structure was the fifth chapel in the palace’s brief history – and was to be its last. No time or money was available to fill the site of the old chapel with a planned Salon d’Hercule.

It was not only financial constraints that led to a fading of the splendours of the palace. The change of mood was also linked to Louis’s own temperament and disposition. Following the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse in 1683, his almost immediate secret marriage to Madame de Maintenon – the former nanny to his illegitimate children with Madame de Montespan – was critical in this respect. She encouraged the king towards domestic calm and sober piety and away from profligate expenditure, sexual adventures and court gaiety. The festive schedule dwindled, partly also owing to the king’s frequent extended absences from the palace. ‘The king doesn’t seem to like Versailles as once he did,’ remarked one courtier in 1698. ‘Every Tuesday he goes to Marly or Meudon and sometimes to the Trianon, which is only at the end of the garden, and he only returns on Saturday evening.’ In the last years of his reign, Louis was spending up to half of his time in Marly.

Louis was still able to push the boat out occasionally – the reception for an envoy of the Shah Persia in February 1715 saw him staggering under the of a gold costume studded with over 12 million livres’ worth of diamonds. But courtiers sensed that his heart had not been in it for some time: court routines were becoming exceptional rather than quotidian, as Louis lingered elsewhere. Versailles seemed to be losing its charm – and to a degree its raison d’être.

A terrible wave of mortality within the royal family in the last years of the king’s reign added to the air of melancholy. The king lost successively and in short order no fewer than three Dauphins: his son Louis (1711), his grandson, the duc de Bourgogne (whose wife also died around the same time, 1712) and his great-grandson, the duc de Bretagne (1712). The only heir left standing was another great-grandson, the infant duc d’Anjou, born in 1710.

Louis XIV’s final chapel marked a stylistic transition away from polychromatic splendour to an elegant whiteness that presaged the decorative trends of the later 18th century.

The death of Louis XIV in 1715 brought to the throne his only surviving heir and greatgrandson, the five-year-old duc d’Anjou – frail survivor of a bout of measles that carried off his parents and his older brother in a matter of months – who took the title of Louis XV. Power passed almost at once to the late king’s least-favourite nephew, the bon vivant reprobate Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, who became Regent for the infant king. On his deathbed, Louis XIV had counselled that the child should live away from Versailles to protect his health – there was a general suspicion that the unhealthiness of the site had been linked to the deaths over the previous few years of many of his closest relatives. The old king had proposed Vincennes, but Orléans thought otherwise, and, in September 1715, the whole court and government shipped out of Versailles to Paris. The young king took up residence in the Tuileries Palace, while Orléans preferred to stay in his own dwelling, the Palais-Royal.

Versailles was so closely and inextricably connected with Louis XIV ‘the Great’ that this wilful removal from his palace cast doubt on whether it would ever again be the principal residence of his Bourbon successors. Pending a decision, the palace, deprived of governmental and court personnel, remained an empty shell. The palace’s governor took advantage of the situation to undertake a Herculean cleaning operation and also ensured that the fountains in the grounds played at regular intervals to attract sightseers. When Czar Peter the Great of Russia visited in 1717 he looked avidly around the palace and gardens with little by way of supervision or diplomatic escort.

In Paris the growing Louis XV still clearly nurtured nostalgic feelings for the house where he was born. In June 1722 the twelve-year-old monarch took the decision to move court and government back to Versailles. On arriving at the palace, after visiting the chapel, the boy romped excitedly around palace and gardens, leaving his followers panting in his wake, before he collapsed in a heap on the parquet flooring of the Hall of Mirrors to admire the ceiling paintings of Charles Le Brun representing the illustrious career of Louis XIV. This final gesture was a revealing augury for the future. The young king saw it as his mission to command Versailles to wake, Sleeping Beauty-like, from its slumbers and to stay true to the spirit of its founder.

Both Louis XV and, from 1774, his successor Louis XVI showed punctilious respect for the founder of Versailles and all his works. Throughout the six decades of Louis XV’s reign the great clock on the palace’s cour de marbre was made to show the exact moment that Louis XIV had died. Louis XV’s palace ran on Louis XIV-time. Early in his reign Louis XV formally outlined his intentions with the words, ‘I wish to follow in everything the example of the late king, my great-grandfather,’ a lapidary statement that also proved a programme for action – or inaction. Over his long reign he changed very little in the basic structure of the site. Versailles was certainly not set in aspic: the new king had a passion for building and spent hours poring over architectural drawings and discussing them with his architects, and the palace endlessly buzzed with building work. Yet this was only advanced tinkering and more radical plans stayed on paper. The main mark he left on the palace took the form of three projects, all of which were directly inspired by Louis XIV.

Firstly he undertook the completion of the Salon d’Hercule, which was located in the space formerly occupied by the chapel. Louis XIV had started the project in 1712 and work resumed in the early 1720s. By the time it was finished it was viewed as the most magnificently appointed reception room in the whole palace, with fine marble decorations matched by François Le Moyne’s superbly detailed ceiling and a huge Veronese canvas on one wall (where it can still be seen). The room was formally inaugurated in 1739 by the marriage of the king’s daughter Elisabeth to the Spanish royal heir.

Salon d’Hercule

Louis was as respectful of his predecessor’s gardens as he was of his palace. His second significant achievement, the Bassin de Neptune – the most elaborate and brilliant combination of aquatic sculpture and fountain in the whole estate – was again essentially finishing work initiated by Louis XIV.

André Le Nôtre designed the spectacular Bassin de Neptune fountains between 1679 and 1681. They were further enhanced in the 1730s

Louis had a bigger task with the third project, namely the construction of an opera house. Louis XIV had adored opera and ballet and only the impact of warfare had prevented his creating an opera house in the late 1680s. Later hostilities – notably the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years War (1756–63) – would delay Louis XV’s plans also, but building finally got under way in 1768. Designed by Premier Architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, and constructed in a rush for the marriage in 1770 of Louis’s grandson and heir, the duc de Berry, the future Louis XVI, with the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, Gabriel’s construction was generally regarded as the finest opera house in Europe.

And now little bears are dreaming of their fast approaching visit to Versailles and the royal opera house… Stay tuned…

Versailles, Royal Opera

The Book in Stone

The French Culture Ministry has already announced an international competition to reconstruct or replace Viollet-le-Duc’s spire and roof, which most people assume has been there since the Middle Ages. Whether or not that initiative will truly open itself up to anything but a redo of what has been, in the last century-and-a-half, an integral part of how we perceive Notre Dame de Paris, remains to be seen.

Notre Dame de Paris in 2014

In related good news, the cathedral’s historic 8,000-pipe Cavaillé-Coll organ has made it through relatively unscathed, with the cathedral’s heritage director confirming that while the high altar was damaged by the collapsing spire, the 18th century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels and the big organ are fine.

Notre Dame Grand Organ

So far more than $1 billion has been pledged for the restoration effort, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying he wants to see the Cathedral rebuilt within five years.

No doubt everyone will have an opinion about how Notre Dame should be rebuilt. The answer should seem simple: exactly as it was. Except it is building that has seen bouts of construction for over six centuries. Most notably, the part (the roof and spire) that burned down on April 15 was mainly the (re)creation of medieval ideas as imagined by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.

As the 18th century drew to a close, Notre Dame reached the lowest ebb of its fortunes. It stood disused, along with all the other churches of France. Extremists called for its demolition, with the stone to be sold for building material. In the meantime, its chapels were put up for sale, and some were actually bought, although the purchasers were apt to complain that the space was still encumbered by marble and bits of sculpture. The cathedral nave was used to store wine casks for the people’s army.

A rising young writer named Victor Hugo set the tone for this revaluation. In his Notre Dame de Paris (in English The Hunchback of Notre Dame) published in 1831, he glorified architecture as living history; to Hugo, a building was “a book in stone” – Gothic cathedrals in general and Notre Dame in particular.

Turning upon the 18th century, he denounced its refinements as silly fashion. He listed the indignities that had been wreaked on the cathedral of Paris in the name of so-called taste: its richly coloured windows gone, its interior whitewashed, its flèche ripped off, the shape of the central portal mutilated, its chapels choked with showy rubbish, its choir floored with gaudy marble, its sanctuary cluttered with histrionic statuary. Hugo’s novel strongly influenced another young Parisian of talent, only seventeen at the time but already devoting himself to architecture – Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. The name was to become almost synonymous with restoration. While still in his early twenties, Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to the newly established commission for the preservation of historic monuments. For there was a movement afoot, thanks largely to Hugo’s novel, to save the buildings that represented the country’s great past.

In 1845, Viollet-le-Duc was appointed architect for the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris. He was to be occupied with that task for the next twenty years. He had developed a philosophy of restoration. He was to state it again and again in his many writings, and above all, in his vast study of French architecture, cast in the form of a dictionary that ran to ten volumes. But he expressed his principles early and clearly in his proposals for Notre Dame:

“In a project of this sort, one cannot proceed with enough prudence and discretion. A restoration can do more harm to a monument than the ravages of the centuries and the fury of rioters. For time and revolution destroy but add nothing. A restoration, on the other hand, by adding new forms, can erase a host of details which are all the more interesting for being worn and rare. It is hard to say which is more dangerous – the indifference which lets buildings fall into total ruin or the ignorant zeal which shears away, adds on, carries to completion, and ends by transforming an ancient building into a new one, devoid of the slightest historical interest.”

Restoring Notre Dame was an enormous task. Viollet-le-Duc repaired the structure literally from the foundations to the tiling of the roofs. As he explained in his report, it was only in taking the work in hand that he saw how grave the cathedral’s troubles were, the essential nature of what had to be done, and the danger of half measures. His diagnoses and remedies have proved their soundness. Notre Dame has remained substantially as he left it in 1864. Although he ran through more than one allocation, new funds were always voted for him. Building in France no longer depended on the whim of kings but on sober-minded deputies – yet they proved remarkably generous toward the cause of restoration.

The cornerstone of Notre Dame de Paris was laid in 1163. Louis VII was king. Louis himself was a pious and modest man, given to deprecating his worldly possessions. He once remarked to an Englishman: “Your master the King of England lacks nothing; he possesses men, horses, gold and silk, gems, fruits, wild beasts and all things else. We in France have nothing except bread and wine and joy.”

