L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Les Marches disparues - the lost Escalier des Ambassadeurs at Versailles

A model reconstruction of the staircase.

The palace of Versailles, inarguably the most famous royal residence in the world, conspicuously lacks one of the most important architectural features of most palaces, "great homes", or pre-modern ceremonial public buildings: a grand staircase. The lavish ascent in such buildings that leads one from the ground floor to the impressive public spaces - salons, dining rooms, ballrooms, etc. - on the piano nobile, what are often termed the "state rooms". It's a very odd deficit, but this glaring absence wasn't always the case. As Louis XIV began the transformations of his father's hunting lodge, a project that would continue all the way up until the Revolution - and even after - a monumental staircase had certainly always been integral to the plan. Conceived by Louis Le Vau in 1668, the Grand Escalier or Escalier des Ambassadeurs was built to the designs of architect François d'Orbay and painter Charles Le Brun from 1672 to 1679. 

Entered through a vestibule on the north side of the cour royale, the impressive space - taking up the full height of the building and top-lit by a rare-at-the-time large glass skylight - was decorated with red, green, white, and gray French marble, gilt bronze, and trompe-l'œil frescoes. Up the first flight of stairs, in a niche on the landing, was a fountain featuring an antique sculptural group, a gift from the Pope. Above this was a bust of Louis XIV, sculpted in 1665-66 by Jean Varin (Warin), the white marble dazzling in the midst of the rich polychrome decoration. (The bust was replaced in 1703 by another of the king, a work by Antoine Coysevox created 1678-1681.) The two flights of stairs arising from the landing led to two adjacent state rooms; from one side one entered the Salon de Diane, and from the other, the Salon de Venus.

The vestibule.
The view looking back toward the vestibule and, beyond, to the cour royale.
(The engraving must have been made after 1703, when Varin's bust of the King has been replaced with that of Coysevox.)
The fountain group on the landing.
The ceiling. The blank space in the center signifies the location of the large skylight.
The arrangement of the polychrome marble floors in the main space, as well as the vestibule and the flanking loggias.

This remarkable ensemble lasted exactly seventy-three years. Over time, there proved less and less use for the vast and showy space, and more and more it was used for other purposes. In the later years of Louis XIV's reign, concerts were sometimes held here. During that of Louis XV - who didn't at all enjoy the very public display that his great-grandfather had - it was fitted up as a theater for the marquise de Pompadour. And then, only a few year later, in 1752, it was completely destroyed to make space for new rooms for the King's daughters, Mesdames. Eighty-five years after that, in 1837, when Louis-Philippe undertook his transformation - most of it lamentable - of Versailles' noble fabric, he had inserted another staircase - little more than serviceable - into a fraction of the space that originally accommodated the Escalier des Ambassadeurs. 

Varin's bust of Louis XIV, 1665-66.
Coysevox' bust of the King, 1678-81.


Though this glamorous ascent only existed for less than three-quarters of a century, the memory of it proved quite influential in the following centuries. The particular arrangement of the staircase and its polychrome marble décor inspired many variations on the original. One of the best known was ordered by King Ludwig II of Bavaria for Schloss Herrenchiemsee, his truncated replica of Versailles on the island of Herreninsel. The coloration of the decoration is much brighter than that of its inspiration, as the space was primarily designed to be viewed at night; the eccentric King mostly slept during the day, and he constantly pestered his architects and decorators to make the colors in all his fantasy castles brighter, more saturated, the better to be seen by candlelight.

In 1892 a fire ravaged the historic Palais d'Egmont, home of the duc d'Arenberg, in Brussels. When the destroyed right wing was rebuilt from 1906 to 1910, a grand staircase inspired by the one formerly at Versailles was added. Only a few years later, at the end of World War I, the building was sold to the city of Brussels, and is still used for international meetings and other high-profile diplomatic events.

And then there was the Palais Rose on the Avenue Foch in Paris, built between 1896 and 1902, the conjuring of the flamboyant and exacting comte Boni de Castellane, bankrolled by his wife, American railroad heiress Anna Gould. The exterior directly inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles - pink marble pilasters and all - the centerpiece of its interior was certainly the lavish homage to the Escalier des Ambassadeurs. But only four years after the shockingly expensive building's inauguration, alarmed at how her husband was rapidly burning through her family's money, Anna Gould divorced him. She went on to marry his cousin, the duc de Sagan, two years later, while Castellane eventually went on to deal in antiques. The Palais Rose, never entirely finished, was used by various people for various purposes over the years. When Anna Gould died in 1961, her heirs put the building up for sale. After various unsuccessful schemes were put forward to save the building, the furnishings and precious materials were removed and sold off, and the remaining structure was demolished in 1969.


The legendary staircase showed up in other places, as well. Réception du Grand Condé par Louis XIV - Versailles, 1674, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1878.
Gérôme set his grand "history painting" in the vanished space. While his composition gives the impression of a general accuracy...
... on closer inspection it becomes very apparent that he took many liberties with the well-documented décor...
... changing the colors of the marble, etc.; what is generously referred to as "artistic license".
(The clothes and hairstyles are also heavily influenced by a nineteenth-century sensibility. This looks more like a scene in the theater than anything else.)


  1. Extraordinary research and presentation...another tour de force!

  2. Fascinating! The Gerome painting, once very celebrated, was in the collection of William Henry Vanderbilt and hung in the library of his sumptuous palace on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Later it was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today it is back in France in the Musee d'Orsay.