NEW YORK—Upon entering the “Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789)” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we first see a huge tapestry portraying the château that Louis XIV had build when renovating his father’s hunting lodge. Garlands suspended from Ionic columns frame the French crown property that would transform into the magnificent Versailles we know today. In the tapestry’s foreground, on a balustrade, a boy with a dog, a peacock in profile, and two vases bursting with flowers draw our attention into the scene.
“They created this sort of theatrical decor to focus on the castle—really wonderful!” said H.R.H. Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia on April 9, at a preview of the exhibition, which runs until July 29.
The framing device designed for the tapestry hints at how “The Sun King,” as Louis XIV had dubbed himself, consolidated his power, essentially through staging on the grandest scale imaginable. Louis XIV established new court protocols and rituals. These performances were open to potentially all of the king’s subjects and visitors to see. The public and foreign visitors then became part of a monumental spectacle, contributing to the fabric of French culture.
“He brought to France the most important cultural influence in the world. … He really was a genius at marketing (if you can say that, because ‘marketing’ didn’t exist in those days). Diplomacy reached a new level during his reign, and French became the international diplomatic language. Everything that has to do with French cultural influence, including the legendary salons that became famous throughout Europe for about 150 years, all the seeds were planted by Louis XIV,” Prince Dimitri said.
In the exhibition of the 17th and 18th centuries, we see some of the most refined things humanity has created: paintings, sculptures, furniture, tapestries, carpets, costumes, porcelain, metals, weapons, and guidebooks. These tangible survivors of the French Revolution that The Met has assembled—nearly 190, from its own collection, from the Palace of Versailles, and from more than 50 national and international institutions—continue to impart to us the French culture from their glorious past.
Plenty has been shown and written about the French royal residence and its treasures, but this is the first exhibition that focuses on the visitors to Versailles, said Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, a curator in The Met’s European sculpture and decorative arts department. In the course of five years, she co-organized it with Bertrand Rondot, the senior curator at the Palace of Versailles, making “Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789)” the first extensive collaboration of this kind between these two institutions.
Just as it is today, Versailles was one of the most visited places in the world during the height of Louis XIV’s reign. French and foreign travelers, royalty, dignitaries and ambassadors, artists, musicians, writers and philosophers, scientists, Grand Tourists and day-trippers alike, all flocked to the majestic royal palace surrounded by its extensive gardens. Anyone could visit, as long as they were appropriately dressed, and could possibly catch a glimpse of the king, walking through the Hall of Mirrors, for instance.
A Time-Travel Visit
Exploring an assembled microcosm of the world’s largest royal domain with an exiled prince, who grew up near the grounds of the Versailles palace, conjured up layers of memories, of delightful discoveries, and of historical musings.
Prince Dimitri, the founder, president, and creative director of the jewelry firm bearing his name, comes from a long line of royalty. He has cousins in the 11 reigning royal families in Europe and is a descendant of the Sun King, no less. His understanding of the world, of art, and of artifacts is imbued with a personal history that can be traced back more than a thousand years.
As we looked at an aerial-view painting by Pierre Patel (“View of the Château and Gardens of Versailles, From the Avenue de Paris in 1668”), Prince Dimitri recalled the home where he grew up until he moved to New York, at the age of 26. We saw that the Grand Canal is shaped like a cross. Looking at the cross bar, heading north, “If you go to the very end of it and you pass the Trianon palaces, and go farther to the right, we were right there. We could see from our window the Temple de l’Amour [The Love Monument] of Marie Antoinette and the palace right in front of us. It was great going there to walk and play,” Prince Dimitri said.
The exhibition stretches across 12 galleries—organized thematically—connected with aligned doorways and designed to evoke the Baroque style of the Versailles palace.
Each theme is based on various visitors’ accounts from court diaries, gazettes, and literary journals offering detailed reports on specific events and entertainment as well as on ambassadorial receptions that were documented in paintings and engravings. One can listen to dramatizations of these accounts with the immersive audio guide, embellished with atmospheric 3-D soundscapes.
As we walked into the second gallery, which focuses on the gardens, Prince Dimitri went to the painting “View of the Château de Versailles and the Orangerie,” by Etienne Allegrain. “Ah, this is fantastic!” he said. “This is where they have the Orangerie!” The Orangerie was the inspiration for Prince Dimitri’s masterpiece “The Emerald Tree.” It’s an imaginary topiary inside an exact reproduction of one of the green wooden cachepots at Versailles’s Orangerie. The front side of the brooch reveals a surprising inscription: “For those who listen, even stones speak.”