But Louis’s new bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, understood that prestige must be visible. Paris, the greatest city in France, could not lag behind such small towns as Senlis, Noyon, and Sens, and such abbeys as Saint-Denis. Paris had to have a cathedral worthy of a capital.

The Saint Anne portal and tympanum

Statues representing the king and the bishop, as well as the powerful Dean of the Chapter of Notre Dame, can be seen on the Portal of Saint Anne, the south portal of the western façade. The sculptors set to work right at the beginning of construction, carving capitals for the columns and statues for the portals – although these statues would not be inserted in their places for some forty years. The oldest part of the Portal of Saint Anne – it was rebuilt in the 13th century – is the tympanum, the curved triangular space under the arch. In its centre, the Virgin sits majestically on a square, ornamented throne, enclosed within turrets like a miniature cathedral. She sits with a certain hieratic stiffness, the Child on her lap, and both gaze straight ahead, as if unaware of the adoring angels to either side. Beyond the angel on her left, identified by his crown and regal look, Louis VII humbly kneels. On her right, Maurice de Sully asserts his ecclesiastical prerogative. He stands proudly, his crook over his right shoulder, a small and stocky man who looks more conscious of his power than does the king of his, perhaps because Maurice had travelled a longer way than Louis to achieve it.

Tucked into the corner of the tympanum to the left of Maurice, his back bowed to conform to the curve of the arch and the habit of the scribe, in his hand a book in which he seems to be making an entry, sits a man who has been identified as Barbedor, Dean of the Chapter. He is a young man with a face rather like Maurice’s, except that he is beardless. Barbedor deserves his place on the façade of the cathedral. Chaplain and confessor to Louis VII, he was the direct intermediary between king and bishop. He also served for sixteen years as dean, and in that capacity supervised much of the construction. What is more, he devoted a large part of his personal wealth to furthering the work. It was he who compensated owners whose houses had to be razed and he who furnished the funds for the stained glass of the choir.

Before any work could begin, the stone had to be found. Millions of tons of stone were quarried in the Île-de-France during the cathedral-building centuries – more, it has been said, than during the whole history of ancient Egypt. Fortunately, beautiful stone of varying degrees of hardness underlay much of the countryside around Paris. Most of the stone for Notre Dame came from quarries on the Butte Saint-Jacques, from Bagneux, Arcueil and Montrouge. The quarrymen, unlike the other workmen, tended to be residents of the area who spent their lives amid choking clouds of stone dust. Since transportation was expensive, they cut the blocks roughly to shape in the quarry – there was little point in carting tons of waste material to the building site.

The quarryman had to know stone intimately. Working with primitive equipment, without benefit of explosives or mechanical saws, he had to find the lines of cleavage in the beds, to follow the grain of the stone. As a rule, he chose the softer varieties wherever their use would do no harm, as in the sculptures and facings. But for bearing surfaces, for the drums of columns and overhanging cornices, he had at his disposal the firm, hard stone called cliquart. No doubt the pay scales varied for the different types of stone since the workmen were paid piecework by the block rather than by the hour.

From the quarry, the stone had to be transported in oxcarts or on barges to the site. An oxcart could carry perhaps one ton – and thousands of tons of stone were needed. No wonder that the sculptors of Laon cathedral placed statues of oxen at the corners of their towers, in tribute to the patient beasts.

At the masons’ lodge, the stone was dressed to its final shape. The stonecutters carefully marked each block or cylinder to show where it was to be placed on the wall, column, or arch. In addition to these “position marks”, they chiselled their personal marks – rarely letters of the alphabet, more often symbols: combinations of triangles, crosses, arrows, zigzag bars. These masons’ marks were the equivalent of signatures; they ensured that when the week’s work was totalled, there would be no disputes over how many blocks each man had delivered. But the marks also served as an expression of the medieval mason’s pride in his work. A father handed his mark on to his son. If a son worked on the same job with his father, he would add a small additional stroke to distinguish his own mark. By examining marks, archaeologists have been able to trace the travels of the itinerant masons from cathedral to cathedral across France.

The simplest form of stone-working consisted of making the rough blocks that were used with rubble and mortar to fill the interior of walls and buttresses to the required thickness. Such work could safely be left to apprentices. The smoothly finished blocks of larger sizes for the facings of the cathedral – as well as the drums for the columns, the cylinders for colonnettes, the wedge-shaped voussoirs that formed the arches, and the complexly faceted keystones – required the experience and talent of the trained journeyman. The lacelike tracery of windows, the intricacies of capitals, the multiple planes and curves of mouldings, were necessarily reserved for the master mason. Medieval writers did not differentiate between masons and sculptors, but it is clear that the men who carved the madonnas, patriarchs, saints, kings and gargoyles that adorned the cathedrals knew themselves to be artists, even though they only occasionally signed their work. With the growth and spread of the Gothic style, these sculptors became more daring, more realistic, and more obtrusive. They literally covered the cathedrals with their works; there are 1,200 sculptures in Notre Dame de Paris.

The carpenters were as important as the masons. The lives of the workmen depended upon their care in lashing together the scaffolding poles. They built the ramps to carry up materials and constructed the shoring that held walls in position. They chose, hewed, and installed the tie beams, plates, and rafters of the roofs, binding the members together with mortise-and-tenon joints, through which wooden pegs were driven. Carpenters also had to be engineers, for they built and maintained the “great wheel”, which was installed on a platform under the roof and used for hoisting stone and other heavy materials into place. These wheel-windlasses were operated by manpower, sometimes in the form of a treadmill, but they afforded considerable mechanical advantage.

The greatest call upon the skills of the carpenters came in the construction of the falsework or centering, the complex curving frames that supported arches during construction. Unless the centering had the proper curvature, the stone arch would not hold when the wooden support was removed. Moreover, the process of “striking” or “decentering” called for delicate judgement. If the wooden frame was removed too soon, while the mortar was still green, the arch might collapse. But leaving the centering in place too long was also dangerous. For if the mortar had set so hard that it had lost all plasticity, when the centering was removed and the building settled, the vault might crack open. The medieval carpenters seem to have devised ingenious methods of removing wedges a little at a time, so that the arches could settle gradually as the mortar hardened. Still, it must have been a tense moment for carpenters, masons, and the master of the work alike each time the falsework was finally removed.

The master of the work, magister operis, sometimes called master mason or master builder, combined the roles of architect, general contractor, and chief foreman. He was on the site every day directing operations, but he also drew up the plans, made models of the projected building, organised the order of construction, and negotiated with the canons, the bishop, or the abbot. Carrying his virga, the measuring rod, he went about the works in elegant robes, with his gloves in his hands but not on them. These gloves were a sign that he had sprung from the guild of masons but that he now worked with his head rather than his hands.

Unfortunately, we do not know the name of the first master of the work at Notre Dame, although a certain “Richard the mason” witnessed a cathedral document in 1164, and the names of some of the later great masters have been preserved. But it is clear that Bishop Maurice de Sully made an inspired choice. When he was ready for the laying of the cornerstone of the choir in 1163, he had at his disposal an architect whose ability matched the bishop’s vision.

Once the cornerstone was laid and the elaborate dedication ceremonies completed, Bishop Maurice de Sully matched expenditure to income and employed just enough workmen to keep the cathedral growing briskly but not wastefully. The foundations were dug nine meters deep and filled with the hard stone of Montrouge to take the enormous weight that would be raised upon them. The chancel – choir and apse – was built first. This is where the priests officiated, from the high altar. Once the chancel was built, the church could function. As Maurice conceived them, choir and apse would be big enough and grand enough for the celebration of royal weddings, funerals, and victories even before the completion of the nave. By itself, in fact, the chancel formed a sizeable church, 52 meters long and 48 meters wide, with the vaulting of the choir rising to the unprecedented height of more than 30 meters. Four tiers of windows – sapphire, ruby, topaz, and emerald – poured jewelled light into the sanctuary. Auxiliary altars were ranged against the curving outer wall of the apse, and the ambulatory, the wide passageway that swept around the eastern perimeter of the building, was to be double-aisled.

Such a plan had already been attempted at Saint-Denis. But the immense scale of the new Notre Dame multiplied the technical difficulties. The vaults were higher and the spans wider than had so far been conquered by the new building style. Yet Maurice de Sully and his architect were aiming for impressive vistas, not to be spoiled by a multiplicity of supporting members. The problem was ingeniously solved by the spacing of the pillars, and by combining simple transverse arches with a system of triangular ribbing. The resultant design was a triumph of both aesthetics and practicality. It would be imitated again and again in subsequent churches; but the clarity, grace, and noble perspectives of the apse at Notre Dame de Paris have remained overwhelming. Yet this portion of the church was built in less than twenty years. More important, it set the dominant motif for the remainder of the cathedral, even though building continued well into the 14th century.

Louis VII did not quite live to see the choir and apse of Notre Dame completed. An old man before he reached sixty, he arranged for the coronation of his heir at Reims but was himself unable to attend the ceremony. After a lingering illness, he died in the beloved shadow of the new cathedral, in the very Cloister of Notre Dame where he had been raised as a child.

To his son Philip Augustus, Louis left the conquest and absorption of the Angevin possessions on the Continent. His own greatest monument was the ring of noble churches and cathedrals in and around Paris. Saint-Denis, Sens, Vézelay, Noyon, Senlis, Laon, Reims, Châlons-sur-Marne, Mantes – almost as many magnificent churches were begun or reconstructed during his reign as there were towns and abbeys in the royal domain.

In these cathedrals, a new kind of music was replacing the Gregorian plain chant whose powerful, straightforward recitative had seemed the musical reflection of the foursquare, massive Romanesque churches. The new polyphonic style, more rhythmical and more complex, full of surprises like the nascent Gothic, had its origin at Notre Dame de Paris. Leoninus and Perotinus, two composers of genius, made Paris the centre of the musical world. Leoninus in his Magnus Liber provided enough two-voiced music to cover the whole round of the ecclesiastical year. Perotinus, suiting his compositions to the acoustic demands of the new choir of Notre Dame, rewrote many of Leoninus’s organums by adding more voices and interweaving them into intricate melodies.

