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A Multi-Faceted Myth: Versailles in the Collective Memories of Europe and Beyond

Un mythe aux multiples facettes : Versailles dans les mémoires collectives d’Europe et d’ailleurs
Jonathan Spangler


Cette postface fait le bilan des différents volets de recherche présentés dans ce collectif et propose une synthèse des expériences vécues, à travers l’Europe (et au-delà), par les visiteurs étrangers venus à Versailles aux xviiie et xixe siècles. Le mythe de Versailles exerçait une influence qui variait considérablement d’un individu à l’autre : chaque visiteur se le réappropriait et l’adaptait selon ses désirs une fois de retour dans son pays. Il n’existait pas de vision unique de Versailles. Certains ont profité de leur séjour pour réajuster leurs liens politiques avec la France et l’Allemagne, d’autres pour afficher leur statut et leurs relations sur place, ou pour exhiber leur bon goût à travers les objets qu’ils avaient acquis. D’autres ont considéré Versailles comme la parfaite incarnation du pouvoir de l’État et de l’ordre moral, tandis que d’autres encore y ont vu le pire exemple d’excès et de décadence. Les visiteurs venus d’Amérique ont importé certains éléments du mythe versaillais, tels que le respect de l’étiquette et l’exclusivité d’accès, mais aussi l’importance accordée à la grandeur et à la splendeur. Finalement, ces influences ont été variées : les Américains ont imité Versailles, mais aussi d’autres résidences françaises. Le mythe de Versailles s’est ainsi perpétué tout en revêtant de multiples formes.

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  • 1 The Gilded Age (HBO, 2022), written by Julian Fellowes.
  • 2 ‘When Ward McAllister Sauced Chicago’, World’s Fair Chicago, 1893 (18 February 2022), https://world (...)
  • 3 McAllister 1890. Although McAllister never mentions Versailles, he makes frequent references to beh (...)
  • 4 Duindam 2003, pp. 124, 165−6; Bluche 2000, p. 9.
  • 5 Livery (New York, Rogers, Peet and Co, 1898). This booklet has separate chapters, illustrated, on t (...)

1In a recent television historical drama, the enormously wealthy but socially nouveau Mrs George Russell endlessly strives to gain entrance to New York’s fashionable society of the 1880s. She employs two overall strategies: she intends to overwhelm her snobbish guests with the sheer size and opulence of her residence; and she ensures that she has − ‘as everyone should have’ − the finest French chef to demonstrate that she is a woman of taste.1 The ubiquity of having a French chef was indeed advocated by one of this drama’s real-life characters: Ward McAllister, the self-appointed counsellor to New York’s society gatekeeper, Mrs Astor. McAllister had coined the term ‘the Four Hundred’, to indicate those of New York’s wealthy elite who were included in the most restricted pinnacle of society; he and Astor even set forth a rule that someone was ‘respectable’ only if they were at least three generations removed from the original source of their wealth.2 What makes this story relevant to the essays collected in this volume is that McAllister, like so many Americans, went to Europe to observe the rules and fashions of the European aristocracy. His published memoirs detailing these journeys demonstrate one facet of America’s fascination with elements of the myth of Versailles: hierarchy and ceremony.3 There were certainly resonances with Versailles in New York’s high society with its exclusionary rules of access − recall that, in the eighteenth century, to be presented at the French court a nobleman had to have proof of an unblemished noble pedigree stretching back to the fifteenth century.4 America’s wealthy elites also emulated the ceremony of old Europe in their employment of visual display, notably in the use of livery for household staff − as seen in a how-to guide for what to wear, when and how, published by a company of outfitters in New York in 1898.5

  • 6 See relevant chapters in Salomé and Bonnotte 2019, e.g., Sam Watters and Mari Nakahara, ‘Versailles (...)
  • 7 See Van Slyck 2011.
  • 8 Carley 2012.
  • 9 Amy Dangelico, ‘The Grandest Guest Rooms: Restoring the Louis XV Suite’, Biltmore Blog (2 May 2022) (...)

