Versailles presents the infinite variety and ingenuity of entertainment in the court

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Versailles presents the infinite variety and ingenuity of entertainment in the court
Covering three monastic reigns, from Louis XIV to the revolution, the exhibition does not aim to be exhaustive, but focuses on the courtier’s point of view. © Château de Versailles, Didier Saulnier.

PARIS.- As a political monarch, King Louis XIV took “grand entertainment” to the height of magnificence, making Versailles a venue for monumental, extraordinary and fantastical parties and shows. The king had a shrewd understanding of the human mind and understood that “this society of pleasure, which gives members of the Court an honest familiarity with [the sovereign], and touches and charms them more than can be said,” (Louis XIV, Memoirs for the Instruction of the Dauphin, 1661) was necessary for the political framework he had built. Everyday life in Court required multiple forms of entertainment, and extraordinary royal events needed to surprise and enthral the court, the kingdom—all of Europe. Each of his successors maintained the tradition of splendid, creative shows in their own way, according to their own tastes and the fashions of the time.

This exhibition presents the infinite variety and ingenuity of entertainment in the court, whether put on by the king or enjoyed by the court. These included all forms of public shows, comedies, operas, concerts, fireworks and light displays, as well as private performances in which Seigneurs and Ladies of the court went on stage themselves. The was a large amount of gambling, leading to fortune or ruin, as well as physical activities in which members of the court had to shine, including hunting, dancing in balls and masked balls, pallmall and real tennis.

Covering three monastic reigns, from Louis XIV to the Revolution, the exhibition does not aim to be exhaustive, but focuses on the courtier’s point of view. A large selection of clothing, paintings, objects and graphics from French and foreign public and private collections convey the wide range of entertainment and the refinement associated with them. The exhibits are accompanied by large visuals, 3D images and immersive scenes that invite visitors to rediscover the atmosphere in the venues — some of which no longer exist — and imagine what it would be like to be in the king’s court.

Versailles was initially built as a hunting lodge, and the sport always remained the most popular form of royal entertainment. All three kings partook in the activity several times a week, but Louis XV was the most enthusiastic adherent. He enjoyed hunting with weapons but was especially fond of hunting with dogs. To accompany the king on a hunting trip, courtiers had to fully master the customs of hunting with hounds or to share the sovereign’s passion and thus gain his favour. Hunting was also a means of relaxation; the speed and open air were a way to escape from the constraints of court life. Themes: • The hunting ritual: moments, participants, personnel, clothing and equipment • The game, horses and especially the importance of hounds • Courteousness: the role of the ladies and the pleasure of picnics

Carousels were another equestrian pleasure, replacing the tournaments that were banned after the death of Henry II. The last carousels were held at Versailles in 1664 during the Delights of the Enchanted Island party and in 1685 and 1686 in the Great Stables at the initiative of the Grand Dauphin. This equestrian ballet was doomed to fade out, since in the 18th century the Seigneurs of the court could no longer afford its exorbitant cost, notably to the luxurious clothing required.

The whole of Versailles, and even Marly and Trianon, served as a theatre. Until the Royal Opera House was finally built in Versailles in 1770 for the Dauphin’s wedding, stages were set up in the park and its perspectives, in various apartments using removable installations, and even in rooms which were temporarily or permanently modified for the purpose. This proliferation of stages demonstrates the incredible theatre culture in Versailles.

Themes: • The Temple of Minerva, the fully preserved unique stage backdrop from the Ancien Régime which has been restored and reassembled for the exhibition • 5 videos guide visitors through sites of ordinary and extraordinary spectacles, using 3D modelling to present both still-existing and bygone performance venues.

All performances, from comedies to tragedies, operas to ballets, fell into one of three categories: extraordinary (open to a large audience), ordinary (reserved for the court) and society theatre (highly exclusive).

In particular, there were constant repeat performances, mixing of genres within a single evening and a predilection for the comical and even burlesque.

Ordinary Performances
Ordinary performances, or “court performances,” were given in the winter three or four evenings a week, from 6pm to 10pm, by three dedicated troops. They alternated between French comedy, Italian comedy and tragedy.

• Italian comedy notably included comedies in three acts, entertainment and pieces de circonstance of all kinds. Marivaux was an official playwright of Italian comedies. • French comedy was characterised by grand five-act dramas, comedies and tragedies. • Lyric tragedies and tragic operas were put on by the Royal Academy of Music. Since Versailles did not have a suitable theatre space (unlike Saint-Germain and Fontainebleau), tragedies were performed without scenery, mechanisms or costumes. Under Louis XV, who did not much care for music, lyric works were rarely performed for ordinary audiences.

Society Theatre
• For the education of the Duchess of Burgundy in the Grand Chamber of Mme de Maintenon. She was taught by Baron. Edifying plays by Racine were put on (Esther at Saint-Cyr but attended by the entire court, and Athalie in 1702), as were plays that were specially written by Duché, the king’s Valet de Chambre.

• The Marquise de Pompadour in the theatre in the private apartments on the Ambassadors’ Staircase. During four seasons, from 1747 to 1750, from 6pm until 10pm or 11pm, plays were performed in two parts, with an interval for scenery and costume changes. Additional pieces were recited or sung alongside works from the great repertoire by Molière, Lully and others.