With pomp and circumstance, the high altar of Notre Dame was consecrated in 1182. Assisted by Maurice de Sully, the papal legate, Henri de Château-Marçay, mixed holy water and chrism and inscribed the requisite seven crosses upon the altar. Then the altar was washed, wiped, and rubbed once more with oil of catechumens and chrism. The incense was blessed, and a grain of incense was placed in each of the corners of the altar and at its centre. Then, once more, came the scraping and cleansing, sprinkling of the altar cloth and ornaments with holy water, and censing of the altar. Only then could the first mass be celebrated at the new altar.

Notre Dame High Altar (second high altar from the 18th century)

It was a high honour for Maurice de Sully to have the papal legate present at this important ceremony. It was a higher honour still, three years later, for him to have Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, officiate in his new choir. To men of this era of Crusades, the patriarch was the greatest ecclesiastic in the world next to the pope.

The events of the 12th century – in the Holy Land and in Europe – inevitably slowed the work of building Notre Dame de Paris, if only because the driving spirit behind it, Maurice de Sully, was so much preoccupied during the years of peril and warfare. Philip Augustus, before leaving for the Third Crusade, appointed Maurice one of the executors of his will. The Crusade and the subsequent war with England strained the resources of France. It became harder to raise funds for building after so much treasure had been poured into equipping the men who died in the disease-ridden squalor of the camp at Acre.

Nevertheless, Maurice had guarded his own revenues well. Early in his episcopate, he completed his noble episcopal palace, which occupied the area between the new cathedral and the Seine. And throughout his long tenure as bishop of Paris, work on the cathedral never ceased. By the time Maurice died in 1196, the great nave was substantially finished. As his last act of faith toward the cathedral he loved, Maurice provided in his will the sum of 100 livres for the expenses of roofing. He left an equal amount to the “poor clerks” of the cathedral of Paris – for he himself had once, long ago, been just such a poor clerk, living on the charity of earlier bequests.

The nave of Notre Dame de Paris benefited by the advances in the techniques of Gothic architecture that were being made all over France at this time. Outside, to support his 33-meter-high vaulting, the master of the work threw up a series of flying buttresses – perhaps for the first time, perhaps perhaps in imitation of what had been done at Saint-Denis and in smaller churches around the Île de-France (the question of priority is in dispute and perhaps can never be definitely settled). The sexpartite vaults – crossed ogives with a supplementary arch passing through their keystones – seemed to fling themselves toward Heaven, as if to reproduce in stone the soaring ambitions of Philip Augustus.

The double aisles of the choir continue through the nave, but there is a remarkable difference in the supporting columns. In the choir, they are uniform round shafts on square bases. In the long nave, the same scheme is followed in the central vessel. But the effect of a monotonous parade of pillars all exactly alike is broken by the inspired treatment of the central line of columns separating the two aisles. Here, simple shafts alternate with pillars surrounded by colonnettes that add both strength and grace. The changing rhythm of these columns is one of the greatest charms of the nave at Notre Dame, for the colonnettes impose a vertical movement that contrasts beautifully with the horizontal feeling of the simple shafts, whose successive circular drums are plainly visible.

The capitals of the columns in the nave, as compared with the choir, illustrate the completed transition from Romanesque to Gothic. The floral patterns are still stylized, but there is a greater approach to realism, a greater fineness in the depiction of each leaf. Indeed, in spite of its vast size, fineness is the dominant characteristic of this nave. The structural members are thinner, leaner, less massive than the ones in the choir. The builders by then had acquired confidence in opus francigenum, or “French work”, as Gothic architecture was generally called throughout Europe. They had a better understanding of the strength of colonnettes and pointed arches, and they had added to their already considerable arsenal of structural reassurances the vital device of the flying buttress.

With flying buttresses to support the upper parts of the nave, tribunes above the aisles were not strictly necessary. They were built nevertheless, for the sake of additional strength and consistency with the choir, and are among the most beautiful aspects of Notre Dame de Paris. Wide, well-lighted, they are vaulted by simple crossed ogives that run down to engaged columns, between which, the arcades are additionally supported by graceful, slender pilasters. Some of the capitals in these tribunes display long, narrow recurved leaves – first examples of the crockets that were later to become so popular in Gothic architecture and that were used lavishly on the façade of Notre Dame.

Under Maurice de Sully’s successor, work on the façade began immediately after completion of the nave. As chance would have it, the new bishop of Paris was named Eudes de Sully and came from the same town of Sully-sur-Loire as had Maurice. But there was no kinship between them, and, in fact, the two men were as different as pauper and prince. Eudes de Sully was a noble, related to many of the great secular and ecclesiastical lords of France and England. Philip Augustus was his cousin; and Eudes de Sully as bishop had the rare courage to “obey God rather than man”, as the biblical phrase so current at the time had it. What that meant in practice was that he opposed his king and obeyed the pope, who had placed the French realm under interdict to punish Philip for repudiating his second wife. In quarrels with the papacy, kings expected support from their own bishops. But Eudes de Sully immediately stopped services in the cathedral of Paris and enforced the interdict throughout his diocese.

But although his relations with Philip were often strained, as Maurice’s had scarcely ever been, Eudes de Sully had one great advantage over his predecessor that redounded to the benefit of Notre Dame: He was independently wealthy. He was also willing to devote his large means to the embellishment of his cathedral. The result was that the original design of the western façade was reconceived on a more ambitious scale – so much more ambitious that the façade ultimately took more years to build than had the choir and nave together.

It was during the first twenty-five years of the 13th century that the grandiose western façade was erected as far as the stage of the great rose. The magnificence of the façade harked back to Norman ancestors, particularly Saint-Étienne and La Trinité at Caen with their schemes of three portals and two towers. It is even possible that the ancient Christian basilicas of Syria influenced the design of the Paris façade – crusaders and pilgrims would have seen these many times. Saint-Denis, Senlis, Noyon, Laon, and other churches of the Île-de-France likewise served as models. But for perfection of balance, harmony of parts, and beauty of detail, the western façade of Notre Dame de Paris equals or surpasses all.

The three great portals, each set between a pair of buttresses, all differ somewhat in height and width as well as in sculptural subjects. The central portal, higher and wider than the other two, has suffered the most damage from time and man – those two great enemies of architectural monuments of which, Victor Hugo remarked, man is the worse. In 1771, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot destroyed the beauty of the portal by enlarging it so that processions with canopies could pass through. The 19th century restoration permits us to see the portal in its original shape, but much of the sculpture is the work of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and his pupils.

Portal of the Last Judgement

The subject, traditional for cathedrals, gives the central portal its name: the Portal of the Last Judgement. At the summit of the tympanum, a majestic Christ sits in judgement upon the sinful and the good, whose souls are being weighed by Saint Michael in the upper lintel. Two angels beside Christ hold the nails, lance, and cross (those sacred relics that the chivalry of France were trying to wrest from Saladin at the time the original sculptures were carved). A little lower than the angels, Mary and Saint John kneel before Christ to pray that mercy be shown to the human race. On the left side of the upper lintel, under Christ’s upraised right hand, the saved rise to Heaven; on the right, the damned are being dragged down to Hell. The crowned souls of the just are being guided to Paradise by a lovely angel; a savage demon tugs at a long rope dragging the sinners sinners downward. In the covings to the left of the tympanum, Heaven and all its angels, patriarchs, saints, virgins, and doctors of the Church, are displayed; while on the right are chaos, horror, the ugly twisting and writhing shapes of Hell and all its demons.

Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations on the pier, pillars, splays, and bases of the great central portal were as true to the originals as he could make them in the 19th century. A mere list of the subjects suggests the complexity of this religious art: Christ as teacher, the Liberal Arts, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Apostles, the Virtues and the Vices – a large segment of Christian doctrine and Christian history was incorporated into this one great portal. Yet the central portal, with its wealth of sculpture, is only one of three.

The Portal of Saint Anne

The Portal of Saint Anne, to the right, contains the oldest sculptures in the cathedral. The lintels of this portal show scenes from the New Testament: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, King Herod and the Magi, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, and so on. The statues below the lintel are reconstructions from the workshop of Viollet-le-Duc.

Portal of the Virgin

The left portal, the Portal of the Virgin, is distinguished from the others by the gable above the tympanum. As the whole church was consecrated to the Virgin, so also was one entire portal of the façade. Here was the place for those scenes recorded in the Apocrypha, which so stirred the imaginations of men in the 12th and 13th centuries: the death, assumption, and coronation of the Mother of God. The 13th century tympanum of the Portal of the Virgin shows Mary’s burial and assumption. Below this scene sit three kings of Judah, to emphasise Mary’s royal ancestry, and three prophets, to recall the Old Testament prophecies of the coming to earth of Jesus Christ.

To the 13th century mind, the Virgin provided the link between human lowliness and divine majesty. She had also incorporated into herself the goddesses of the ancient world, those seasonal goddesses like Ceres and Proserpine. Hence, it was only natural that the pier should show in bas-relief the changing seasons and the ages of man, that the pillars should depict the months and their labours. A Bible in stone, a calendar in stone: The medieval cathedral tried, like the medieval summa, to be an epitome of all the knowledge that was needed for life and salvation.

Above the three portals, running across the entire façade, the builders of Notre Dame created the Gallery of Kings. Here, twenty-eight kings of Israel looked out over the Île de la Cité. The statues we now see are restorations, for in the French Revolution antiroyalist Paris saw the twenty-eight as kings of France, not Israel, and took them down. (Almost 184 years later, twenty-one of the statues’ heads were discovered during a building renovation and are now displayed in the Cluny Museum.) But if they misinterpreted the letter of the religious iconography, can it be said that they misinterpreted the spirit? The statues of the gallery may have depicted the kings of Israel, not France; but the sculptors had, indeed, been glorifying the only monarchy they knew. In the Gallery of Kings, they were undoubtedly proclaiming their pride in the triumphs of the French monarchy, which had grown so notably in power and prestige during the first quarter of the 13th century.

