Monday, August 08, 2005

Seasons Set in Stone

So, of course, we woke up this morning with a good plan en tête. It was a beautiful day, high-piled clouds and chasing patches of sunlight. Ideal for visiting the park.

Close to where we live in the western suburbs of Paris is the Parc de Marly, once home to the Château de Marly, King Louis XIV's hunting lodge. No cabin in the woods this hunting lodge, rather a small palace somewhat in the style of Versaille, but more initimate. Unfortunately, by 1815, the château had been entirely demolished, but the park land around was more robust and still retains its original design today, complete with classical statues of Apollo chasing Daphne through the trees.

Originally, the central pavillion was flanked by twelve apartments representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Designs of the central pavillion show that the pediment of the frontal facade had a sculptural relief of the passage of the sun, another reference, of course, to Greek mythology and appropriate for the French 'Sun King'.

Where the château once stood, stones are laid out along the lines of the demolished walls to give an impression of the room design. There were four main apartments on the ground floor, one in each corner of the pavillion. Each was destined for a particular member of the royal family and each had its own colour scheme.

A piece of the original marble flooring has been preserved in the centre of each apartment. These stones are remarkably eloquent. Here they are, posted in series below. To me, they suggest a seasonal development. This may well have been the case, given the other references to the seasons and the changing year around the park. It is also possible that they were intended to represent the four elements.

I think this first stone represents Spring. At first I thought it looked very reminiscent of the high cirrus clouds that we see over Paris in April and May, the cross-cutting streaks being a strange premonition of the contrails produced by jets coming into land at Charles de Gaulle airport. But then I remembered they didn't have jet aircraft in the late 17th century. In fact, the stone has a greenish tinge and this is confirmed by the plan of the pavillion which refers this room to the 'Green' apartment. Looking again at the stone, I am reminded of the element 'Water'. The streaks of dappled, diffused and rippling textures cross-cut each other. This stone tile is from the north-west corner of the pavillion, in the apartment reserved for the Queen. When the Queen died, Madame de Maintenon took this apartment. She was initially governess of Louis XIV's illegitimate children by his mistress Madame Montespan, but later became his wife.

I think this throbbing red stone is summer. It represents the element 'Earth', baked terra rossa and bleached white ghosts of flowers or unfortunate creatures left stranded at the bottom of a dried up lake. This marble tile comes from the north-east corner of the pavillion, the king's apartment, which was decorated in damask red.

This stone represents autumn and the element 'Fire'. You can sense things are falling apart. There is a crackly, thundery feel to the stone, reminiscent of the storms we get here at the end of the summer. On the original pavillion designs the room is referred to as 'aurore' which means 'sunrise', but 'sunset' might have been more appropriate since the apartments are situated in the south-west corner. There is a great feeling of power in this stone. It is almost visceral, like flayed flesh of a slaughtered beast. This apartment was reserved first for the brother of the King, and later for the Duc and Duchesse of Bourgogne. Bourgogne or Burgundy, how appropriate!

Lastly, winter, from the 'blue' apartment of Princess Palatine in the south-east corner of the pavillion. I suspect she was a rather sad princess, prone to moping. How could she be anything other, edging her dainty foot out of bed onto cold marble floors like this: thin blue skies white-washed with silver streaks of icy cloud? If this stone represented an element, it would certainly be 'Air'.

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