2The second element of the myth of Versailles that caught the imagination of wealthy Americans in the Gilded Age was certainly that of scale.6 Like Versailles in the 1680s, the mansions built by the elites of New York in Newport, Rhode Island, were all on a vast scale intended to outdo their neighbours − especially potent given that they were referred to usually as mere ‘cottages’.7 One of the grandest residences ever built in the United States, however, was not in Newport: Biltmore, in the rolling hills of western North Carolina, was commissioned by George Vanderbilt II in the 1890s. Like McAllister, Vanderbilt had visited Europe to gain inspiration, and he took his architect, Richard Morris Hunt, with him. But they did not build a Versailles-style palace − the inspiration for Biltmore is clearly Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord, as well as Waddesdon Manor, the just recently completed neo-Renaissance château in Buckinghamshire, England, built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Vanderbilt took advantage of his time in Europe to purchase quantities of tapestries, carpets, prints and paintings with which to decorate Biltmore’s interiors.8 This reflects another of the main themes revealed in the present collection of essays: that travellers to Versailles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also, significantly, travellers to Paris, where they spent large amounts of money acquiring luxury items with which to decorate their own residences back home, be they in Italy, England, Hungary or Poland. We see that Versailles was just one of the cultural influences in the design and development of these palatial residences, and that other royal residences and court cities too had an impact. This is evident in Biltmore: newly restored rooms opened to the public for the first time in 2022 reveal not just a Louis XV-style bedroom, but also rooms with a more Napoleonic flavour, and one centred on an eighteenth-century Tyrolean tin-glazed earthenware tile fireplace over-mantel that George Vanderbilt acquired on his travels.9

3The myth of Versailles was thus present in the United States in the later nineteenth century, and as the opening chapter of this collection, by Flavie Leroux, reveals,10 after 1830 Americans represent the largest number of writers in the ‘Visitors to Versailles’ database11. But the myth was not an exclusive emulation of Versailles, its palace or its court. Some elements − the vast scale, rigid etiquette and rules for social hierarchy − were appropriated, but others were not. We find this in the chapters by Katarzyna Kuras12 and Ferenc Tóth:13 travellers to Versailles in the eighteenth century brought back the idea that a magnificent residence could raise the social prestige of an aristocratic family, and although design elements of residences such as Lachowice in Poland or Eszterháza in Hungary reflected direct influences from Versailles, they also emulated other French châteaux such as Vaux-le-Vicomte, or the Italian baroque palaces of Rome or Naples, or the newly redesigned Habsburg palace at Schönbrunn. A major influence, it seems, greater than that of the buildings, was the gardens, as seen at Gödölő near Pest, built by the Grassalkovich family. Both Tóth and Kuras point out that most visitors to Versailles spent just as much time in Paris, where they acquired quantities of furniture, precious objects, artworks, and so on, to fill their palaces back home. Luxury was important, but they were also interested in other elements of the Versailles myth, notably the establishment of reputation based on acknowledged rank and personal connections. Prince Józef Aleksander Jabłonowski, in particular, represents a unique kind of visitor to Versailles in that he enjoyed exclusive, intimate access due to his close familial relationship with Queen Marie Leszczyńska. He was more interested in observing the etiquette and ceremonial of court than its decor. His interest in the myth lay in using it to aggrandize his reputation, and that of his family and, by extension, the pro-French noble faction in the Commonwealth.

4It might seem ironic that both political factions in Great Britain, Whig and Tory, found travel to France alluring in the eighteenth century. As Philip Mansel points out,14 there was a steady stream of visitors, and Versailles was almost universally admired. His chapter reminds us that, among the social elites, fashion usually triumphed over politics, and the English were always keen to import luxury goods that were associated in their minds with Versailles. British monarchs of the late Stuart period – Charles II, William III − had imported much French court etiquette and layout to British palaces, and notable ambassadors to France, like Ralph Montagu or the Duke of Richmond, were keen to emulate French style when building their own country houses to raise their status and reputation in English society, as we have seen with Jabłonowski, above. Leroux’s charts of the visitors to Versailles show that travel was especially heavy in those decades that followed major conflicts between Britain and France: the 1760s, after one of France’s greatest defeats; and the 1780s, after France returned the favour and humiliated Britain. In fact, the best example of this phenomenon was in the year 1802, following the signature of the Treaty of Amiens between France and the United Kingdom. While British aristocrats may have desired to emulate French formal garden style, they were also happy to display images of victory over their old adversary. As Mansel points out, ‘the appeal of monarchy, and of fashion in clothes, furniture and gardens, could outweigh or ignore national rivalries, even in wartime.’15 British collectors avidly acquired objects put up for sale by emigrés or confiscated by Revolutionary authorities. This continued into the nineteenth century, but now the collectors were those who admired the style or romanticized the past, and desired to have a small part of the myth of Versailles in their homes.

5The Swedish marquis Claes Lagergren imported a romantic vision of Versailles into his residence.16 Visually, the decor of the castle he purchased at Tyresö towards the very end of the nineteenth century reflected some of the lavish style of Ancien Régime Versailles. Yet, more than this, it reflected his passion, almost religious, for the ghosts of the eighteenth century − notably, Queen Marie Antoinette, whose artefacts and portraits were enshrined like saintly relics. He admired the sense of order − real or mythical − embodied in the Versailles court system. The response − no less emotive − of others was that Versailles represented the ruins of a monarchy that had brought about its own destruction through arrogance and excess. As Charles-Éloi Vial points out,17 there was a variety of opinions in the nineteenth century about how to view or treat the space that was Versailles: as an abandoned and empty memorial to past glories; as a vessel soon to be filled by a restored Bourbon monarchy, transformed into a symbol of imperial power; or simply as a museum to commemorate all of France’s past glories. Visitors could choose between contrast and continuity, or between old and new forms of power. Thus, the myths of Versailles that foreign visitors returned home with were multiple. While the Tuileries or Trianon were viewed as lived-in spaces, Versailles remained a place of memory.

