In 1793, as Marie Antoinette sat imprisoned in a cell in Paris’s Conciergerie, France’s revolutionary government was facing a war against Spain, Portugal, Prussia, Britain, and the Netherlands.
Desperate for cash, the government organized a series of auctions as part of a massive, year-long liquidation of the royal collection. “A number of things were sold, but certain pieces were set aside that they wanted to save,” says Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other works were simply given to army suppliers in lieu of payment. “They had no money, so they’d pay them with artwork,” she says. In the span of just a few years, the contents of Versailles, a palace that consisted of more than 2,000 rooms, were spread around the world.
Almost as soon as the revolution ended, though, the French government began an elaborate, 200-year-long effort to get it all back. In a new edition of Versailles: A Private Invitation (Flammarion Press, Feb. 2018) that contains text by Guillaume Picon and photographs by Francis Hammond, readers are afforded in-depth insight into France’s (very) mixed success at restoring this lavish cultural heritage.
For the Chateau’s more than 7 million annual visitors, the text will be a welcome and oftentimes surprising insight into the splendor—real or otherwise—of the Bourbon kings that was deliberately intended to showcase French artisanship and sophistication. As the book's lavish photography and text demonstrates, though, its present display is that of a museum, not, as many think, an historic recreation.