“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.
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The history of the Petit Trianon dates back to 1762 when The King Louis XV decided to build a new mansion within the grounds of the Versailles gardens. It served as a luxurious retreat for the King and his official mistress, Madame du Barry, where they would engage in special sexual encounters and host parties. To ensure utmost privacy, an innovative mechanical system was integrated into the building’s structure, allowing trays and meals to be transported between floors without the need for servants who might potentially disrupt the secrecy. Notoriously, in April 1774, while at the Petit Trianon for a hunting trip, Louis XV fell ill and passed away at Versailles three weeks later.
This is just a portion of the story. Without a doubt, the history of the Petit Trianon is a captivating mix of contradictions, encompassing stories of desire, affection, extravagance, elegance, and tragedy. When I visited the Petit Trianon in 2014, it evoked conflicting emotions within me. I couldn’t help but acknowledge its undeniable uniqueness and beauty. However, at the same time, I was reminded of its controversial past.
Let me explain why. In my blog, I am naturally inclined to write about women who faced adversity, fought against social injustice, and overcame oppression in order to not only survive but also thrive, leaving behind a remarkable architectural heritage for the world to appreciate. I delve into the stories of women who exhibited immense courage and resilience in the most challenging of circumstances. (You can 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 appears to be anything but that. Unlike Blanche or Roxelana, who fought against adversity, Marie-Antoinette was born into the utmost privilege as the daughter of a powerful Austrian Empress. From a young age, she was destined for power and greatness. She married Le Dauphin (The Crown Prince), who would later ascend to the throne of France, with the Château of Versailles becoming her residence. However, the initial admiration she received from the people of France, eventually transformed into hatred, and the young queen became a vilified figure. Her seemingly idyllic life ended in a humiliating public trial and a ruthless execution by guillotine, witnessed by a furious mob. While she was convicted of treason and accused of embezzling public funds and even engaging in incest (the latter was never proven), Marie-Antoinette was also accused to have spent substantial amounts of money on construction and renovation projects at the Petit Trianon.
The Petit Trianon is believed to have served as Marie-Antoinette’s refuge from the rigid formalities and overwhelming responsibilities of Versailles as a young queen. Being labeled “The Austrian” during a politically charged era, she faced challenges integrating into the elitist and xenophobic French court. Seeking solace in the neighboring mansion, not too far from Versailles but distant enough to shape her own life, she embraced her newfound freedom. Marie-Antoinette established relaxed routines, cultivated select friendships, and showcased a progressive sense of fashion and decoration. Although she struggled to assert herself as a stateswoman, she succeeded in becoming a trendsetter and a significant influencer of her time, using the Petit Trianon as a platform for her pursuits. She became an icon, renowned for her impeccable taste, and the ultimate authority on modern style and elegance.
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. The architecture exudes a refined simplicity, with subtle hints of gold and innovative design practices influenced by her exposure to various styles. Throughout the estate, one can witness her deep appreciation for nature, art, and precious materials. Her distinct feminine, romantic, and delicate signature style permeates every aspect, from the upholsteries and sculptures to the 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. One can envision her time spent in the “salon de compagnie,” or enjoying a spring breakfast in the Belvedere pavilion, with views overlooking the love temple and gardens. It is in places like the moving mirror boudoir that she sought privacy. As I walked through this particular room, I couldn’t help but imagine it as the space where she shared moments with the love of her life, the handsome Swedish Count Fersen.
It was also at the Petit Trianon where the young Queen celebrated her long-awaited first pregnancy, cared for her ailing newborn daughter, and sought refuge from the revolutionaries who aimed to strip her of her glamorous life.
We are all aware that maintaining an idol status needs a constant pursuit of the next best thing, as followers of trends are always seeking the latest. However, this comes at a price. The way I see it, Marie-Antoinette became consumed by an insatiable desire for adoration and reverence. It was like feeding a “monster” that would eventually devour her. Over time, her refuge transformed into a costly indulgence. Eccentric projects and new landscapes seemed to emerge out of nowhere: the Belvedere, the love temple, and the sanitised farming hamlet, complete with artificial rocks, cascades, and reservoirs, were all commissioned at great expense. Every aspect was extravagant: the parties, games, festivities, and theatrical performances, in which she often took the lead role, increasingly became the talk of all Paris.
During this period, Paris was a hotbed of unrest, and Marie-Antoinette’s lavish lifestyle did not sit well with the public. In no time, she became the primary target of unprecedented propaganda fueled by xenophobia and misogyny. Salacious rumors circulated about her, accompanied by pornographic pamphlets and malicious ballads, depicting her as engaged in numerous affairs. Meanwhile, at the Petit Trianon, the situation was growing more precarious for the Queen. It was discovered that public funds had been excessively used, leaving artists and workers unpaid. As her reputation continued to be tarnished, Marie-Antoinette would soon face more than just accusations of overspending during her rushed show trial.
Despite her poor choices and a lifestyle detached from the harsh realities faced by the struggling working class, Marie-Antoinette deserved a fair trial. Regrettably, she was subjected to a series of unfounded accusations rooted in propaganda and misguided “morality.” While it is unlikely that her fate would have been different considering the circumstances of the era, it is evident that hatred and vilification greatly influenced the judgment 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, Marie-Antoinette’s final years were marred by immense pain and humiliation. Nevertheless, she naively clung to optimism and held onto hope for a better future, until she was ultimately transferred 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 did not choose. At the tender age of 15, she was compelled to move to a foreign country, marry a stranger, and shoulder the weighty burden of politics. This was solely for the purpose of strengthening alliances between nations and fulfilling the ambitions of her mother. In this sense, the young girl was used as a mere pawn. Furthermore, as a woman and a foreigner, she later became a convenient scapegoat for the revolution.
The truth is, Marie-Antoinette had no interest or aptitude for politics. Instead, she unintentionally forged a different kind of queen: The Queen of style and “savoir-vivre,” perhaps believing it to be her only alternative. In this regard, she was not entirely mistaken, as the admiration for her and her style endures to this day, even after more than two centuries.
Hence, my profound interest in writing this article.
Ultimately, any narrative about Marie-Antoinette is inseparable from the Petit Trianon. The very fabric of her life is intertwined with the architecture and style of the building. 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 a deathly demise. Stepping into her domain transports you to her world and provides a glimpse into the happiest moments of her life before their tragic end. Fortunately, the building itself continues to exist, carrying the legacy of her story.