• The Seigneurs' Troop at the Petit Trianon. Much less professional than Mme de Pompadour’s troop, the Seigneurs’ Troop was composed of ten or so artists performing simple plays, comic operas and comedies. There were three major seasons: August and September of 1780, the summers of 1782 and 1783, and the one-time, crowning performance of The Barber of Seville (Beaumarchais) on August 19, 1785 (with the queen as Rosine, Artois as Figaro and Vaudreuil as Count Almaviva) in front a very small audience and with the playwright present as a guest.

Music was everywhere. Under the aegis of the all-powerful Superintendent of His Majesty’s Music, the Musique de la Chamber was in charge of the Court’s daily entertainment. Balls, comic ballets, lyric tragedies and dances at evening gatherings were all part of the Musique de la Chambre’s remit.

Chamber concerts and, under Marie Leszczyńska, the queen’s concerts. Chamber concerts were performed without costumes, backdrops or ballets and lasted an hour. The princes would sometimes play instead of musicians who were not up to standard. Grand chamber concerts were also held two or three times a week.

Concerts in the King's chamber. The flautist Michel de la Barre quickly became a frequent performer in the rooms of Versailles, alongside François Couperin, Antoine Forqueray and the Hotteterre brothers, at the famous concerts in the King’s Chamber, which Louis XIV enjoyed toward the very end of his reign.

Private practice. Louis XIV was very skilled at the lute and guitar, which had until then been considered commoners’ instruments but which he made respectable. The Mesdames played the violin and viola da gamba, and Marie Antoinette played the harp.

The King's Promenade like hunting, with which they alternated, promenades and strolls in the gardens provided a breath of fresh air. Under Louis XIV, promenades were a courtly affair, with the king travelling on foot, in a wheeled chair or in a carriage. Conversely, Louis XV and Louis XVI preferred to take their strolls in a less ceremonial manner, so their presence did not detract from the pleasure.

The great outdoors Groves were constant sources of surprise and marvel thanks to their variety, landscape design and water features, providing a cool, summertime refuge full of birdsong.

An excellent picnic spot. Trianon was popular for its botanical collections, and the Menagerie for its curious animals. The canal was perfect for boating in the summer and ice skating and sled races in the winter.Exercices du corps et jeux d’extérieur.

Physical and outdoor games between Versailles, Trianon and Marly, skilled players of pall-mall and real tennis had a number of courts at their disposal. Boldness and athleticism were a must in a competitive world where education and personality traits required players to give it their all in appearance and in reality.

In the court, games took three forms: •“The king’s game” and “the queen’s game,” played at evening gatherings in the apartments at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. Marie Leszczyńska’s game was played in the Peace Room starting in 1739. It continued in the Royal Room at Marly during all three reigns and included lotteries. •“The royal game” was played at evening gatherings in the State Apartments during grand royal festivals as a spectacle open to a wider audience than just the court. •Private games, open only to certain members and more with a more relaxed etiquette. The games were played after the king’s supper in his private rooms or in the accommodation of one of the courtiers.

High-stakes games. The stakes in high-stakes games attracted bold and expert players, both male and female. Losses meant financial dependence on the king. To be permitted to play at the king’s table was a mark of favour which made and lost fortunes.

Games required luxurious furniture and accessories. Agreements were put in place to codify the Court’s house rules. • Card games (lansquenet, ombre, quadrille, reversis, brelan, whist, pharaoh) • Games of chance (dice, lotto, cavagnole) • Strategy games (chess, checkers and especially tric trac) • Games of skill (billiards, gym sets)

Court balls. In the time of Louis XIV, balls were held every Saturday in the Mars Room or in the gallery next to the War Room. Under Louis XV, dances at Versailles were more spread out, taking place mainly in the Hercules Room but also sometimes spreading to four locations: the Hercules, Mars, Mercury and Apollo Rooms. Later on, the theatre in the Princes’ Courtyard, which could be transformed into a ballroom when enlarged, was also used. Beginning in 1775, Marie Antoinette restored the pomp to court balls, which she held on Wednesdays […] from the start of the year until Lent, often in wooden houses constructed temporarily for the purpose.

Dances. Ballroom dancing required great technical skill acquired from childhood. Dancing was practiced under the supervision of dance masters (Beauchamp, Pécour and Ballon, and later Lany, Laval, Gardel and Vestris). Balls began with group dances (the branle under Louis XIV, then later the gavotte), followed by couples’ dances (frequently minuets, which were replaced by contra dances in the 1750s).

Formal balls and masked balls. Held for special occasions, formal balls involved a higher degree of ceremony and pomp than court balls and were held in the largest rooms (the Royal Stables, the Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Opera House). During Carnival and other major celebrations, ordinary balls were replaced by masked balls, which were an opportunity to show off extravagant costumes, although in terms of choreography the two were nearly indistinguishable.

Of monsters and machines. Special effects, monsters, splendour and sound effects transported courtiers to fantastical worlds that were as much a testament to the inventiveness of the engineers and designers of the King’s Chambers as to the kings’ passion for Baroque effects.

Fireworks and illuminations. No extraordinary event could be held without a firework show, with temporary constructions set aflame, illuminations along the grand canal, and fireworks in the Marble Courtyard. Each and every spectacle required creativity, technical knowledge and ingeniousness; only the best pyrotechnicians were hired.

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