Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Menagerie

It has always been common for royals to have exotic animals and the Kings of Versailles was no different. Louis XIV had his architect - and namesake - Louis Le Vau built a menagerie in the south-west part of the Versailles gardens. The menagerie itself was centred around the building and from there seven areas separated by walls spread out in a fan-pattern; each area is closed off with a fence facing the pavilion.
The first animals (including birds) arrived there in 1664. This menagerie was the first to be built in the Baroque style in Europe. However, the menagerie was not just for the entertainment of the King and his courtiers it also contributed to natural science. Whenever an animal died Louis XIV gave the remains to scientists which meant that the knowledge on this area experienced a boom in this period.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746.
Location of the menagerie, 1746

Louis XIV had another menagerie built at the château of Vincennes but the purposes of the two menageries were vastly different. The one at Vincennes emulated the animal fights seen in Ancient Rome where exotic animals were pitted against each other. Such a fight was staged for the amusement of the Persian ambassador who got first row seats to a fight between a tiger and an elephant. The menagerie at Versailles was completely different. No such ferocious fights were to be held near the King's permanent residence. The menagerie at Versailles was made to enhance the King's prestige as well as to provide interesting sights for the courtiers.

It is a sign of the Grand Monarch's fondness for his grand-daughter-in-law, Marie Adelaide of Savoy, that he granted her free use of the menagerie as a present. Consequently, the young Duchesse de Bourgogne would entertain her guests there for evening soirees as well as daytime parties.

Drawing of the menagerie during Louis XIV
The Kings would take their companions and royal guests with them for a stroll in the menagerie; often they would sail there via the Grand Canal. Louis XV was not that interested in the exotic animals and left the care of the menagerie to his mistresses. During his reign that the menagerie - and the conditions of the animals - declined dramatically. No effort was made to receive an elephant which had been gifted to the French King and it consequently was sent marching from the coast to Versailles. The walls were crumbling from lack of maintenance which eventually caused the escape of an elephant in 1782.

But Louis XVI also had a fondness of the animals and sent out a list of animals he wished to add to the menagerie including an elephant, two zebras (one male and one female), baboons and 6 guinea-fouls. Louis XVI would never actually receive the elephant and only got one zebra but that did not mean that all life went out of the menagerie. During this period a lion, a panther, a tiger, hyenas, ostriches and monkeys made out the inhabitants.

Billedresultat for versailles menagerie
Digital rendition of how the menagerie looked

When the revolution swept the royal family away it would seem that time was running out for the animals as well. However, by this time the interest for natural science was greater than ever and the newly established government became concerned about the animals. Instead of killing them it agreed that they should be moved to a zoological garden in Paris exactly in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. The politicians had seen with concern the rise of exotic animals among commoners and it seemed like a perfect solution to confiscate the animals and at the same time gather the remaining animals of Versailles in one place. We know that the lion made its way to Paris but - like all the other animals - it had to make due with living in the basement of the menagerie because the parks for the animals had not yet been finished. Finally, the collection in 1794 counted the lion from Versailles, a leopard, a sea lion, a polar bear etc. All together 32 mammals and 26 birds made up the collection. Sadly most of them died in the great starvation of 1795.

Billedresultat for versailles menagerie
Air-view of the menagerie from 1724

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