“You love flowers, Madame, so I have a bouquet for you. It is Le Petit Trianon” said King Louis XVI, to his wife, 19 years old. This lady was Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France. In the hands of the young monarch, the Petit Trianon became a double-edged sword: a jewel and a curse. Her most iconic legacy, which made her a household name, also hastened her descent into an eventual deathly demise.
The Petit Trianon’s history goes back to 1762 when Louis XV decided to build a new mansion, within the grounds of the Versailles gardens. This was merely a luxury den for the King and his official mistress, Madame du Barry, to indulge in questionable sexual encounters and “special” parties. To ensure strict privacy, an innovative, mechanical system was integrated into the building’s structure so that trays and meals could be hoisted between floors without the need for servants, who could potentially disturb the “secrecy”. Infamously, in April 1774, Louis XV who was at the Petit Trianon for a hunting trip, fell ill and died in Versailles, 3 weeks later.
This is just part of the story. Undeniably, the Petit Trianon’s history is a fascinating bundle of contradictions, filled with tales of lust, love, excess, beauty, and loss. My first visit to the Petit Trianon in 2014 triggered in me conflicting emotions. I couldn’t help but appreciate how truly special and beautiful it was. That is irrefutable. On the other hand, I was reminded of its controversial background story.
Let me explain why. In my blog, my natural tendency is towards writing about disadvantaged women who fought against social injustice and oppression in their time to survive, thrive, and leave an architectural legacy for the world to witness. I write about women who showed courage, resilience, and adaptability in the hardest of circumstances (Read my stories about Blanche – Owner of the most sumptuous Hôtel Particulier in the Champs-Élysées & Roxelana – Queen of The Ottomans).
At first glance, Marie-Antoinette’s story seems anything but that. Unlike Blanche or Roxelana, Marie-Antoinette, daughter of a powerful Austrian Empress, was born into the highest of privilege. At an early age, the young princess was promised power and greatness. She married Le Dauphin (The Crown Prince), who would later become King of France and The Château of Versailles became her home. However, early praise turned to hate and the young queen eventually became a vilified figure. What seemed like a near-perfect existence ended in a humiliating public trial followed by a ruthless guillotine execution, witnessed by a baying mob. Convicted of treason, public fund embezzlement and even incest (The latter was never proved), Marie-Antoinette was also accused of spending large sums of money on construction and renovation works at the Petit Trianon.
The Petit Trianon is a national French treasure, in its own right, despite its glamorous neighbour, the Château of Versailles. Marie-Antoinette achieved a clever blend of two unlikely combinations: royal fineness and quaint country charm. Lines are refined in their simplicity; the use of gold is subtle and innovative design practices were introduced, based on her influences from elsewhere. Her love of nature, art and precious materials can be seen throughout. Her signature style is feminine, romantic, and delicate and is applied consistently in many ways: from upholsteries and sculptures through to chinaware and garden designs.
Marie-Antoinette’s presence is visible in every corner of her domain. This is her home. A stroll, through its rooms, corridors and gardens, says everything you need to know about its former owner: how she spent her time at “the salon de compagnie”, how she took breakfast in spring in the Belvedere pavilion, how she enjoyed views over the love temple and gardens, or how she sought privacy in the moving mirror boudoir. As I walked through this particular room, I imagined that this could have been the place where she spent time with the love of her life, the handsome Swedish Count Fersen.
It was also, at the Petit Trianon, where the young Queen celebrated her first long-awaited pregnancy, she cared for her sick newborn daughter and where she hid from the revolutionaries, intent on ripping her from her glamorous life.
It is believed that The Petit Trianon was also her escape from Versailles’ rigid formalities and overwhelming responsibilities, as a young queen. Labelled “The Austrian” (which in effect meant an outsider and the enemy, given the political times), her integration in the elitist, xenophobic French court was not made easy. She sought refuge in the adjacent mansion, not too far from Versailles, but far enough to lead a life of her choosing. She started enjoying her newfound freedom with relaxed routines, selected friends, and a progressive sense of fashion and decoration. While she was unable to assert herself as a statewoman, Marie-Antoinette succeeded in establishing herself as a trendsetter, a major influencer of her time, and she used the Petit Trianon chiefly to achieve this. She became an idol generally, the Queen of exquisite taste and the ultimate authority of modern style and elegance.
We all know that an idol status requires constantly maintaining as followers of trends are always on the lookout for the next best thing. However, this comes at a price. The way I see it, Marie-Antoinette got carried away by the insatiable need for revered admiration. It was similar to feeding a “monster” which would eventually consume her. Over time, the refuge had become a costly indulgence. Eccentric projects and new landscapes popped out of nowhere: the Belvedere, the love temple, the “sanitized” farming hamlet along with artificial rocks, cascades, and reservoirs, were all commissioned at great expense. Everything was over the top: parties, games, festivities, and theatre plays where she often played the lead role, were increasingly the talk of all Paris.
In Paris, a melting pot of unrest at the time, this excessive lifestyle didn’t go down too well. Soon enough, Marie-Antoinette became the main target of unprecedent propaganda, exacerbated by xenophobia and misogyny. Salacious rumors with pornographic pamphlets and vicious ballads, circulated about her, depicting her many lovers and lesbian affairs. Meanwhile at the Petit Trianon, the noose was tightening, slowly, around the Queen’s neck when it was discovered that public funds were being over-used, and artists and workers were being left unpaid. With her reputation being ever tarnished, Marie-Antoinette would have to answer to more than just over-spending during her upcoming rushed show trial.
Although she made poor choices and lived in a fantasy world, detached from the harsh reality of a struggling working class, Marie-Antoinette deserved a fair trial. Instead, she was subjected to a series of false accusations, based on propaganda and misplaced “morality”. While her faith would surely not have been different, given the circumstances of the time, hatred and vilification must have certainly clouded the judgement of the Revolutionary Tribunal.
A historian’s view: “Marie-Antoinette was not only lampooned and demeaned in a ferocious pornographic outpouring, but she was also tried and executed… While the king’s trial remained restricted to a consideration of his political crimes” (Gary Kates)
Sadly, her final years were marked by a great amount of pain and humiliation. However, she (naively) remained optimistic and hoped for a brighter future, until she was finally taken to the Conciergerie (known as the “waiting room” for the guillotine). In 1793, she was executed before a bloodthirsty mob.
In my opinion, Marie-Antoinette paid a heavy price for a life she didn’t choose. At only 15, she was forced to move to a foreign country, marry a man she didn’t know and carry the heavy burden of politics. This was done purely for the strengthening of alliances between countries and to further the ambitions of her mother. In this sense, this young girl was used as a pawn. As a woman and a foreigner, she was also used later as a scapegoat for the revolution.
The truth is that she had no interest or talent for politics. Instead, she created, probably by chance, a different kind of queen: The Queen of style and “savoir-vivre”, which perhaps in her mind, was the only alternative. She wasn’t completely wrong because the admiration for her and her style survives to this day, after more than two centuries.
Hence, my keen interest in writing this post.
Ultimately, any story about Marie-Antoinette is also a story about the Petit Trianon. The fabric of her life was sown into the building and its style. It is also a testament to the revolutionary political times in which she lived. As soon as you step into her domain, you are transported into her world and her life as she would have experienced it. You get a glimpse of the happiest time of her life before it came to a tragic end. Luckily, the building lives on.