Bastille Day might seem an awkward time to contemplate the glories of Versailles. But the court of the French kings inspired some essential underpinnings of another great democracy.
This is clear at a glance in the Washington gallery of Susan Calloway, where a rare and famous 1746 plan for the chateau and grounds hangs on the wall. Drawn by the Parisian cartographer Jean Delagrive, it is part of an exhibition of 17th to 19th century plans and perspectives on display through Aug. 25.
The antique overview of Versailles reveals the elaborate scheme that master landscaper Andre Le Notre designed for Louis XIV. A monumental building is linked to a vast landscape of reflecting pools and statuary. Avenues radiate outward in a familiar pattern of straight lines and circles. What the Sun King got, essentially, is the Washington of Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
Of course, Versailles came first. The remodeled hunting lodge at Versailles was declared the official residence of the French court in 1682. Reluctant nobles rumbled the 10 miles from Paris to the countryside. Renovation and enhancements continued for the next century, or until the first Bastille Day: July 14, 1789.
Delagrive's plan is considered the best rendition of Le Notre's scheme. Visitors will have no trouble finding their way around the formal axis. The royal chateau occupies the site of honor, just as the U.S. Capitol does on the hill overlooking the Mall. Power radiates symbolically along the angled avenues. Visitors from the town of Versailles would have approached just as Washingtonians do via Maryland and Pennsylvania avenues. Le Notre gave kings a Grand Canal; L'Enfant designed the Mall. As for the White House, it sits in the approximate position of the Trianon, an elegant manse that served as the king's family retreat.
"For Americans, if they know anything about history at all, they should be able to recognize Washington," says Julee Johnson, a vice president of Historic Urban Plans, which sells a small reproduction online. "The whole concept of diagonals and circles is just one of those wonderful elements in American city planning."
There are other reasons for appreciating what went on at Versailles. Once Louis XIV turned his father's hunting lodge into the world's most glamorous country house, Versailles set the standard for deluxe remodeling. That passion has afflicted countless visionaries from Thomas Jefferson to William Randolph Hearst.
Louis XIV was able to employ the finest team of designers--Le Notre was joined by Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun. They endowed the baroque chateau with a glittering Hall of Mirrors, gilded private apartments and 700 rooms surrounded by irrigated parkland. As the story goes, special fountain guards whistled whenever the Sun King approached, so the 1,400 water jets could be turned on. (Only 50 fountains remain.)
Victoria Kastner, author of a book on the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, believes that each century has produced a notorious castle-builder. In the 19th century, she points out, George Vanderbilt constructed his 250-room Biltmore Estate near Asheville, N.C. The French Renaissance-style mansion was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who was influenced by studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which was itself influenced by all that transpired at Versailles. The Biltmore landscape was shaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.
In the 20th century, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post collected 18th century decorative arts with fervor. She reached her castle-building zenith in 1927 with the flamboyant 118-room Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.