By the time Louis IX became France’s king in 1226, the rose window of the western façade of Notre Dame had been completed. This magnificent wheel of stone, like a huge halo around the head of the Virgin whose statue poises on the balustrade in front of it, is one of the miracles of 13th century architecture. The rose is 10 meters in diameter – the largest of its kind when it was erected – and the builders confronted the triple problem of sustaining the immense pressure of the surrounding stone upon so large a gap in the wall, of dividing the space into approximately equal areas, and of providing room enough for the glass, so that the window would serve its function of admitting a flood of coloured light to the interior.

They solved these problems ingeniously by arranging slender colonnettes like the spokes of a wheel all around the central oculus. These spokes run to a second circle of trefoiled arches on which rests a second series of colonnettes. But here, in between each radius, an additional colonnette to the outer rim has been inserted. The elegant result is approximately equal division of the space and tremendous strength in the whole structure. Functionalism alone, however, was never the aim of the medieval builder; and the effect of this rose is one of singular harmony, restfulness, and confidence. The loveliness of the stone tracery is enhanced by the sturdy semicircular arches, ornamented with innumerable crockets that surround the upper half of the window. These arches again rest on columns that recapitulate the theme of the window itself as do the slender columns of the bays between the buttresses to either side of the rose. The wheel theme also is recapitulated in the two blind roses in the tympanum of each bay; the crockets of the semicircular arch are repeated in the cornice that extends across the entire façade above the rose.

Notre Dame Grand Organ

Seen from the interior, the western rose is somewhat disappointing. A good third of it is obscured by organ pipes that were installed there in the 18th century. And all the original glass has vanished; what we now see are nineteenth-century restorations. Although they are good work, they remain only a dim simulacrum of the thirteenth-century glass, which one realises when standing at the crossing of the transept and looking up at the rose of the northern façade. Here, in the glorious rose window built by Jean de Chelles around 1250, the gemlike glass – blue, red, green, brown, and yellow, but predominantly blue – is almost all the original from the 13th century.

Without binoculars, the subjects depicted on the northern rose are difficult to make out from the ground, but the colours, and the light that falls through them onto the church floor, are breathtaking. Mary is in the centre of the wheel, of course; in the circles around her are the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. The window is larger than the western rose and contains proportionately more stone to glass, but it looks no heavier. The whole enormous structure rests upon the frail clerestory windows below it, but the lacelike tracery and the small trefoiled roses in the corners distribute the weight so perfectly that no sagging or cracking has appeared in seven centuries.

The southern rose, unfortunately, did not fare so well, perhaps because exposure to the sun weakened it more than the others, perhaps because normal maintenance was neglected on this side. At any rate, this rose began to buckle in the 16th century. An 18th century reconstruction made matters worse, and the whole façade crumbled. In the 19th century, Viollet-le-Duc decided that the trouble lay in the inadequate buttressing. He therefore reinforced the buttresses and rebuilt the entire wall, creating a new southern rose in the original style. Here is our chance to judge his merits as a restorer. The glass, predominantly red in keeping with tradition, is deceptively good. The expert may recognise it as 19th century, but the tourist observer is not likely to question its authenticity.

The stone tracery follows the same pattern as that of the other roses. It casts an interesting light on the reverse “progress” in architecture. For Viollet-le-Duc, with all the resources of 19th century engineering science behind him, found it necessary to make his stone framework thicker and therefore somewhat clumsier than that of the medieval roses. Yet it is scarcely surprising that he could not compete with the 13th century builders. For by the reign of Louis IX, the new Gothic style had become the native language of France’s architects. They were completely at home in it, had been working in the style for generations, son learning from father, apprentice from master, and had developed a boldness and assurance that enabled them to use stone almost as we use steel today. The passion for more and more light, ever leaner supports, had seized them all. Notre Dame was brand-new, as cathedrals went, but to these 13th century master builders, it already looked antiquated, outmoded. And so, even before the structure was complete, they began modernising it.

Around 1230, the original buttresses were replaced by the immense scapular arches that give Notre Dame its characteristic appearance. Along with this operation, lateral chapels were installed along both sides of the nave to take advantage of the space between the upright buttresses. More light was sought by increasing the amount of glass in the clerestory. During the 13th century, much of the wall between the buttresses was removed and the opening was almost entirely filled with glass: a procession of twin lancet windows each surmounted by a miniature rose. Shortly afterwards, the 13th century north and south roses, which had been about 5 meters in diameter, were also removed. Because of the installation of the lateral chapels, the transept façades were no longer in line with the rest of the structure. New façades were now built and the present vast roses – perhaps twice the diameter of the old ones – were installed in the north and south façades. But the traditional colour scheme was kept: the north rose predominantly blue, the south an exquisite pink developed especially in the Paris glass workshops.

Coloured glass had become a decisive element of the new architecture. The row upon row of immense, multicoloured windows glowing within the dusk of lofty vaults made these 13th century cathedrals like no buildings known before or since. The Middle Ages loved glittering things, shiny materials, strong colours, as we may see by the vast stores of jewelled, enamelled, gilded objects kept today in museums or church treasuries. Yet coloured glass outdid all other works of art in brilliance. The great Norman-Sicilian churches sheathed their walls in mosaic.

The Romanesque churches had been brightened with wall paintings. In Italy, the possibilities of coloured marble – white, green, pink, and black – gave churches a suave richness. But neither mosaic nor paintings nor marble could begin to equal the jewelled intensity of French stained glass. As sunlight struck the outside of the church from any direction or at any angle, the interior was emblazoned with shimmering veils of coloured light. Even on dark days, the windows fulfilled their expository function, telling stories from the Old and New Testaments, celebrating saints and heroes, and commemorating the benefactors of the church – those members of the royal house or of the local nobility and the prosperous guildsmen who contributed generously to the window fund.

With each of the many windows further subdivided into panels, medallions, circlets, and niches, the stained glass formed a vast picture book which could repay a lifetime of study. But seen all together, the glass was overwhelming. Thanks to it, the inside of the church became miraculous, supernatural, the nearest approximation man could make on earth of the divine city promised to the faithful after death. When stained-glass windows filled entire bays of the clerestory, the cathedrals of the 13th century proclaimed the underlying principles of creation and were a visible sign of the power and perfection of the Creator.

The skills involved in making stained glass had reached a high degree of development. Colour was infused into the molten glass itself – cobalt yielding the vast range of blues; iron oxide with added gold, the ruby reds; silver oxides, the yellows. But the same additives would also, in lesser or greater proportions, at higher or lower temperatures, produce purples or greens. The glassmakers commanded an astonishing number of these chemical tricks, secrets never written down and lost in subsequent centuries. Only in the middle of the 19th century, under the inspiration of Viollet-le-Duc, did the new scientific chemists laboriously analyse the composition of the glass and reconstruct the manner of its making. It then became evident that the very accidental nature of the process, the impurities of the ingredients, the lack of uniformity in each sheet of glass – which might be wavy, thick or thin, full of blisters and bubbles – had a great deal to do with the liveliness of the final effect. Glass made according to tested formulae and under controlled temperatures turned out to be a sorry imitation of the real thing. And then, the lead armatures in which the panes of glass were set like so many jewels were also subject to infinite variations of coarseness and fineness, curvature or flatness. The soldering of the joints could be done neatly or roughly, which also influenced the effect.

Before the final assembly, the coloured glass was trimmed to size either by heating or cutting with a diamond, and it was then painted with the requisite details. Folds were painted into the garments, features upon faces, leaves upon trees. This work was essentially an enamelling process, utilising a mixture of cullet (scrap glass), copper, and so-called Greek sapphire, dissolved in a vehicle of wine or urine. The second baking of the glass again produced surprises and idiosyncrasies, which became the despair of later scientific ages when they attempted to match the effects.

A small corps of artists was responsible for the designs. The stamp of certain masters can be seen in the windows of a host of churches in the Île-de-France and beyond. Perhaps only a few workshops workshops turned out all the stained glass. These shops had to be situated close to the raw materials – river sand was needed for the glass itself and forests to provide ample charcoal for the smelting. Chartres had the most notable workshop of all. Its glass was greatly in demand and exported as far as Canterbury in England. But there is reason to believe that the Chartres workshop employed Parisian artisans. For Paris, the royal city, was the most active centre of the decorative arts and attracted the finest craftsmen. Illuminators of manuscripts provided the king and court with psalters and books of hours; weavers of tapestries made vestments and altar cloths; goldsmiths and jewellers fashioned the reliquaries that were growing ever more elaborate.

Louis XIII’s vow to build a new high altar for Notre Dame was eventually fulfilled three quarters of a century after he had made it, by the son who had scarcely known him. For Louis XIV, who had so pertly announced his imminent accession when he was not yet five years old, sat on the throne for seventy-two years – the longest reign in the history of Europe. It was also the reign during which France became the greatest power in Europe, in which French virtually replaced Latin as the language of international diplomacy, in which French culture and manners were universally admired and imitated, French wealth envied, a French colonial empire founded, the French realm enlarged, a French civil service elaborated. Under Louis XIV, René Descartes and Blaise Pascal dominated mathematics, philosophy, and theology; Sébastien Vauban, military fortification; Henri the vicomte of Turenne and Henri Grand Condé, military tactics; Jean-Baptiste Colbert, economic theory and practice – much as the French armies dominated Europe. A host of great French writers were read not only in France but throughout the civilised world. If French painters could not compare with their Italian and Dutch contemporaries, French interior decoration, furniture and architecture had no rivals. Every king in Europe who had the means tried to imitate the vast halls and ornate glitter of the palace at Versailles. As one historian noted, it was only fitting that a king who so dominated his age and his country should close his reign by remaking the solid Gothic structure of Notre Dame in his own image.

Louis XIV tasked Robert de Cotte with the renovation. Cotte replaced the rood screen with a sumptuous and gilded wrought iron fence, opened up the choir and ambulatory, and removed the tombs in the nave. New furniture was produced as well as the current high altar, depicting Louis XIV and XIII kneeling before a Pietà. In 1709, canon Antoine de La Porte commissioned for Louis XIV six paintings depicting the life of the Virgin Mary for the choir. At this same time, Charles de La Fosse painted his Adoration of the Magi, now in the Louvre.

Notre Dame High Altar

We’ll have to wait to find out who will be tasked with the restoration work. And no doubt the French will be their usual vocal selves in expressing their opinions on the selection of architect and the proposed restoration. One wonders how many architects are brave enough to take that on…

Mostly from ‘Notre Dame: A History’, by Richard Winston.

