Monday, 30 January 2017

Keeping Warm: Heating at Versailles

Royal palaces by their sheer size were impossible to properly heat up and the rather primitive heat sources did not help matters. Despite being occupied both during the Grand Siècle and the Enlightenment the heating available to the peak of French society was the same as it was for the poorest peasants - and had been since before the middle ages.

The only true way of heating a room was by an open fireplace. However, with the size of the apartments and little to none isolation the beautiful fireplaces did not do much. This was partially why Louis XV decided to change his bedroom from the grand, airy room of his predecessor to a smaller one which was easier to heat. He had actually in 1758 requested a ceramic stove to be installed in the bedroom of Louis XIV but was met with opposition from Ange-Jacques Gabriel who worried about the design being compromised.

Billedresultat for versailles palace fire
Detail of the cast iron fire-back in the Salon of Hercules 

The winter of 1708/1709 would go down in history as one of the coldest winters in memory. Even the sturdy Madame complained that "never in the memory of man has it been so cold". That winter people fell like flies in both country and city and the royal court was not immune either. It became so cold that the water inside the crystal flagons froze completely which caused their ornate vessels to burst. That unrelenting cold would continue for three weeks straight only to return twice in February and in March.
Another anecdote from that terribly cold winter was when a courtier reminisced of a dinner party given by the Duc de Villeroy. Bottles were brought in from a rather warmer kitchen but on their way to the dining room the cold had had such an impact that when the delicious drops were poured ice came with it.

The often inadequate fireplaces had another side-effect: they smoked. If the King's fireplaces could be smoky then just imagine what the small fireplaces in the minor apartments was like. On occasion the smoke issuing from the fireplaces was so bad that the inhabitants were driven out of their apartments - others completely gave up on trying to have their own fire.

Billedresultat for versailles palace stove
The white ceramic stove in Madame du Barry's bathroom

The odd thing is that it actually became possible to avoid such terribly cold living conditions. In 1713 new ways of heating had already been developed but they were never installed on a grander scale in the royal palaces. The only obvious thing that changed was the decor of the heating source. Towards the end of Louis XV's reign it was modern to have stoves decorated with porcelain tiles; such a one was found in Madame du Barry's apartment.
A page of Louis XVI remembered fondly a ball given by Marie Antoinette had taken care of the guests' every concern. The rooms allocated for the festivities were fitted with "heating pipes" to keep the guests from shivering but these does not appear to have been a permanent fixture.

With the draughty rooms and poorly heated rooms it is no wonder that people often caught colds or pneumonia.