6In the eighteenth century, Versailles was already just one − albeit the most potent − among a number of symbols of the French monarchy. Several Saxon princes visited Versailles in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but they also visited Saint-Cloud, the Tuileries and other royal residences in the Île-de-France. They took back multiple design ideas, and some of these can be seen in residences constructed in and around Dresden − but as Maureen Cassidy-Geiger asks:18 can they be deemed to truly stem from a Versailles model? The same question applies to elements of ceremonial developed by the visiting princes for the Saxon court in Dresden, where, for example, the Master of Ceremonies had been trained at the court of Berlin. German princes or their agents devoted a good deal of their visits to France to acquiring art, and here we see that they were as keen to acquire the fashions of Versailles as they were the styles emblematic of other European courts − the silver objects adorning imperial residences in Vienna, the porcelain from Prussian palaces, and so on.

7More politically, the court of the dukes of Lorraine, based at the château de Lunéville, had to style itself − physically and ceremonially − on both Versailles and Vienna. To attempt to remain politically neutral, the dukes needed to maintain a balance between these two influences. As Thierry Franz notes,19 Duke Léopold, restored to his duchy in 1698, made a concerted effort to demonstrate his commitment to the court style of Louis XIV, in part by astutely making use of the talents of his new Bourbon bride, Élisabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans, and rendering her position at court even more prominent than would have been afforded the royal consort in France. He employed an architect from France, and instigated a daily ceremonial that included a public dîner; but he also ensured that he retained elements of the Habsburg court etiquette with which he had been raised at the courts of Innsbruck and Vienna.20 The communal bedchamber for the Duke and Duchess, and the greater emphasis on private spaces for the ducal family, were quite different from the Versailles model. Franz points out that Léopold’s successor, Duke François III, was even keener to live privately at Lunéville, an element criticized by Jean-Baptiste d’Audiffret, the French diplomatic agent in Lorraine, as ‘a lesson learned in Vienna’. It wasn’t until Stanislas Leszczyński established his court at Lunéville after 1737 that it could properly be called the Versailles lorrain.21

8In Spain after 1700, the cultural transfer of Versailles style was more direct and more deliberate: Arianna Giorgi’s chapter demonstrates that Philip V’s deliberate usage of French dress at the Spanish court divided the nobility, and that those who wore it were sending a clear signal of loyalty to the new Bourbon regime.22 In Italy, the Bourbons built a grand new palace at Caserta, in the Kingdom of Naples, that was compared with Versailles − at first, by those who wished to magnify its status as a royal palace, well above the mere ‘villas’ of other Italian princes, but later, as Andrea Merlotti points out,23 by critics as a symbol of the excesses of the Ancien Régime. Caserta ultimately became a symbol of the fallen Bourbons (in France, and later in Italy), and eventually of southern decadence in contrast to the more refined and tasteful royal style emerging in the north, represented by the Palace of Monza in Lombardy.

9The myth of Versailles was employed not just by visitors for political or diplomatic reasons. It can also be seen in the art and literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, again representing a variety of viewpoints: either as the apex of splendour and authority, or the consummate expression of excess and decadence (even deceit), as highlighted by Sylvie Requemora in her chapter on literary representations of the palace and its environs.24 Sophie of Hanover, for example, wrote after a visit in 1679 of her sense that Versailles was merely a theatre for vanity and an over-indulgent expense. Requemora notes, however, that other more erudite visitors, like Baron Spanheim, saw the ‘wonder’ of the palace but recognized it as a facade of power. In the visual arts, Johanna Daniel argues that the making of topographical prints of Versailles and its gardens was commercially driven and designed to represent an ideal of spectacle, not reality.25 It became a rite of passage for Grand Tourists to acquire such prints to display in their homes once their voyage was complete.

10Overall, the contributions to this online collective publication provide a fascinating overview of the travellers to Versailles in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and of the elements of the ‘myth’ that they took away with them after their visits. Many, like the English and Germans, were attracted to the art, learning and shopping; others, like the Poles or Hungarians, were keen to solidify old political and cultural ties with the French people and its monarchy (or forge new ones − e.g., after the Reversal of Alliances in 1756). After the period of Revolution in France, a revival of interest brought visitors to Versailles again, especially after the re-opening of the palace as a museum under Louis-Philippe. But as we have seen, people took away what they wanted to, and this could differ quite widely: from a romanticized view of an orderly court system that had been lost, to the idea of Versailles as a monument to the decadence and financial waste that had been rightly brought down.

