Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island

Louis XIV wanted to mark the court's removal from Paris to Versailles in a manner fitting his prestige. To accomplish this a virtual army of carpenters, artists and actors were brought in from Paris to bring to life what became known as the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island which consisted of a cavalcade of fêtes at Versailles lasting from 7th to 13th May 1664. The King put an immense pressure on both Molière and his troop of actors "Comédiens de Monseigneur le Duc d'Orlèans" - the actors were only brought in a week before they were supposed to perform. And Molière himself was given no extra time to prepare. In fact he was under a brutal deadline and had to abandon his project of having the play "La Princesse d'Elide" performed in prose. The entire festival was orchestrated by Carlo Vigarani who earned the admiration of his all-mighty master.

Publicly, the King dedicated the show of magnificence to his mother, Anne of Austria, and his wife, Marie Theresa - in reality it was in honour of the King's first maîtresse-en-titre Louise de La Vallière.

600 people were invited to watch the 25-year old Sun King roll out his magnificence but there was not enough room indoors (neither was the palace actually finished) so the festivities took place outside. Even the weather seemed to favour the King and during the entire length of festivities the court was bathed in soft sunlight. The days were to illustrate the story of the sorceress Alcine who kept the heroic Roger (played by the King) and his knights prisoners in a dungeon. This was the first time the French court had ever seen the combination of wonderful music and fantasy come together - and they were awed. So much in fact that the display which had originally been designed to last for three days were prolonged to almost an entire week.

The first days saw the King leading an entourage of knights on horseback; the King's horse's harness was studded with gold and gemstones and the King himself wore a bright-red costume. The knights were gentlemen of the court: the Duc de Noailles as Ogier the Dane, the Marquis de Villequier as Richardet, the Comte de Lude as Astolphe - even the Marquis de La Vallière participated! The cortège rode to the spot that know exhibits the Apollo Fountain where the palace of Alcine had been erected for the occasion. That night the entire garden was lit with thousands of candles while the courtiers watched a ballet inspired by the Seasons.
The next night brought on another ballet presented by Louis XIV; the ballet was the brain-child of the combined efforts of Molière and Lully with the title "La Princesse d'Elide". The courtiers were astounded and completely captivated by the many mythological creatures singing alongside shepherds. The third evening brought another splendid display when the carefully constructed palace of Alcine was illuminated by fireworks and just when the courtiers were clapping at the colourful display, an artificial whale emerged on the Grand Canal followed by two whale calves carrying Alcine and her servants.

The days that followed were packed with lotteries, horse-races, games, candle-light dancing and endless amounts of champagne and crystallised fruit. Each night 4.000 candles were lit in the gardens - the King wanted to make sure that his guests did not miss a single detail. The King took his court to see his menagerie of exotic animals as well. The courtiers were certainly well entertained; each night brought on a new spectacle and Molière unfolded his genius with productions of La Fâcheux and Le Mariage Forcé. Mock-battles were played out and masquerades added to the fantastical theme.

It was not until the 12th that festivities came to an unexpected halt when Molière's "Tartuffe" scandalised the devout party surrounding Anne of Austria - the King had been very much entertained by the play but was forced to ban it. Nevertheless, Louis XIV had succeeded in completely dazzling his court and by far out-shining Fouquet who had dared to display a great extravagance and paid the price for it.

When the court returned to Fontainebleau it was awestruck, the age of Versailles had begun.

The Four Seasons being played out


The Chariot of Apollon which was presented on the first night by the knights and Roger

Exotic animals on display - notice how the palace is missing the two wings

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