The Landscape Guide

Versailles in the time of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Versailles fell into a decline during the last years of the Bourbons. It was inhabited by Louis XVI and his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette before they were sent ‘to the scaffold’. The troubles were a direct consequence of the monarchy’s weakness. It was running out of authority and it had run out of money.One thinks of  Versailles as the grandest palace in Europe must also have been it most luxurious. ‘In actuality Versailles was a vast cesspool, reeking of filth and befouled with ordure…The odor clung to clothes,wigs, even undergarments. Worst of all, beggars, servants, and aristocratic visitors alike used the stairs, the corridors, any out-of-the-way place to relieve themselves….“I shall never get over the dirt of this country,” Horace Walpole grumbled, and he had travelled extensively. The approach to Versailles, the English agreed, was magnificent, along wide roads shaded with stately trees. But the squalor inside was unspeakable.’ (C Erickson, To the scaffold the life of Marie Antoinette Robson Books 2000  p. 114 ) The courtyards were also foul: ‘The passages, the court yards, the wings and the corridors were full of urine and fecal matter. The park, the gardens and the chateau made one retch with their bad smell’  (André Castelot, Queen of France: A Biograpby of Marie Antoinette, trans. Denise Folliot (New York, 1957), p. 83). Traversing a palace courtyard entailed a further risk:       ‘One afternoon, not long before she became Queen, Antoinette and her sister-in-law the Comtesse de Provence went to call on Victoire. On leaving Victoire’s apartments the two women paused in a courtyard to look at a sundial. From a second-story window someone flung a pail of waste water into the courtyard, and the two Princesses were drenched. Possibly the drenching was no ac cident, for the window was in Madame Du Barry’s apartments and her servants had no love for the dauphine. But more likely than not it was just one of many such incidents, quite unintentional and too commonplace to record’ (C Erickson, To the scaffold the life of Marie Antoinette Robson Books 2000  p. 115). Part of the trouble was that the palace and gardens were even more freely open to the public then than are today:          ‘Virtually anyone could enter the palace. Some effort was made to keep out people who had recently had smallpox, but everyone else was admitted. The only requirement was that the men possess a hat and a rapier, and these could be rented from the Concierge.’ (C Erickson, To the scaffold the life of Marie Antoinette Robson Books 2000 p. 115). The public nature and general filth of the palace gave a special attraction to the Hamlet (hameau) which was made for Marie Antoinette near the Petit Trianon.. ‘Everyone had heard of her private retreat at Trianon, and of the little hamlet she was having her architect construct there. It seemed a perverse extravagance, for the Queen to create a village for her own amusement while in many parts of France real peasants in real villages were in dire want. In her make-believe village stood eight small thatch-roofed cottages, their plaster walls cleverly painted with cracks to make them look weathered, their gardens full of vegetables and fruit trees. Nearby were barns, a poultry yard, and a mill. A farmer named Valy was brought in to live in the farmhouse and look after the livestock. Cows were pastured in a small field, and milked into porcelain tubs in an exquisite little dairy. The Queen had her own cows, named Brunette and Blanchette, and white goats and white lambs, rabbits and cooing pigeons and clucking hens. There was a note of pathos at the miniature hamlet, amid the abundant charm; it represented an almost childlike vision of a simpler, happier world. But the Queen’s critics saw nothing of this. To them the village was one more in a long list of frivolous purchases. They called it “Little Vienna,” and made fun of Antoinette indulging in her rustic pleasures.’ (C Erickson, To the scaffold the life of Marie Antoinette Robson Books 2000 p. 163)