Louvre Pyramid: The Folly that Became a Triumph

When the Pyramid and its attendant triangular pools were officially opened on this day in 1989, the critics were silenced. It became, in Stephen Gardiner’s phrase, “the diamond of Paris”. And the vast concourse underneath cleverly unified the three main wings of the Louvre, making it much easier for throngs of visitors to find their way around.

François Mitterand at the pyramid opening on March 29, 1989

Parisians, having grown accustomed to it, now love it.

Puffles and Honey in front of the Louvre, 2014

The story of how François Mitterrand’s most popular grand projet – the Pyramid at the Louvre – materialised is well-known. On his first visit to the US as President of France, he made a point of touring I M Pei’s modernist extension to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and was so impressed that he invited the architect to Paris to talk about the Louvre.

Puffles and Honey at the National Gallery Of Art, Washington D.C., 2016
National Gallery of Art – Fountain room on the west side of the main gallery floor.

The Louvre was a mummy among the world’s leading museums. The old royal palace, multiply extended over the centuries, was barely functional as a museum. Its Richelieu wing extending along the Rue de Rivoli was occupied by the Ministry of Finance and the rest of it was an endless series of rooms, corridors and staircases, notoriously run down. It had no entryway to speak of.

Mitterrand decided that the architect for the job was the American I. M. Pei.

For four months, Pei did not tell his team in New York that François Mitterrand had personally asked him to overhaul one of the world’s most celebrated art museums. Pei wanted time to consider the project’s scope before agreeing to take it on.

The challenges of what Mitterrand called his Grand Louvre project were myriad. Here was one of the finest collections of art in the world, yet the historic buildings that housed it were in disrepair, the galleries were disjointed, and more than one visitor got lost down the labyrinthine corridors in search of one of only two public restrooms. Galleries accounted for the bulk of the interior, leaving curators no behind-the-scene space to manage, store, and care for the artworks. Never mind that the French Minister of Finance had claimed the Richelieu Wing for its offices, shuttering it from the public and refusing to leave even when the museum grew desperate for the space.

Pei made several clandestine trips to Paris to study the Louvre, walking its galleries and grounds. He also studied the historic landscape architecture of famed French designer André Le Nôtre. Pei saw a solution: He could place a new entrance in the gravel-filled Cour Napoléon, an exterior courtyard enclosed by the museum’s existing buildings. Brand new infrastructure underground could create a functional and welcoming reception area, as well as a system of public spaces and circulation for visitors to access the collections. The new entrance would be in the middle of the courtyard, marked with a translucent sculptural gesture to both define the visitor’s arrival and to light the underground addition, all while respecting the historic buildings. Pei went to Mitterrand and accepted the commission, on the condition that he did not go through the motions of competing for the $1.2 billion contract. Unperturbed, Mitterrand told him, Eh bien! Go ahead.

The uproar began even before Pei unveiled the design of his infamous 21-metre-tall glass-and-metal pyramid. To understand the sweeping changes at the Louvre, it’s important to remember the sweeping changes in French politics at the time. In 1981, Mitterrand, a socialist, surprised the country by ousting his conservative incumbent in the election. He doubled investment in the arts, and established a list of grand projets. For the Louvre, which topped his list, he wanted Pei from the beginning, forgoing an open competition and snubbing French firms in favour of the Chinese-American architect. The unilateral decision infuriated many.

Then Mitterrand booted out the Ministry of Finance, to a vast, purpose-built new building at Bercy. Quelle horreur!

I.M. Pei on the Louvre Pyramid construction site

Then Pei unveiled his design. The international response was swift and it was brutal. Dubbed the “Battle of the Pyramid”, Pei and Mitterrand were roundly chastised, with one 1985 New York Times story rounding up the criticisms: The pyramid was “an architectural joke, an eyesore, an anachronistic intrusion of Egyptian death symbolism in the middle of Paris, and a megalomaniacal folly imposed by Mr. Mitterrand.” The Louvre’s then director, Andre Chabaud, resigned in 1983 in protest at the “architectural risks” Pei’s vision posed.

In the early years of the decade-long project, Pei was publicly mocked. “When I first showed the idea to the public, I would say 90 percent were against it,” Pei recounted in a PBS documentary. “The first year and a half was really hell. I couldn’t walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me as if to say: ‘There you go again. What are you doing here? What are you doing to our great Louvre?’ ”

Not even Pei’s winning of the Pritzker Prize, the “Nobel of architecture” in 1983, seemed to assuage his detractors.

“I received many angry glances in the streets of Paris,” Pei later said, confessing that “after the Louvre I thought no project would be too difficult.”

Few people realise that the construction of the pyramid itself was advanced out of sequence. During the course of the project, Mitterrand was standing for re-election and there was real concern that he would not be re-elected and that the project would be halted. So the pyramid was built before the supporting structure was completely in place to make it an established fact in case the election did not work out. Finding a way of doing that was a technological feat.

The most pivotal moment was perhaps when a full-scale mock-up of the pyramid was erected in the courtyard for Jacques Chirac, who was the mayor of Paris at the time. An incredible pyramid concoction was lowered into the courtyard. Chirac saw it and thought it was pretty good, and after that, things got much easier.

The pyramid as the entrance was probably the most difficult design of the whole concept. The size of the pyramid was designed so the form would not compete with any of the design elements of the surrounding buildings. Once the height of the pyramid was selected relative to the existing buildings, the dimensions were influenced by two things: the angles that were most desirable from an architectural standpoint, and how large of a footprint the pyramid could have given the constraints of the courtyard and its impact on the circulation spaces below. The other entrances also needed to remain in effect because the capacity of the pyramid was limited.

Pei made the glass as transparent as possible, giving a sense of delicacy to the pyramid itself, and to make sure the glass did not alter the visitor’s perception of the colour of the existing buildings. At the beginning of the project, the surrounding buildings had a couple hundred years of soot on them from burning coal. During the project, the buildings were cleaned, making the decision to make the glass super-clear even more important.

Pei wanted the metal framework of the pyramid to have a certain presence, but not to be overly done, so he decided to match it to the colour of the roofs of the existing buildings. It turned out there were 11 different shades of grey on those buildings. There were many long conversations about which hue of grey to use!

The fact that there were shops introduced into the new underground portion of the museum was also controversial. Then the Louvre acquired a high-vaulted underground shopping mall with an inverted pyramid as its centre-piece and the controversy died away. Today there is even a McDonald’s just outside the Louvre!

The pyramid was not at all sure to please the conservative French. Nor did it. When first glimpsed, it caused café-counter brawls across France. But Frenchmen clashed over the aspect and the appropriateness of Pei’s masterstroke – not over the cost. “Someone has to take the big decisions on monuments,” said Emile Biasini, the resourceful man whom Mitterrand installed in his government as Minister of Grand Works. “Otherwise, it’s like television. Let the public choose, and the level of programs goes down.” 🙂

Today, the pyramid at the Louvre rivals the Eiffel Tower (itself a project born amidst controversy) in defining the Parisian landscape. In 1887, a group of intellectuals that included Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant published a letter in the newspaper Le Temps to protest at the building of the “useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower”, an “odious column of sheet metal with bolts.”

The only sour note was that Pei copyrighted even postcard images of his Pyramid, giving no credit to RFR, its structural engineers.

Tosca at Opéra Bastille

In the City of Light, the Paris Opéra, one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished companies, is divided between two locations separated by four kilometres, or a handful of Métro stops: the neo-Baroque Palais Garnier, inaugurated in 1875, and the modern Opéra Bastille, with its convex glass facade, which opened more than 100 years later in 1989 and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

As early as 1968, calls were being made for a new opera house in Paris to remedy the limitations of the Palais Garnier. Whether or not the City of Lights needed Opéra Bastille in addition to the Opéra Garnier is now a moot point, Opéra Bastille is here to stay, and both have found their niche without dislodging the many smaller and private theatres which also present opera.

Opéra Bastille

The prime movers in the appeal for a new opera house were composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, choreographer Maurice Béjart and actor and director Jean Vilar. Boulez in particular called for an “integrated solution”, a cité de la musique that would feature a theatre and a conservatory (since the Conservatoire de Paris was old and delapidated). Fierce debate raged as to what else should be included in such a musical city. Other buildings that could be added were homes for the contemporary music ensemble and the Orchestre de Paris (since the city lacked a modern symphonic hall). The model for these integrated ideas was, to some degree, the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Only a new opera house aroused any real enthusiasm, and in 1981 the idea found favour with the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and especially with the new Socialist French President, Francois Mitterrand. The location for the new opera house also had several contenders: La Villette was the early favourite, but eventually the Place de la Bastille was chosen. In 1981, it was argued that the Palais Garnier was an old-fashioned, elitist institution and that there was a need for a more progressive opéra populaire, hence the symbolic (cynics would say public-relations) selection of the Bastille site. The decision to split the opera house from the other proposed parts of the “musical city” also gained favour, even though this contravened the ideology of the initial project.

President Mitterrand announced the competition to design the new opera house in 1982; the rest of the “musical city” would be built in La Villette, although it was to become mired in political manoeuvring. Importantly it was decided that the new opera house would occupy a central place in the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July, 1789, during the French Revolution.

The Opéra Bastille Public Establishment competition received hundreds of entries. Three finalists were chosen and in November 1983, President Mitterrand selected the winner – an unknown Canadian-Uruguayan architect named Carlos Ott, who moved to Paris to oversee the project.

There are several accounts of variable accuracy of how the design was chosen; that the president pointed at the wrong model, that the jury was sure that they had chosen the design of the superstarchitect of the moment, Richard Meier. According to Georges Poisson, whose book, Les Grands Travaux des Présidents de la Ve République provides a readable and perceptive account of all the major projects built in Paris from the Centre Pompidou (1977) to the Musée du Quai Branly (2005), the jury, without much enthusiasm, presented Mitterrand with a shortlist of six projects from among the 757 entries. The president then eliminated all but two and then added a third before choosing Carlos Ott’s design over that of Christian de Portzamparc, who proposed a more radical remodelling of the Place de la Bastille, filling the entire triangle from Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine to Rue du Lyon and thus building over Rue du Charenton.

