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Swellboy on… preserving Versailles

A Canute-like struggle against the tide of history

Swellboy on… preserving Versailles

Image: Brijesh Patel

November 13 2010
Nick Foulkes

It is with interest that I learned that some scion of the Bourbon dynasty is mounting a campaign against the use of Versailles for shows of contemporary art by Murakami et al. The splendidly named Prince Sixte-Henri de Bourbon-Parme – perhaps his father was known as Prince Fivete and his son Prince Sevente – wants Versailles to remain unsullied by the depredations of contemporary art. I have to say I admire the Don Quixote spirit of Prince Sixte-Henri and I salute his Canute-like struggle against the apparently inexorable and ineluctable rise of contemporary art.

But what can he do? Contemporary art has become a religion, a means of social definition and advancement as well as a field of competition and I rather suspect that were he alive and in power today Louis XIV, in many ways the most absolute of absolute monarchs, would have probably got Renzo Piano or Santiago Calatrava to give Versailles a modern makeover and then have filled it with the most expensive contemporary art he could find… after all, as the famous maxim says, all art was once contemporary.

The absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries liked to compete with each other when it came to their art and their houses, especially their houses; they were always adding bits to them, and Versailles seems to have been in the throes of near constant enhancement.

Not to be outdone, even though his Piedmontese realm was little more than a buffer state in the Ruritanian patchwork between Bourbon France and its rival superpower Habsburg Austria, Victor Amadeus II enlisted noted Sicilian-born architect Juvarra to remodel the Palace of Venaria, a few kilometres outside Turin. The dukes of Savoy used to be kings of Sicily too (but the volcanic island proved too distant to be entirely practical and they swapped it for Sardinia – doubtless hoping to spend more time in the VIP area of the Billionaire nightclub in the hills above Porto Cervo), and it is this link that accounts for the presence of the gifted Sicilian Juvarra in Turin. Anyway, Victor Amadeus’s palazzo outside Turin was a bravura display of baroque architecture; it was huge, and came with a beautiful park in which the court could hunt. The thing is that this splendid building was a considerable alteration to the original which had been commissioned by his father.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that buildings, particularly impressive historical palaces such as Versailles, are palimpsests. While I like nothing better than holding back change, one way that history is bestowed on a place is by successive generations being allowed to write their story; and the current chapter of the narrative that is Versailles, like it or not, includes Murakami and Koons.

See also

Versailles, People