When King Louis XIV of France built the Palace of Versailles in the 17th century, he intended it to be unlike any other royal residential palace in Europe, not just in splendour but also for accessibility.
The palace was open to all of the king’s subjects and visitors from around the world. It was a key diplomatic hub in Europe, a cross-cultural meeting point between ambassadors, artists, philosophers, scientists, adventurers and tradesmen.
A new exhibition at Louvre Abu Dhabi brings a sliver of that access to the UAE. Versailles and the World, which opens on Wednesday, offers a gateway to the palace as it was in the 17th and 18th centuries, just as King Louis succeeded in turning France into a major European power and a frontier in scientific and artistic expression.
The exhibition is curated by Helene Delalex, heritage curator, and Bertrand Rondot, chief heritage curator at the department of furniture and decorative arts at the Musee national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, with the support of Souraya Noujaim, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s scientific, curatorial and collections management director.
It brings together more than 100 artworks from the collections of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the UK’s Royal Collection Trust and 17 French lenders.
“The palace was not just famous for feasts. It was also a palace that was at the heart of the world, having relationships with the rest of the world,” Delalex tells The National.
“The palace was open to everybody during the day,” Rondot says. “No one would be stopped from entering. It was a very public and touristic place already at that time. Of course, for audiences of ambassadors, it was much more formal, ceremonies were organised and especially for non-European embassies, mainly coming from Asia."
The exhibition is divided into three sections, differentiated by their red, blue and green walls, colours that pay homage to the draperies that hung at the palace windows.
The red area opens up in a room decked with reflective surfaces, alluding to the Hall of Mirrors. The baroque-style gallery is one of the palace’s key features and in its diplomatic heyday was crossed by emissaries from as far as China and Siam, as well as from the Persian and Ottoman empires.
The exhibition continues in the trail of ambassadors, taking visitors to a model of the king’s grand degre, a staircase of polychrome marble used exclusively for the ambassadorial processions. Demolished in the mid-18th century, the model is our best glimpse of what the staircase looked like in its prime.
“The staircase would lead up to the king’s apartments, the throne room, as well as the Hall of Mirrors,” Delalex says. “It was quickly named the Ambassadors' Staircase because it was dedicated to the processions of the great embassies.”
The exhibition then takes visitors to a very specific point in time: June 5, 1662.
King Louis was 23 when he organised a major equestrian parade to celebrate the birth of his son. The young ruler appeared surrounded by 1,300 horsemen. The riders, dressed in five quadrilles, represented some of the most formidable nations of that time: the Romans, the Persians, the Indians, the Turks and the Americans.
The carousel was commemorated in painted plates, which in King Louis’s copies are accentuated with gold. The plates are on display at the exhibition, showing in vivid hues how riders in the procession dressed. A video based on the illustrations is also on display and reanimates the elaborate festivity.
“It was the first carousel in France inspired by Arab tradition,” Delalex says. “Before, the tradition of carousels were a total spectacle with fireworks and exotic beasts. Louis XIV admired Arab tradition and decided to keep only horses in the carousel... It was the most dazzling equestrian feast in the history of France."
The red section of the exhibition concludes in a room decked with the looming portraits of foreign ambassadors from Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Siam, as well as a bust of the emissary of the Sultan of Mysore in India.
“Usually, the administration commissioned portraits of the ambassadors in full attire,” Rondot says. “The French were always passionate with the way these delegations were dressed. It inspired the fashion. The fashion at the time would absorb the turbans, the Muslim fabrics and motifs would also inspire interior decoration.”
The blue wing is the smallest area in the exhibition but the most gilded, having been decked with golden candelabras decorated with ostriches, egg vases with Chinese ornamentations, and a bronze camel andiron straight from Marie Antoinette’s personal collection. The porcelain pieces reflect on how China was an object of fascination for the court. The court also had an interest in literature from the region, most notably with the translation of One Thousand and One Nights in 1717.
“There was a special fascination with pearls,” Rondot says. “The best pearls came from waters from this part of the world.” He points to a portrait of a French princess in a draping pearl-laden headdress. Her dress, necklace and earrings are decorated with pearls as well.
“It shows how important luxury goods were for the social life of France in the 17th and 18th centuries and especially the need for the pearls coming from the Gulf, which were even more precious and expensive than diamonds at that time.”
The green and final stretch of the exhibition begins with a large oil painting of a pineapple.
The fruit, which came from South America and the Caribbean, was the cutting edge of avant-garde gardening in Europe. There were several failed attempts at bearing a pineapple fruit in the royal gardens. Finally, in winter 1733, two pineapples developed from suckers that Louis XV had brought in from America. French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry was then commissioned to make a portrait of this first Versailles pineapple that Queen Marie Antoinette hung a few decades later in her Gold Room.
More than 4,000 flowers, fruits, vegetables and plants from all over the world were cultivated in the royal greenhouses, but it was the pineapple that best represented the court’s exoticism for faraway lands.
“It was known as the king of fruits because of its golden colour and its crowning leaves," says Delalex.
The exhibition also pays homage to the palace’s menagerie. Considered to have been the world’s first zoo, the menagerie was one of the first and most curious architectural constructions of Louis XIV's reign.
“At the centre was an octagonal pavilion with a balcony looking at the seven courtyards, which housed animals brought in from different parts of the world,” Rondot says. “The animals were painted by famous painters, especially by a Flemish painter named Pieter Boel, who made very precise sketches of camels, bats, monkeys and parrots."
“The animals were not kept for mere curiosity,” Delalex explains. “For the first time, they were seen as living beings to be studied and classified. That’s why we say it is the first zoo in the world.”
The exhibition also highlights the level of education royalty received in the French monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is depicted by gilded mathematical tools, maps, a machine for determining lunar eclipses and books that include translations of the philosophies of Confucius.
“Most of these books were written in Latin because that was the lingua franca between Europe and the East,” Rondot says. The collection also includes French translations of the Quran, the first of which was written in 1647.
“It was a very big task to translate the Quran,” Rondot says. “Eventually in the 18th century, a new translation was carried out by Claude-Etienne Savary. It was a much more accurate translation because he was fluent in Arabic.”
The exhibition closes just as it begins, with a great public spectacle. In 1782, brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier discovered the principle of aerostatics, or as the exhibition quotes, "the art of moving through the air like a cloud”.
The Royal Academy of Sciences offered to finance their research and organise a demonstration in front of the king. Nearly 120,000 people attended the event in the palace’s main courtyards, where a hot-air balloon 19 metres in height rose 500 metres up into the sky, carrying in its small wicker basket a rooster, a sheep and a duck.
The event, which was political as much as it was a scientific celebration, the exhibition writes, aimed to promote France as “a modern nation with pioneering minds capable of overcoming gravity”.
In a way, King Louis’s edict to make the palace accessible to all remains in effect today, as the palace has become one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, and was reported by the government to have attracted 15 million visitors on a yearly basis before the pandemic.
The curators say they hope the exhibition shows how “curiosity was the driving force at Versailles” and gives a deeper and more balanced look into what the palace was like in the 17th and 18th centuries, at a peak of fevered cultural exchange.
Versailles and the World runs until June 4 at Louvre Abu Dhabi