It turns out, Richard Meier had entered the opera competition but was eliminated in the first cut, together with other architectural stars such as Charles Moore, Kisho Kurokawa and the Miami firm Arquitectonica. As designers often do, these architects had taken liberties in interpreting the competition program. The French bureaucrats who had originally promoted the idea of a modern people’s opera and who were advising the jury were having none of that. The bureaucrats had written a 423-page competition program minutely describing the new opera (including a schematic plan of the building), and they expected it to be slavishly followed. That is what Ott – and he alone – had done.

So while the jury did, according to Poisson, think that it saw the “hand of Meier” in Ott’s design, the design was exactly what the French bureaucrats asked for. In the end, the French got what their bureaucrats wanted: not the most beautiful opera house in the world, but the biggest (despite its smaller seating capacity, the Opéra Bastille complex is three times larger than the Met) and technologically the most advanced. The French have an abiding faith in new technology – which they often invent with considerable skill – and what is most innovative about the Opéra Bastille is not the architecture but the engineering. More than half of the Bastille site is taken up by enormous backstage facilities, which include not only a rehearsal hall, a mobile orchestra pit, a turntable, and a mobile stage that is also an elevator but also eleven ancillary scenery stages on two levels, joined together by an automated system of motorised trolleys. The purpose of all this space and machinery is to permit the rapid rotation of different operas: while one is being performed, another can be in rehearsal, and scenery for a third can be made ready on the lower level. It is a marvel of engineering, and despite some opening-night mishaps it all does appear to function as intended.

The stage of Le Grande Salle

Ott’s efforts to fit his building into the Place de la Bastille were surely made more challenging by the building’s blankness, its pure geometric forms, especially drums, and all the smooth gridded surfaces. So tight is the site that there is no space from which the opera house can be seen to advantage, except perhaps from the base of the column (Colonne de Juillet), were one courageous enough to brave the hazardous traffic. To make matters worse, the main facade of the Opéra is partially obscured by a small, undistinguished building housing a brasserie. At the time of construction, historians believed that a 19th century building on this site had originally been a 17th century neighbour of the Bastille prison. This turned out not to be the case, but by then the building had been torn down, so a replica, based on an old engraving, was built in its place.

The design was devised, chosen and constructed during the zenith of historicist post-modernism. Carlos Ott has described the design as “a functional project which is not essentially aesthetic.” Indeed, as much as such a thing is possible, Ott has reduced the aesthetic experience to a minimum. This is a building in which everything that is not granite is stainless steel, everything that is not white is black, and everything, absolutely everything, is obsessively arranged according to a square grid – the window mullions, the seams of the granite slabs and the stainless steel panels, the joints of the paving, even the supports of the railings. The same graph-paper motif and the same palette, if one can call it that, are continued in the interior.

The Opéra Bastille was ill-starred from the start. In 1984, for two months, Jacques Chirac, the right-wing mayor of the city of Paris, refused to grant a building permit for the left-wing president’s new opera house. In 1985, the newly appointed artistic director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann, resigned, apparently unwilling to bend to one of the exigencies of a people’s opera – fewer rehearsals and more performances. In July 1986, the building site was shut down completely for two weeks; political wrangling had broken out again between Chirac, newly elected as prime minister, and Mitterrand, and it threatened to scuttle the opera completely. In 1988, Mitterrand won a second term as president, the socialists were returned to power, and a plan to build a reduced version of the Opéra was revived – it remained to complete the building for its opening on Bastille Day, July 14, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Then, in January 1989, the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who had been named artistic director only two years before, was abruptly fired; his programming ideas had been judged too “elitist” (Barenboim had proposed Mozart!). His dismissal caused an international stir: prominent conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and Sir Georg Solti said that they would have to reconsider their association with the Paris Opera; Pierre Boulez, the director Patrice Chéreau, and the singer Jessye Norman (who was to sing at the inaugural) all resigned in protest. “What’s the difference between the Titanic and the Opéra Bastille?” went a Parisian joke. “The Titanic had an orchestra.”

Well, the Opéra didn’t sink, and it did acquire a new music director and conductor, albeit not a famous one: Myung-Whun Chung, a young Korean-American previously best known as the younger brother of the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung. Chung was fired himself, in 1994. In 1995, James Conlon became conductor and music director of Paris Opera, leaving in 2004, the longest of any conductor at Paris Opéra since 1939. In 2009, Philippe Jordan took on the post of music director at the Paris Opéra and amazingly he is still there, making him the longest of any music director to date. He has been appointed music director of Vienna State Opera from 2020, so Paris Opéra might find itself without a music director again, as it did in the intervening period between Philippe Jordan and James Conlon.

Back to Opéra Bastille, after the building permit was granted in 1984, the Gare de la Bastille, which had been closed since 1969, was demolished and construction began. The main theatre, known as La Grande Salle, was designed with 2,703 seats, each acoustically consistent. The seating plan, which is devoid of boxes and which allows every patron an unrestricted view of the stage, is a defiantly egalitarian riposte to Palais Garnier. However, since its opening, the acoustics have been described as disappointing. The auditorium of La Grande Salle is decorated in blue granite, pearwood and glass.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

Originally there were three additional theatres in the plan. L’Amphithéâtre is decorated in Classical Greek style with white breccia marble and seats 450, while Le Studio features white marble and pearwood, and has a capacity of 237. However, because La Salle Modulable (for baroque and contemporary works and with seating for between 600 and 1,500) was largely intended for the groups that would occupy the rest of the musical city, it was moved to that site in La Villette.

L’Amphithéâtre Bastille, at Opéra Bastille
Le Studio Bastille, at Opéra Bastille

In keeping with the ideology under which the new opera house was announced, Ott’s design had the “opaque cube” of the theatre “wrapped in gridded walls of glass”, allowing the outside world to see in. The lobbies are located immediately behind the curved glass wall and take advantage of the view in a manner common to many modern concert halls.

Foyer at Opéra Bastille
Le Foyer panoramique at Opéra Bastille

It is at night that Place de la Bastille achieves a magical quality with its spotlit column topped by a gilt Hermes, and Ott’s chief architectural conceit becomes apparent: to establish a dialogue between the building and the square by emphasising the transparency of this huge building.

Place de la Bastille

The heart of an opera house, at least for the audience, is the hall itself. The greatest constraint on the design of any performance space is its size: the greater the number of seats, the more difficult it is to achieve visual and acoustic intimacy. Some opera houses have limited their capacity to fewer than two thousand seats – Berlin’s Deutscher Oper, Milan’s La Scala and the Palais Garnier. At the other end of the scale are enormous modern halls like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with 3,800 seats. At 2,700 seats, the Opéra Bastille steers a middle course. Although there are several tiers of loges, the layout, unlike the horseshoe-shaped Palais Garnier, is predominantly frontal, with two steep balconies.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

The Opéra Bastille has what one could call a modern sound: clear but not especially resonant. The sound appears to lack warmth, but perhaps that’s a psychological reaction to the decor. Opéra Bastille has what one would call a cool decor: the walls covered in grey granite and black wood, an undulating ceiling of white glass, and seats upholstered in black fabric. The interior of Opéra Bastille is distinctly impersonal – imperturbable and sleek in a corporate-boardroom sort of way, which perhaps reflects the architect’s previous experience managing projects for a real estate developer.

The Opéra Bastille is obviously intended to be a modern rethinking of the traditional opera house, but in turning away from la grande cuisine bourgeoise of the Palais Garnier, Carlos Ott has eschewed nouvelle cuisine and instead has provided the Parisian public with the architectural equivalent of bread and water. Moreover, because many of the details are crude and the workmanship is sloppy, the bread is not even a crusty baguette; this is American-style sliced bread!

We got to experience all this in 2007 when we attended a production of Tosca in November. During the transport strike and the unseasonably cold weather.

Puccini’s Tosca is no stranger to the stages of Paris. Alongside Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro and Bizet’s Carmen, Tosca has become a staple of Paris’ opera houses.

However, such popularity opens up challenges. With familiarity comes the problem of retaining freshness and novelty, how to hold the work back from crossing the line between popularity and predictability.

In May 1994, the Opéra Bastille commissioned a new staging of Tosca from director Werner Schröter, a German film director, who turned to theater and opera in Germany and abroad from the late 1980s. From 1994 to 2012, when Parisians wanted to see Tosca at Opéra Bastille , they had to be satisfied with the functional but tiresome production of Werner Schröter. A functional production for a functional theatre?

Being German, there was great efficiency in the setting in space and displacements of the sets, the clarity of the relations between the characters, the correctness of the costumes, the control of the light… The staging did not create any obstacles for the singers, possibly because there was so little of it!

The church of the first act might have been one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons after a bombing, except for the statue of the Virgin at one side and Cavaradossi’s religious painting on the other. But the decapitated saintly head of the painting was hardly the Mary Magdalene of the libretto (a St. Catherine, perhaps?), and even less one that Floria Tosca could be jealous of.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The second act, the most successful of the three, suggested a palace-prison interior, with the hint of a marble wall and the dimensions of a large salon indicated in blood-red lines. The playing area, which had only Scarpia’s huge table as furniture, was surrounded by horizontal apertures occupied by motionless guardians.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The third act, an abstract top level of the Castel Sant’Angelo, didn’t have the statue of St. Michael that tops it in real life, but an image of a falling Satan or Lucifer to parallel Tosca’s leap into an interior void.

It was an abstract (and to some visionary) conception of what is one of the most realistic of operas – set in real locations in the Rome of 1800 and in the midst of real events. Schroeter strived to erase the excess of pathos of the story, and together with the abstract setting, this did not please literalists.

As described by Puccini’s biographer Mosco Carner, Tosca is a story of “sex, sadism, religion and art, a masterfully mixed dish served up on the platter of a major historical event”. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou, Puccini was immediately inspired by the plot and sought to compose an operatic version, vastly reducing the lengthy original play as he did so. However, Puccini retained the essential ingredients: Mario Cavaradossi, a young aristocratic painter with a Republican loyalty, Tosca, a famous and religiously pious singer, as jealous as she is passionate, and Scarpia, a Roman chief of secret police hungry to satiate both his official duties and carnal desires.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca and Franck Ferrari as Scarpia at Opéra Bastille in 2007

Forming an intricate triangle of love, jealousy and deceit, Mario, Tosca and Scarpia provide a passionate tale, full of varying emotions and characters, each with their own motivations and impulses.

