Monday, 22 September 2014

Silver Furniture of Louis XIV

Louis XIV was a firm believer in the notion that a monarch and his country's power was best shown in his palaces and the furniture in it. However, in 1689 the continuous wars - which the Sun King and his contemporaries also believed was a sign of strength - had exhausted the French treasury. To meet the demands of the finances Louis had his precious silver furniture sent to the mint. But what did these pieces of furniture look like?

Design by Charles le Brun for a console table
First of all, let me make it clear that the furniture was of solid silver - not gilded tin or wood. At the peak Louis owned just above 200 pieces of solid-silver furniture. The furniture would be displayed particularly in the Hall of Mirrors which was lined with silver candelabras and benches. When the Doge of Genoa visited Versailles he was lead through the King's grand apartment glittering with silver lighted up with thousands of candles before reaching the Hall of Mirrors were the impressive sight of the Sun King, sitting on his silver throne met him.  The furniture was made in Gobelins which is also famous for the tapestries named after the town.

Drawing by Jean Berain (1686) showing the silver throne flanked by six candelabras in the Hall of Mirrors
Beaudrin Yvart (1611-1680) - Cassolette en argent du mobilier de Louis XIV – Musée National du Château de Versailles
One of the vases actually at Versailles
Louis placed the order in 1664 but the furniture collection was not complete until 1682 - just seven years before it would all be sent to the mint. The collection included pretty much everything imaginable. Mirrors, commodes, benches, candelabras, vases, statues etc. Everything was finely carved and decorated in the finest style by masters of Paris.

Here is an computer generated version of what the drawing above would have
looked like
Actually, Charles le Brun was behind the design of many - if not most - of the silver furniture created for Louis XIV. The King probably wanted someone whom he could rely upon to come up with something truly magnificent and who better than one of the architects behind Versailles?
Another one of the main designers was Claude Ballin who personally oversaw the creation 167 pieces of furniture. Fortunately for him, Ballin died three years before the silver was melted down again.

Reconstitution en carton peint du trône de Louis XIV et de la décoration qui l'entourait - Exposition "Quand Versailles était meublé d'argent", Chateau de Versailles, 21 novembre 2007-9 mars 2008
The candelabras
The cost of the silver furniture was immense and put pressure on not just the treasury but also the foundation of Versailles itself. It is estimated that the 200 pieces of furniture weighed a combined 20 tons! Louis XIV had a silver balustrade made to surround his bed which alone weighed more than 1 ton! This balustrade is also estimated to have cost 30.500 pounds in it's day...

Recently, the Château de Versailles hosted an exhibition trying to re-create the sight and impression of silver furniture. Naturally, France has practically none left but Denmark is more than rich on solid-silver furniture. Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark suggested that Versailles could borrow a substantial part of the Danish collection in exchange for cash to repair the castle of Rosenborg in Copenhagen. The deal was made. The Danish collection was complimented with pieces from London, Augsburg and Moscow. These are some of the furniture included in the exhibition, from them you should be able to get an idea of the design used at the court of Louis XIV.

Commode, solid silver, Rosenborg Castle, Denmark

Silver table, made in Augsburg, Rosenborg Castle, Denmark

One of two silver lions, Rosenborg Castle, Denmark

Table, Windsor Castle, England

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