CHAPTER VI. GOLDEN DAYS AND RED LETTER NIGHTS
The Gayety and Fashion of Versailles Life. The Prodigal Frivolities and Diversions of the Court.
The ceremonious routine of the days at Versailles was enlivened at certain times of the year by festivities of astounding brilliance, and, on occasion, by gorgeous receptions offered to visiting rulers and ambassadors, It has already been related that the arrival of Louis XIV and his family at Versailles in the fall of 1663 was celebrated by a fete at which a troupe headed by Moliere was heard in a piece by the great dramatist called Impromptu de Versailles, In the month of May, 1664, Louis commanded a performance of "Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle," in which his favorite actor and playwright furnished the comedy, Lully the music and the ballets, and an Italian mechanician the decorations and illuminations. On the first day there was tilting at the ring, in which pastime Louis XIV played a part, wearing a diamond-embroidered costume. The next day, on an outdoor stage, Moliere and his company played the "Princesse d'Elide." There followed ballets, races, tourneys and a lottery, "in which the prizes were pieces of furniture, silverware and precious stones."
In September, 1665, a hunt was organized in the woods of Versailles, at which the royal ladies wore Amazonian habits. A mid-winter day in the year 1667 was chosen for a tournament "that over-passed the limits of magnificence." The Queen herself led a cortege of Court beauties on a white horse that was set off by brocaded and gem-sewn trappings. The Gazette of 1667 described the appearance of the youthful Master of Versailles at this tournament, he being "not less easily recognized by the lofty mien peculiar to him than by his rich Hungarian habit covered with gold and precious stones, his helmet with waving plumes, his horse that was arrayed in magnificent accouterments and a jeweled saddle-cloth."
Again in the summers of 1668 and 1672 Moliere and Lully entertained the guests at the King's chateau, while in the gardens there were statues, vases and chandeliers so lighted as to give the impression that they glowed with interior names.
In the summer of 1674, Moliere "was no longer alive to arrange dramatic performances among the green and flowery coppices of Versailles. But there was no lack of entertainment at the splendid fetes that marked that year. We have the recital of Felebien, a fastidious chronicler of Court doings, referring to this period of merry-making, which lasted during most of the summer and fall.
"The King," says Felebien, "ordained as soon as he arrived at Versailles that festivities be arranged at once, and that, at intervals, new diversions should be prepared for the pleasure of the Court. The things most noticeable at such times as these were the promptitude, minute pains and silent ease with which the King's orders were invariably executed. Like a miracle - all in a moment - theaters rose, wooded places were made gay with fountains, collations were spread, and a thousand other things were accomplished that one would have supposed would require a long time and a vast bustle of workers."
The "Grand Fetes" occupied six days of the months of July and August. The celebrations of the fourth of July began with a feast laid on the verdant site later usurped by the basin called the Baths of Apollo. Here the beauty of nature was enhanced by an infinity of ornate vases filled with garlands of flowers. Fruits of every clime were served on platters of porcelain, in silver baskets and in bowls of priceless glass. In the evening the Court attended a production of "Alceste" - an opera by Quinault and Lully, executed by artists from the Royal Academy of Music. The stage was set in the Marble Court. The windows facing the court were ablaze with two rows of candles. The walls of the chateau were screened with orange trees, festooned with flowers, illumined by candelabra made of silver and crystal. The marble fountain in the center of the court was surrounded by tall candlesticks and blossoming urns. The spraying waters escaped through vases of flowers, that their falling should not interrupt the voices of those on the stage. Artificial waters, silver-sconced tapers, bowers of fragrant shrubs united to create the richest of settings for this outdoor theater.
It was the King's wish that the grounds of the little "porcelain house" at Trianon be chosen as the scene of the second fete, which took place a week later. In an open-air enclosure, decorated by "a prodigious quantity of flowers," the guests listened to the "Eglogue de Versailles," composed for the occasion by Lully, leader of the Petits-Violons, Louis' favorite Court orchestra. Afterwards all the nobles and their fair companions returned to sup at Versailles in a wood where the Basin of the Obelisk now is.
Seven days later, at the third fete of the series, the King gave a banquet to ladies in the pavilion at the Menagerie. The guests were conveyed in superbly decorated gondolas down the Grand Canal. In a large boat were violinists and hautboy-players that made sweet music. Finally, in a theater arranged this time before the Grotto, all the ladies were regaled with a performance of "La Malade Imaginaire," the last of Moliere's comedies.