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Bluche François, 2000, Les honneurs de la cour, Paris, Patrice du Puy.

Carley Rachel, 2012, Biltmore: An American Masterpiece, Asheville (North Carolina), The Biltmore Company.

Duindam Jeroen, 2003, Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe’s Dynastic Rivals, 15501780, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hassler Éric, 2017, ‘“Mes estats estant situés entre l’Allemagne et la France il faudra prendre de l’un et de l’autre.” Vienne, Versailles, Lunéville: réflexions sur les “modèles” de cour au début du xviiie siècle’, in Motta A. (ed.), Échanges, passages et transferts à la cour du duc Léopold (16981729), Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, pp. 15165.

McAllister Ward, 1890, Society as I Have Found It, New York, Cassell.

Salomé Laurent and Bonnotte Claire, 2019, Versailles Revival, 18671937, exhibition catalogue (Versailles Palace, 19 November 2019 15 March 2020), Paris/Versailles, In Fine/Château de Versailles.

Spangler Jonathan, 2016, ‘A Palace for Dreams: Lunéville and the Royal Aspirations of the Dukes of Lorraine from Léopold to Stanisław Leszczyński’, in Czarniecka A., Deles P. and Sołtys A. (eds.), Power and Architecture. Residences of Monarchs and Seats of State Authorities in Europe Forms and Functions (15th−20th C.), Warsaw, The Royal Castle in Warsaw Museum, pp. 28398.

Van Slyck Abigail A., 2011, ‘The Spatial Practices of Privilege’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 70, no. 2 (2011), pp. 21039.

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1 The Gilded Age (HBO, 2022), written by Julian Fellowes.

2 ‘When Ward McAllister Sauced Chicago’, World’s Fair Chicago, 1893 (18 February 2022), [accessed 10 February 2023].

3 McAllister 1890. Although McAllister never mentions Versailles, he makes frequent references to behaviours and mannerisms he observed in Paris, and to the importance of Parisian furniture, fashion and chefs in equipping a New York mansion.

4 Duindam 2003, pp. 124, 165−6; Bluche 2000, p. 9.

5 Livery (New York, Rogers, Peet and Co, 1898). This booklet has separate chapters, illustrated, on the appropriate dress for coachmen, grooms, butlers and pages, with summer and winter variations (and prices for the outfits the company can supply).

6 See relevant chapters in Salomé and Bonnotte 2019, e.g., Sam Watters and Mari Nakahara, ‘Versailles outre-mer: architecture et décoration aux États-Unis’, pp. 316−27, and Wilfried Zeisler, ‘Marjorie Post et Marie-Antoinette, une histoire américaine du goût’, pp. 328−35.

7 See Van Slyck 2011.

8 Carley 2012.

9 Amy Dangelico, ‘The Grandest Guest Rooms: Restoring the Louis XV Suite’, Biltmore Blog (2 May 2022), [accessed 13 February 2023].


11 See:




15, § 30.





20 See also Hassler 2017.

21 Spangler 2016.





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Jonathan Spangler, « A Multi-Faceted Myth: Versailles in the Collective Memories of Europe and Beyond »Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles [En ligne], 23 | 2023, mis en ligne le 03 mai 2023, consulté le 30 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jonathan Spangler

Dr Jonathan Spangler is an historian of the institution of monarchy and the high aristocracy in early modern Europe. His research focuses on alternative power groups at the French court, notably the foreign princes and the younger brothers of kings (the topic of his most recent book, Monsieur. Second Sons in the Monarchy of France, 1550–1800, Routledge, 2021). Spangler is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK) and senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. He is a member of the Scientific Committee for the ‘Court identities and the myth of Versailles in Europe: perception, adherence and rejection (18th-19th centuries)’ research project for the Centre de Recherche du Château de Versailles.
Jonathan Spangler est historien de la monarchie et de la haute noblesse en Europe à l’époque moderne. Ses recherches portent sur les groupes de pouvoir souvent oubliés dans les études consacrées à la cour de France, notamment les princes étrangers et les frères cadets des rois (auxquels il a consacré son dernier livre, Monsieur. Second Sons in the Monarchy of France, 1550–1800, Routledge, 2021). Jonathan Spangler est maître de conférences à la Manchester Metropolitan University (Royaume-Uni) et rédacteur en chef de la revue The Court Historian, publiée par la Society for Court Studies. Il est membre du comité scientifique du programme de recherche « Identités curiales et le mythe de Versailles en Europe : perceptions, adhésions et rejets (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles) » pour le Centre de recherche du château de Versailles.

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