The Grand Trianon, the other Versailles castle – Meanderings through France n° 131
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
From the French Royals to the Fifth Republic, the Grand Trianon has always been part of the small and great history. Today it gives us glimpses into the personal life of many French and foreign historical figures.
Trianon originally was a small village near Versailles. In 1663, 25 years old Louis XIV bought it from the Ste Genevieve Abbey in order to extend Versailles’ parks and gardens. The small village was razed to the ground and the construction works of the Trianon began in 1670. It took only one year to build this first palace made of ceramics and porcelains and surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with flowers and ponds. At that time the witty Marquise de Montespan, the Montespan Marchioness, was the royal mistress and the Porcelain Trianon, as it was then called, was a very joyful place where great parties were organized, far from the ceremonial world of the court of the Chateau de Versailles.
The Porcelain Trianon fell into disgrace at the same time as the aging Marquise did… It was aging to and its fragile ceramics and porcelains were falling to pieces. It was completely destroyed in 1686 and Louis XIV decided to build an even more beautiful new Trianon where he intended to live with his family in a less formal way. Although he entrusted the famous architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart with the construction, Louis XIV constantly intervened during the works. He decided to have a one-floor palace with a long peristyle linking two wings, with a flat roof without any visible chimney. It was covered with pink marble and porphyry and took the name of “Marble Trianon”. This is the Grand Trianon that we can visit today whose architecture expresses Louis XIV personal tastes.
Louis XV and Louis XVI had no interest in the Grand Trianon and later during the French Revolution all the paintings, furniture and objets d’art of the palace were sold by auction to the benefice of the young First Republic. Paradoxically the Grand Trianon that was a symbol of absolute monarchy was to be restored to its original splendour by a man loathed by all royalists, Napoleon. From 1805 the Grand Trianon was entirely restored and refurbished. The very best French artists and craftsmen were called upon to achieve Napoleon’s dream of grandeur.
A whole wing was designed for Napoleon’s mother, Letizia, but she never liked it, finding it too vast and inconvenient. Nevertheless Napoleon stayed many times there with his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria who was Marie-Antoinette great-niece. Irony of history is limitless! Napoleon and Marie-Louise used to stay in the apartment that had once been the apartment of Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV last mistress! But walls can’t speak, can they? When Napoleon’s son was born in 1811 great celebrations were organised in the Grand Trianon shortly before the fall of the Empire in 1815.
Although most French people even today would tell you that it was a good thing to get rid of their royals it seems that they still are nostalgic of these bygone days and they do enjoy visiting the French royal residences. The Presidents of the French Republic don’t escape this nostalgia mixed to a will of greatness. In 1960 General de Gaulle chose the Grand Trianon as private residence for the official guests of the French Republic. Once again important works of restoration were undertaken.
The Empire style furniture has been carefully restored and the precious fabrics have been accurately reproduced. The Grand Trianon finally recovered its Imperial splendour. After being a royal then an imperial residence the Grand Trianon was finally turned into a stylish Presidential Residence. Through the years many prominent foreign figures have stayed there: Jackie and John Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, Belgian King Baudoin, Hassan II King of Morocco, the Shah of Iran, the Duke of Edinburgh, Richard Nixon, Boris Yeltsin… and recently Mr Vladimir Putin.
Nowadays the Grand Trianon is open to the public. You can get there from the Chateau de Versailles using the small hop on-hop off train that takes tourists through the whole park or walk for about 25 min in the shade of the tall plane trees. Behind the huge palace’s gates you will get to the courtyard of honour and discover the long peristyle and the lovely gardens. Inside the palace you will discover its imperial decoration inspired by Egyptian, Roman and Greek Antiquity and realise that 19th century people loved bright colours!
From the pink Empress’ bedroom to the yellow Louis-Philippe’s family room, from the blue Mirror Room to the Malachite Room or from the Emperor’s bedroom to his bathroom, all rooms are coloured in their same original style. Every piece of furniture is a precious historical testimony, especially Napoleon’s leather armchair that never needed restoration and still is upholstered with its original leather. A moving historical icon for all those that Napoleon fascinates!
Next month an important exhibition dedicated to Napoleon will take place in Arras, in Northern France thanks to a fruitful partnership between Arras Art Museum and the Chateau de Versailles. Over 100 items will be exhibited for a whole year until November 2018. We will tell you more about it very soon.
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes