From Courtly Ceremonial to Domestic Drama: The Fluctuating Fortunes of a Grand Staircase

Karel Riesz’s Isadora, a 1968 biopic about the celebrated early twentieth-century American dancer, has resurfaced on the Internet in recent months. About an hour into the film there is a scene that serves to underscore the determination of Isadora Duncan (played by Vanessa Redgrave) not to marry the great sewing machine heir, Paris Singer (Jason Robards), or any man who would impose restrictions on her ideas and actions. We come upon Singer undergoing fashionable and utterly ridiculous electro-shock treatments in a gilded walnut salon on the upper floor of his English mansion; Duncan interrupts him with news of her immanent departure on a dancing tour; he expresses irritation that she has managed to carry on a collateral affair with a pianist he had hired specifically for his physical repulsiveness. Indignant that the man of wealth cannot recognize “a man of genius, a man whose soul shines through his eyes,” the dancer makes for the door to join her doting accompanist. Turning to descend a flight that closely resembles the Ambassador’s Staircase at Versailles, Duncan delivers the parting blow, “You have the soul of a tradesman,” to which Singer, rising from his chair and dragging the metal braces with him, thunders from the balustrade, “You’ve got the soul of a whore!” Thus, within a few minutes the splendid processional of the French kings is recast as the hollow shell of the American millionaire.

The context for the original Ambassador’s Staircase is more stately and momentous. In 1668 King Louis XIV of France ordered his chief architect, Louis Le Vau, to proceed with the construction of a great “Envelope,” three massive stone walls encasing the royal hunting lodge at Versailles on the garden sides, thus allowing for the insertion of state apartments on the main floor facing the northern and southern exposures. In 1674 François d’Orbay was contracted to execute a grand, rectangular-planned two-storey entryway to the king’s enfilade at the northeast corner of the chateau. This consisted of a single, fan-shaped flight of stairs at the ground floor that mounted perpendicular to a long north wall and then at a mid-way landing divided into two flights hugging either side of the wall until reaching main floor passages at the eastern and western extremities, the whole illuminated by a great rectangular skylight.

François d'Orsay, Grand Staircase, 1674-78, Château de Versailles, destroyed in 1752.

François d’Orsay, Grand Staircase, 1674-78, Château de Versailles, destroyed in 1752.

As director of the Gobelins workshop, Charles Lebrun provided a decorative scheme reminiscent of Italian baroque palazzi and marshaled a team of marble cutters and joiners, bronze casters, chasers, gilders, and painters to accomplish it. At the lower level, the arcaded approach, stairways, and walls were completely encased in white, green, and russet marble, arranged into geometrical patterns converging at a fountain on the stair landing; at the upper level, marble pilasters divided the long walls into seven bays, the outermost filled with functional doors carved and gilded with trophies, then progressing to faux tapestries of Louis XIV winning key battles against the Spanish and the Dutch, trompe l’oeil scenes of foreign emissaries ogling visitors from a loggia, and finally converging on a gilded niche bearing Jean Warin’s marble bust of the king in antique military garb (north wall) or the arms of France and Lorraine (south). Above this rose a coved, frescoed vault where terms supported an imaginary grid-like superstructure whose interstices were occupied by figures of History and Renown adorning the Bourbon blazon, allegories of the Four Continents, and slaves bound to ship prows adorned with trophies and victories.

Anon. after Jean-Léon Gérôme, Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles, 1878, photogravure.

Anon. after Jean-Léon Gérôme, Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles, 1878, photogravure.

Completed in 1678, the staircase was trodden by a succession of heads of state and ambassadors—from Genoa, Morocco, Algeria, Persia, and Siam—on their way to a royal audience in the state bedchamber further on down the enfilade or, more exceptionally, the grand gallery overlooking the water terrace. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Sun King’s great grandson, Louis XV, ordered the vestibule dismantled to accommodate living quarters for his daughter, Madame Adélaide, and it was eventually absorbed into his own private suite.

The baroque monument is therefore unusual among its peers for being known primarily through facsimiles erected by kings, robber barons, and movie moguls in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Notable examples include those at Schloß Herrenchiemsee (1875-86), built for Ludwig II near Munich, the Palais Rose (1896-1902, demolished 1969), built for Boni de Castellane in Paris, and the film set of Marie-Antoinette (1937-38), built for Irving Thalberg at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Hollywood.

Its appearance in Isadora is explained by the circumstance that the photoplay was partially shot at Oldway Mansion, Paignton (Dover), purchased by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1871 and renovated by Paris Singer in the Versailles style around 1904-07. Although the plan of the great hall at Oldway is close to that of the vestibule at Versailles, there are significant differences in the decoration. Two of the blind arcades have been opened, the marble balustrades replaced by gilt iron ones, the cornice made heavier, and the vault higher. Most significant, the central flight of steps converges on a copy of Jacques-Louis David’s monumental Benediction of Napoleon and Crowning of Josephine (1805-08) instead of Lebrun’s segmented tribute to Louis XIV’s military and diplomatic prowess. The result is an entirely new conceit: what the Bourbons fashioned from inheritance, the Bonapartes appropriated by strategy and force, and the Singers acquired though invention and commerce.

In today’s industrialized nations, capital and material assets are still accumulated as guarantors of financial security and signs of professional success. For many media watchers and world travelers, the Ambassador’s Staircase and its derivatives probably register as fabulous wealth, but the original flights served a real ideological purpose in promoting the power of the French king and the splendor of his court. The bourgeois industrialist had to wait until the French Revolution to offer a moral justification, grounded in domestic virtues like merit and thrift, for controlling government and inhabiting such spaces. Appearing at the height of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, Riesz’s staircase scene serves as a potent metaphor for two as yet irreconcilable desires—desire for a life free of financial need and desire for a life free of moral judgment.

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