That touch of surprise was also conjured up by seeing the writing desk (bonheur-du-jour) that was owned by the royal mistress Madame Du Barry, displayed in the “Off Limits” themed gallery of the exhibition, showing furniture from the private rooms of Versailles. “That’s marvelous,” Prince Dimitri commented. “It is from Louis XV’s time, … a desk to write a quick letter, … but the whole thing folded and opened; it was full of secrets.”
The largest gallery of the exhibition displays gifts from overseas embassies. Prince Dimitri caught a glimpse of a bronze relief. “Look at this. Fantastic! I never saw this before. It is by Coysevox,” Prince Dimitri said while we looked at the bronze relief “Brittany Offers Louis XIV the Model of His Equestrian Statue” by Antoine Coysevox, who also sculpted a bust of Louis XIV in the exhibition. “It’s fantastic! Absolutely amazing! Look at the sculpturing. … It’s full of symbolism. It says there, Brittany is offering a representation of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, and what they have there [a picture represented in the background of the relief] is the marriage of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, who sealed the friendship between France and Brittany in the Middle Ages,” Prince Dimitri said.
One of the most fascinating galleries in the exhibition displays objects related to “the ceremony of incognito,” with origins in the high Middle Ages, of ruling monarchs temporarily changing their identities during their travels and visits. This courtly protocol was an open secret, requiring everyone involved to be aware of who the visitor actually was, while accepting the assumed identity and fictitious title.
“Ah yes, that was due to the visit of the Czar Paul I of Russia, the son of Catherine the Great. … He wasn’t emperor yet, and he went under the assumed name of Comte du Nord,” Prince Dimitri said, while looking at a portrait of the Grand Duke Paul Petrovich (by Gavril Ivanovich Skorodumov).
Prince Dimitri explained how the calculated willingness of monarchs to temporarily renounce their position of power, while still maintaining the existing social order, had several advantages. Sometimes it was for political reasons and sometimes not.
“They wanted to be in peace when they traveled. It was the standard thing they did. My grandparents always did that, the king and queen of Italy, when they traveled. They used [the assumed names of] Count and Countess of Sarre, which was one of the castles we had in the mountain” [in Northern Italy].
In some respects, exiled members of royal families living in the United States, like Prince Dimitri, have had to embrace the “incognito ceremony” on a permanent basis. Although they have their birthright, yet are exiled from a kingdom that no longer exists or a country without a monarchic form of governance, their title, in effect, is rendered incognito. They enjoy the same freedoms of any other citizen, along with all the responsibilities that go with it, without the necessity of having to be a role model 24/7 for all.
Farther along the exhibit, the “Tourists and Souvenirs” gallery highlights young noble gentlemen who visited Versailles on what was called the Grand Tour for furthering their education and refining their social behavior.
Coming across an etching after a watercolor of “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart With His Father, Leopold, and His Sister Marie Anna,” Prince Dimitri immediately recognized the artist, delighted. “That looks like it’s after Carmontelle [also known as Louis Carrogis],” Prince Dimitri said. “Carmontelle was the greatest aquarellist [watercolorist] of his time. He was very good. All this was made with aquarelle. Camontelle did a ton of things like that. It’s so funny, so surreal, so ethereal because it’s like it announces a world that is about to disappear. It’s almost like he had prescience of it, a premonition of something that he didn’t know, but it transpires through his painting.”
In the penultimate gallery, titled “American Visitors, Growing Decline,” we saw two famous paintings (“The Entrance to the Lawn,” and “The Grove of the Baths of Apollo”) by Hubert Robert, who actually designed the gardens of le Hameau and the Petit Trianon, Prince Dimitri said. The first shows Marie Antoinette bending over her children and Louis XVI in the gardens where the trees are being cut down. “It’s like a photo, [in the sense of] documenting what was really happening; fantastic,” Prince Dimitri said.
In the final room, we saw the silk suit that Benjamin Franklin wore during his 1778 diplomatic trip to Versailles, which resulted in the Treaty of Alliance. Two other American founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, visited Versailles. Just 11 years after they sought support from the French king for the American nation, the French Revolution ensued in 1789.
Walking into the final gallery of the exhibition, Prince Dimitri looked at an etching, “The King and Royal Family Arriving in Paris Escorted by Thirty Thousand Souls (October 6, 1789).” “That was one of the saddest episodes of the whole situation. It was when they [Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette] were basically taken from Versailles to les Tuileries, in a way, as hostages of the revolution. It was the beginning of the end.”
As we left The Met, it felt like a twist of fate: that the parents of Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia settled right next to the Palace of Versailles; that Prince Dimitri himself then decided to leave France in 1984, sensing the disagreeable socialist political climate; and that The Met provides a splendid chance to reminisce and reflect upon the riches of the French culture during its most vibrant time of pomp and splendor.
Prince Dimitri shares stories about his royal heritage on Instagram @prince.dimitri
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