The Silver Furniture of Versailles
As Louis XIV developed his dream of Versailles, his dream of a grand and glittery palace that people will look at in awe, he of course meant for the inside to be just as impressive as the outside. To achieve this, the best of the best were hired. The ceilings were painted magnificently, the parquet floors of the best wood and quality, marble lined the walls along with expensive tapestries and Gobelins. Everything not only fit for a King, but fit for the ‘King of Kings’ Louis XIV.
The Sun King paid great attention to the furnishing of his rooms, the State Apartments. For this Louis had something very special in mind. Silver furniture. Not just plated wood or something like this, solid silver.
In the 1660’s the famous Gobelins manufactory, under the direction of Charles Le Brun, produced sets of precious furniture of solid silver meant to grace the apartment of the King. Claude Ballin, a skilled silversmith, created 167 pieces of furniture. Among it smaller and larger tables, mirrors, benches and stools, candle-stands, lighting fixtures, commodes, vases, statues, various decorative items such as plates, ewers and perfume burners as tall as men. All decorated with the monogram of the King and his sun emblem.
Louis XIV placed the order for the items in 1664, but it took until 1682 for the collection to be complete, by then weighting a solid twenty tons. All of it was placed, for everyone to see, in the State Apartments at Versailles. Imagine how magnificent it must have looked. Two highlights of the silver furniture collection was a balustrade, weighting more than one ton, that separated the King’s bed from curious onlookers and the King’s throne with a height of 2,60 meters.
As the Doge of Genoa visited Versailles in 1685, this throne was placed at the end of the Hall of Mirrors and lined with large silver candelabras on each side. The Doge had plenty of time to admire all the sparkling silver furnishings, he was led through the length of the State Apartment, with the silver on display, all the way to the end of the Hall of Mirrors and Louis XIV’s throne. The splendour did not last long however. In December 1689, during the War of the Grand Alliance, all of it was sent to the mint. France coffers were quite empty and the King needed desperately money to pay for the war expenses, thus the silver furnishing was sacrificed for the good of France.
All that remains are a few images, which give us an idea how Versailles might have looked during the time it had solid silver tables and benches illuminated by thousand of candles.
If you speak French or German, Arte has done an exceptional documentary called ‘Le mobilier de Versailles – Du Roi-Soleil à la Révolution’ in which modern computer technique was used to reconstruct parts of the silver furniture.
Another ‘side-effect’ of war. Computer reconstruction is only a substitute. You’re right, we can only imagine most of the details. Besides, I feel the pain of artists who saw their talent and work melted down for cannons and soldiers’s pay after such a short time…
The ‘main artist’ died three years before the silver was melted. I guess one can say the security of France depended a little on the melting. This war was quite the disaster.
Then he had ‘lucky’ that he did not witness this waste.
I recall in one book on Versailles, that apparently one of these original solid silver tables did survive after all – the one given to King Charles II of England by Louis XIV as a personal gift. It is in England, possibly in one of the royal houses. Does anyone ‘out there’ know the truth behind this story?