Schroeter’s direction of the singers, and other scenic detail, was uneven. Here too, Act 2 was the most successful, with the Tosca-Scarpia conflict carefully worked out and spectacularly culminated, with Scarpia expiring on the part of the desk not occupied by his unconsumed dinner. But much was made of Cavaradossi’s wounded hands, although Scarpia makes it clear that the painter’s head was where torture was applied. He dictates his third-act aria to an accommodating jailer, an aria that does not represent a letter but an erotic reverie. The corpse of a royalist soldier in Act 3 is never explained, and Tosca observes the execution of Cavaradossi improbably from directly behind the target.

After 11 years, what I remember most is watching an opera sung in Italian with French surtitles and concurrently translating it in my mind in two more languages. Quite a cacophony of words. Opéra Bastille has since introduced English surtitles (grudgingly I am sure!) and our next opera, Verdi’s La forza del destino should be a different experience.

Modern since 1669

This year Opéra National de Paris celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding by Louis XIV on June 28, 1669. Embroidered above the Palais Garnier’s thick velvet curtain is the date: Anno 1669.

Modern since 1669 is the slogan chosen by the Stéphane Lissner, the Paris Opera’s director, for the anniversary program of this year.

This year’s program includes new productions of Les Troyens, the two-part epic by Berlioz that opened the Bastille Opera in 1989 (Bastille Opera is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), along with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, a rare rendering of Scarlatti’s Il Primo Omicidio, and most importantly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yes, most importantly, because little bears will be attending a performance of Don Giovanni in June to cheer on beary friends! 🙂 And look how happy they are about it!

Nicole Car, soprano, and Etienne Dupuis, baritone, will play in Don Giovanni at Paris Opera

The new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will be directed by Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove and will feature design work by two of van Hove’s frequent collaborators: Jan Versweyveld (sets and lighting) and An D’Huys (costumes). A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, the opera is expected to play at the New York opera house in a future season.

Flemish stage director Ivo Van Hove won two Tony Awards for best director and best revival for his production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

The Académie d’Opéra (it was renamed Académie Royale de Musique in 1672, but it was better known as the Opéra) performed mainly at the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Royal in Paris. When the 1789 revolution put the royal palaces out of the music business, performances soon resumed, first in the Salle Montansier in 1794, then from 1821 at the Salle Le Peletier.

Today, France is a republic and the Académie Royale de Musique has become the Académie Nationale de Musique.

And Palais Garnier is the 13th theatre to house the Opéra National de Paris.

Puffles and Honey in front of Palais Garnier in 2014

In 1858, Napoleon III authorised Baron Haussmann, supervisor of the reconstruction of Paris, to clear 12,000 square metres of land required to build a new opera house for the company. This theatre would be in addition to the 1821 Salle Le Peletier. In 1860, the boundaries of the new building were set between the rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin, the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins and the passage Sandrie. A competition, the first of its kind in France, was announced and architects were invited to submit their proposals for the building, but they were given only one month in which to proffer their entry. Despite this short timeframe, 171 entries were received. All submissions were anonymous, identified by numbers and slogans. The winner, announced on May 29, 1861, was the unknown architect Charles Garnier. His motto was a quote from Italian poet Torquato Tasso: Bramo assai, poco spero, loosely translated “I aspire to much, I expect but little”.

Jean-Louis Charles Garnier (1825-1898)

Charles Garnier (6 No­vem­ber 1825 – 3 Au­gust 1898) was much more than one of the most audacious architects of his time; this former student of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, winner of the Grand Prix de Rome in 1848, also made his mark as a writer (he was a member of the Société des gens de lettres) and a caricaturist who specialised in portraits. His approach was based on a blending of the arts and various cultures. A great traveller, he roamed the Orient with the writer Théophile Gautier.

Garnier was twenty-three when he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for arts students that was established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Winners were awarded a bursary that allowed them to stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state.

Salle Le Peletier had been constructed as a temporary theatre in 1821. Street access to that theatre was greatly constricted, and after an attempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Napoleon III at the theatre’s entrance on 14 January 1858, it was decided to build a new opera house with a separate, more secure entrance for the head of state.

Applicants were given a month to submit entries. There were two phases to the competition, and Garnier was one of 171 entrants in the first phase. He was awarded the fifth-place prize and was one of seven finalists selected for the second phase. The second phase required the contestants to revise their original projects and was more rigorous, with a 58-page program, written by the director of the Opéra, Alphonse Royer, which the contestants received on 18 April. The new submissions were sent to the jury in the middle of May, and on 29 May Garnier’s project was selected for its “rare and superior qualities in the beautiful distributions of the plans, the monumental and characteristic aspect of the facades and sections”.

Garnier was only thirty-four years old when he won the competition for the opera house and all he had built to date was an apartment house on Boulevard Sébastopol. He didn’t even have an office and had to quickly establish one on site at the opera house.

Garnier’s wife Louise later wrote that the French architect Alphonse de Gisors, who was on the jury, had commented to them that Garnier’s project was “remarkable in its simplicity, clarity, logic, grandeur, and because of the exterior dispositions which distinguish the plan in three distinct parts – the public spaces, auditorium, and stage … ‘you have greatly improved your project since the first competition; whereas Gi­nain [the first-place winner in the first phase] has ruined his’.”

Concrete foundations were laid in January 1862, but the depth of the basement meant that the site stayed wet no matter what steps were taken. Garnier installed eight steam engines that pumped continuously, 24 hours a day, from March to October, to drain the site. Still, the problem would no go away, so Garnier built a double walled foundation sealed with bitumen to keep moisture away from the opera house’s foundations, as well as a large cistern that would collect water away from the building’s foundations and act as a reservoir in case of fire. You can see this reservoir in the classic French film La Grande Vadrouille, directed by Gerard Oury. Today, Paris firefighters train here.

Because of this cistern, the idea persists that the Palais Garnier was built over a subterranean lake, a feature of Gaston Leroux’s serial Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which was first published in book form in 1911. Garnier’s substructure for the building was complete by the end of 1862.

Napoleon III’s desire to see a model of the building as it was envisioned resulted in another remarkable development in the construction of the opera house. Sculptor Louis Villeminot created the model in 1863 at enormous cost (8,000 francs). The emperor then requested several changes to both the model and the building design, and the altered model went on display to the French public so that they could see what was being built.

One legend about Charles Garnier’s victory in the competition to design the theatre was that the Empress Eu­génie, possibly upset that her favourite candidate (the architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc) had not won, asked Garnier: “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI.” Garnier is said to have replied: “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoleon Trois, and you complain!” Whatever the source of the phrase, this defining term has come to characterise the magnificent opulence of the building, as well as its representation of the style of the Second Empire and the Emperor who had it created: ambitious, confident, and forward-looking.

As the magnificent façade was being constructed, it was hidden from view by scaffolding, which was removed in 1867 in time for the Paris Exposition.

Façade of Palais Garnier in 1867
Palais Garnier

Above the vast Corinthian columns was an entablature with the inscription “Académie Impériale de Musique”. When Napoleon III was deposed in early September 1870, one of the first actions of the Third Republic was to change the inscription to Théâtre National de l’Opéra, so emblematic of the old regime had the theatre become. Work stopped on the theatre during the siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871. Garnier’s preparations were so complete and reliable, that throughout the siege the theatre was used as a warehouse to store food and as a hospital.

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Garnier fell ill and left for Italy to recuperate, leaving his assistant Louis Louvet in charge. During the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Guard was quartered inside the building and charged with its defense as well as distributing the provisions housed there. The Commune wanted to replace Garnier, but in May the National Guard was driven from the building by Republican troops and the replacement architect (whose identity is not known) never took up his position. Almost as if the loss of the theatre by the Commune troops symbolised the defeat of the Commune itself, it fell within a week. Work resumed on the theatre four months later, in September 1871.

Unfortunately the whole building project and Garnier himself were associated with the Second Empire, something to which the new Republican government took a particular dislike. Garnier found securing further funding difficult, and he had to scale back the scope of the building. On October 28, 1873, that opposition disappeared when the Salle Le Peletier burned to the ground. From that moment on, work on the new theatre accelerated without interference until its completion in 1874. After finishing the opera house, Garnier retired to Italy, although he returned to France for various commissions including Jacques Offenbach’s tomb in the Montmartre Cemetery. He also designed the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.

The opening night on January 5, 1875, was a grand gala concert featuring the overtures to Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), the first two acts of Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera La Juive (with Gabrielle Krauss in the title role), along with The Consecration of the Swords from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1836 opera Les Huguenots and the 1866 ballet La source with music by Léo Delibes and Ludwig Minkus. As a soprano had fallen ill, one act from Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859) and one from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868) had to be omitted. Nevertheless, the evening was an enormous success.

Inauguration of the Paris Opera in 1875, by Édouard Detaille (1878)
Collections of the Château of Versailles

The president of the Republic, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, was present, as well as other dignitaries including King Alfonso XII of Spain and the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William James Richmond Cotton. During the intermission Charles Garnier stepped out onto the landing of the grand staircase to receive the approving applause of the audience. He had been obliged to pay for his own seat for the gala concert, because the organisers forgot to invite the architect to the gala concert, or perhaps as some kind of anti-imperial statement.

The monumental and opulent design of the theatre is evident in almost every aspect of its architecture and decoration. Marble friezes, Classical columns, lifelike statues and bronze embellishments adorn every room in Baroque sumptuousness. One contemporary critic scathingly described the theatre as “looking like an overloaded sideboard”. while French composer Claude Debussy later expressed the opinion that the outside was reminiscent of a railway station and the interior looked like a Turkish bath. Despite these negative comments, today the Palais Garnier is regarded as a masterpiece of the Beaux Arts period of Neo-Baroque style.

