CHAPTER VIII. THE VERSAILLES OF LOUIS XV
Louis the Great, in commanding immense and costly edifices to rise out of the earth, was moved, at least in part, by a desire to assure the monarchy and its established ceremonial a worthy background. Louis XV, in the numerous graceful additions to the chateau made by him, sought only to satisfy his own caprice and convenience.
When the Court returned from Vincennes to Versailles in 1722, seven years after the death of Louis XIV, one of the new King's first undertakings was the construction of the Salon of Hercules, adjoining the chapel court. This splendid hall, which to-day serves as the entrance to the grand appartements, owed its design to Robert de Cotte. As in the time of Louis XIV and Mansard, marble was chosen as the main decorative medium. All the sculptural ornaments are in bronze and marble. The bases of the pilasters are of gilded bronze. Carvings in wood and stucco were contributed by a Flemish artist named Verberckt, to whom Louis XV assigned most of the sculptural work done at the chateau during his reign. It was he that modeled the two doors placed on either side the bronze and marble chimney-piece, and the sculptures of the cornice. The painting on the ceiling - the Apotheosis of Hercules - was first seen by His Majesty as he passed through the room on his way to mass on a day in September, 1736. He examined it with much attention (some one has taken the trouble to record), and demonstrated his satisfaction by forthwith naming Sire Le Moine, the creator of the work, his chief painter. And thereon hangs a tragic tale. So great was Le Moine's pride in the honor thus done him that he determined to bring his work to still higher perfection. He resolved to finish each detail with the same exactitude as though he were painting a canvas that was to be observed at close range. But the more he applied his brush to bring out intricate effects, the less the design pleased him. In a sudden revulsion for the completed work, he effaced it and began the entire painting anew. This time he was better satisfied, though critics attached to the Court esteemed the second canvas not so good as the one destroyed. Upon the completion of the decorative scheme, the Sovereign bestowed upon Le Moine 5,000 livres for the Salon d'Hercule. Then, to his chagrin, the over-careful artist discovered that he was out of pocket 24,000 livres by the transaction. The loss turned his head; seized by grief and disappointment he committed suicide.
This salon served during the reign of Louis XV as a ball-room, and here in March, 1749, the Monarch was formally presented with two young ostriches, brought from Egypt and destined for the Menagerie.
In contrast to the passion for ostentation exhibited by Louis XIV, his great-grandson and successor was chiefly occupied in finding ways to evade his gilded prison. When the demand of the Court necessitated his presence at Versailles, he sought diversion in changing the apartments, making them over, demolishing here, reconstructing there - expending vast sums at all times. In 1738, finding the chamber of Louis XIV cold and inconvenient, he ordered another suite to be arranged for him on the second floor of the chateau above the Marble Court, and here he lived at his ease, untrammeled by etiquette and far from the curious gaze of courtiers. Small living rooms, kitchens, grills and bakeries were built on the Court of the Stags, and above the private apartments of Louis XIV rooms were added for the favorites of the King.
The storied Staircase of the Ambassadors, by which ceremonious visitors were admitted to the presence of the Sun King, was leveled by the whim of Louis XV. Little mattered it to him that this superb entrance filled an essential role in the life of the royal residence. Forgetful of the scenes that had been enacted on the triumphal stair, the great-grandson of the builder of Versailles commanded the destruction of one of the noblest architectural works of the time. Its bas-reliefs, its incomparable marbles, its paintings on which Lebrun had exercised all the resources of his decorative genius - all disappeared at the nod of the ambitious Madame de Pompadour, who desired a theater to be erected on this site. In later years the theater disappeared to make room for the apartments of the King's fair daughter, Madame Adelaide.
The project to build another flight of steps ending in the Salon of Hercules was never carried out. Future guests were therefore admitted to the reception rooms by a dark, narrow entrance, or they made a long roundabout tour by way of the Queen's staircase across the Marble Court. The demolition of the stairway of honor was an irreparable loss. No other piece of wantonness equaled it in the tumultuous history of Versailles.