The least one can say is that the opera house’s facade is an eclectic style. With arcades, columns, gilding, cupolas, and winged horses, it is pure aesthetic excess, miles away from the traditional neoclassical edifices fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. Garnier was a convinced partisan of poly-chromism, using contrasts of scale, materials and colours throughout the design. This was a heresy in a traditional monochrome Parisian setting.

Garnier made maximum use of the diamond shape plot allocated to the opera house by Haussmann. Garnier tried in vain to change the shape of the plot, but Haussmann considered the roads and the traffic flow more important. To the usual rectangular shape, Garnier added two side pavilions: one as a private entrance for season ticket holders and one as private entrance for the Emperor. The Emperor was to reach this entrance via a driveway worthy of a château. This is the only exception to the total symmetry of the building. Garnier was criticised for sacrificing the law of parallelism to courtly flattery.

Aerial view of Palais Garnier

Garnier also wanted the building’s various parts to be symbolically identified from the exterior. The pedimented top holds the stage house, the great cupola represents the audience seating, the loggia reminds us of the public foyer.

Garnier claimed only one source of inspiration: the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux by Victor Louis. As in Bordeax, the entrance to the building serves to condition the audience, welcoming them into a world of opulence. First one must pass under the arcades, then cross a low vestibule, like a kind of airlock, before discovering and inevitably being overwhelmed by the legendary grand staircase. This approach is also reminiscent of the placement of the narthex before the nave in great Romanesque churches like the Vezelay Abbey.

The Palais Garnier auditorium features the traditional Italian horseshoe shape, and is decorated in red and gold. The huge stage, the largest in Europe, can accommodate 450 performers, and the canvas house curtain was painted to represent a draped curtain with braid and tassels. Jules Eugene Lenepveu painted the ceiling which featured an immense, 7 ton, bronze chandelier designed by Garnier. The chandelier was criticised as it obscured both the view of the ceiling and the view from the fourth tier of boxes. In 1964, the original ceiling was replaced with scenes from 14 operas, painted by Marc Chagall. This new painting was installed on a removable frame that covers the original Lenepveu work. The Chagall painting has also been criticised because, according to some, it detracts from the carefully orchestrated decorations of Garnier’s design.

Palais Garnier main auditorium chandelier and ceiling painting by Marc Chagall
Palais Garnier main auditorium

The actual theatre, which occupies only a quarter of the public surface area, seats 2,000. At the time it was built, acoustics were still supervised directly by architects, who proceeded intuitively. Garnier even referred to acoustics as a “bizarre science” since some of the advice he received was seriously bizarre. In the end he decided to leave it to chance and do nothing at all specifically for good sound. By sheer damn luck, it worked out. Although during some performances, the sound can seem slightly muffled, probably due to the large amount of velvet and carpeting in the theatre. Conductors must therefore strive to obtain the maximum amount of subtlety from the orchestra.

Palais Garnier auditorium ceiling by Marc Chagall

One of Garnier’s specialties was the design of staircases, and the sweeping Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier is almost as famous as the theatre itself. Built from various types of marble, this double staircase leads from the foyers to the different levels of the auditorium. The ceiling above the staircase is painted to represent different allegories of music, while the foyers offer lavishly decorated spaces in which audience members can mingle. The Grand Foyer, which was restored in 2004, was built to resemble a château. Its dominant decorative element is the lyre, which appears on the capitals of the columns, on grates, and even on doorknobs. Paul Baudry painted the ceiling to represent various moments in the history of music.

The foyer’s succession of mirrors evokes the famous Hall of Mirrors at the Chateaux de Versailles. Also striking are the sculpted allegories filigreed throughout the building in typical industrial revolution fashion. A second foyer, known as the dance foyer, is less well-known to the public. Garnier placed it behind the main stage to be used as an extension for scenes requiring particular depth. The dance foyer was accessible to season ticket holders only, who chose their dancers in a brothel like decor. A decor with a false air of innocence, the double arch of the ceiling hides a secret gallery for voyeurs. It was only in 1935 when this questionable practice was stopped and the season ticket holders were forbidden access. The dance foyer became what it was always meant to be, a space for dancers to practice.

Palais Garnier Grand Staircase
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer ceiling

The original design called for huge quadriga statues to crown the façade. These were never completed, and were replaced with guilded bronze sculptural groups by Charles Gumery, which represent Harmony and Poetry, and were installed in 1869. Two decorative medallions with the letters “N” and “E” (representing Napoleon and Emperor) were included in the original design, but the letters were not ready when the façade was unveiled. However, these medallion letters were added in 2000 during the restoration work on the opera house.

Palais Garnier main auditorium

In addition to the main auditorium, the opera house includes several other spaces, such as a number of rehearsal rooms, salons, and a restaurant (which only opened in 2011, a lovely piece of architecture by Odile Decq, whose organic shape blends perfectly with the Napoleon III style). The Salon du Glacier has a ceiling painted by Georges Clairin depicting dancing fauns and bacchantes as well as tapestries illustrating a variety of drinks. One space that was never actually finished is the Rotonde de l’Empereur, one of the rooms Garnier had to curtail during the opposition of the early Republican government. The Rotonde de l’Empereur now houses the library-museum that records the history of the Opéra National de Paris and features permanent displays of paintings, drawings, photographs, and set models from the productions at the theatre. The unfinished dressed blocks of stone can be seen as they were left in 1870 when the work on a space intended for the Emperor himself had to be abandoned.

Little bears can hardly wait to run up and down the grand staircase and the grand foyer 🙂

Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Staircase

Or to see the recently restored ceiling mosaics in the entrance foyer.

Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling

And the big question is, can little bears get opera cake at the Opéra restaurant? For breakfast?

Palais Garnier l’Opéra Restaurant

Just in case the answer is ‘non’ they are having some now, while watching a documentary on the opera house.

It’s been too long since little Puffles and Honey spent a beautiful operatic evening at Palais Garnier, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) and guests Yvonne Naef (mezzo soprano), Mikhail Petrenko (bass) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) in a concert titled La passion du chant. It was November 2007 and we, along with everyone else in the audience, had to brave the transport strike and the cold wave to get to the theatre. There were difficulties organising the concert as well, there were no stage lights, but that created a greater intimacy for the evening of songs by Mussorgsky and Messiaen.

La saison de la galette est ouverte

As soon as the bûche de Noël disappears from French bakeries, another holiday sweet, the galette des rois takes its place.

L’Epiphanie (Epiphany), or le jour des Rois, is the feast day celebrating the newborn Christ being visited by the Magi, and since the Middles Ages, the French have fêted Twelfth Night of Christmas with the galette des rois, the King’s Cake. The traditional galette des rois is a round golden-brown puff pastry filled with delicious frangipane (almond cream), and it can contain, somewhere inside, a fève, or bean. Originally a real bean, the fève can now be anything from a plastic trinket to a tiny ceramic figure or even a gold charm.

Epiphany is derived from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’ which means manifestations. Religiously, it means the appearance of an invisible divine being in a visible form.

The youngest person in the room gets the honour of announcing which person gets which slice of cake, and the lucky person to bite into their slice and discover la fève (and not break a tooth or choke in the process) is made king, or queen, for the day, and wears a gold paper crown. Lording over all the others, le Roi chooses a royal mate by dropping that fève into the wine glass of a beloved.

In another version of the fun and games of the galette des rois, someone (nimble) hunkers down under the table and calls out the guests’ names who are then served with a slice of the pastry. Louis XIV was reportedly particularly fond of this custom, until he wasn’t and abolished it. You can see the problem, one year someone else got the fève and became king for a day!

During the Revolution the dessert was renamed gâteau de l’égalité as playing kings and queens was frowned upon. One Frenchman is banned from partaking in the fève ritual: the president. While a massive 1.2 meter diameter galette is made up for the annual Epiphany reception at the Elysée Palace, the pastry chef is under strict instructions not to hide a fève in the cake because “it wouldn’t be appropriate to crown a king in the presidential palace”.

Emanuel and Brigitte Macron cut the galette des rois in 2018

Little bears love playing kings and queens! There is no fève game because everyone gets a present! 🙂

Life is short . . . let’s start with dessert

Cherry dessert, in Paris!

In March this year, ground zero for the patisserie world opened in Paris – Cédric Grolet’s new pastry boutique, around the corner from Le Meurice, the historic hotel where Grolet is the award-winning head pastry chef at the Michelin two-star restaurant.

Cédric Grolet was chosen as the Pâtissier of the Year 2015 by Le Chef Magazine, the Best Pastry Chef 2016 by Relais Desserts Excellence Awards, and the winner of Les Grandes Tables du Monde’s Best Restaurant Pastry Chef in 2017 (renowned French pastry legend Pierre Hermé was one of the judges).

A uniformed doorman admits customers, one by one, into the narrow, laboratory-like sanctum. There is no display case. Instead, as in a fine jewellery store, the goods are stored on trays under the counter, from whence the white-coated staff produce each order. You have to arrive early, because when they sell out, they close.

The grapefruit, which looks exactly like a ripe grapefruit, is presented in a box worthy of the jewellery stores on nearby Place Vendôme.


Grolet’s desserts these days have a fruity appearance, a molten-like ganache filling and the taste of fresh fruits is enriched by a hint of vanilla. As they are not overly sweet, the dessert doesn’t leave one overwhelmed even after finishing an entire piece. Which is great, since we will have so much more than just one piece! Upon the first bite, the vivid fruity notes explode in one’s mouth, yet the filling is light enough that it quickly disappears in the mouth.

We might even diversify from cherries 🙂

Although, check out these cherry creations…

Clearly we’ll have to join the Parisians in their pastry obsession! Next June sounds like a good time, not only are cherries in season 🙂 but the pastry show is on again, June 14-17. We’re even willing to deal with the more than 25,000 visitors who attended over the three days this year. They are fellow pastry addicts!

Little bears are, of course, welcome 🙂

Little Puffles has his chef hat ready!

And doesn’t Le Dalí restaurant at Le Meurice look just like a little bear’s playground? 🙂 I wonder if they have a seven course dessert option on the menu…

The stunning interiors of Restaurant Le Dalí at Le Meurice

Isabelle has her cup ready!

Fun fact: the French phrase for guilty pleasure (péché mignon) directly translates as “cute sin” 🙂