It’s the time of year that festive fêtes and seasonal soirees fill calendars. But, as any host or hostess knows, planning and executing a party is hard work. Preparations can stretch weeks as every facet of location, decoration, food, and entertainment is considered – all to ensure a memorable time is had by each merrymaker. While the stakes can feel high for modern entertaining, imagine pulling together the near week of revelry which established the legendary reputation of Versailles and King Louis XIV for throwing monumental shindigs.
King Louis XIV organized numerous high-profile events during the 33 years he spent living at Versailles but his Pleasures of the Enchanted Island was the celebration that started it all. In this blog, we will investigate each component of party planning: location, decoration, food, and entertainment as experienced by those who attended this spectacular event held in honor two of French Queens – Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, and Maria Theresa, Louis XIV’s first wife.
Before Louis XIV got his hands on it, Versailles was a hunting lodge located in a village, also called Versailles, just outside Paris. Louis XIII, Louis XIV’s predecessor, had admired the location so much he obtained a feudal lordship over the area in order to expand the property. Upon his death in 1643, Versailles was a respectable château primed to become the heart of Versailles as we know it today.
Louis XIV embarked on Versailles’ first building campaign in 1664 after securing France’s best architect, Louis Le Vau; landscape architect, André Le Nôtre; and artist, Charles Le Brun to work on the project. These initial renovations to the château and gardens were for the express purpose of accommodating the over 600 guests slated to attend the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island.
As the name alludes, the festivities had a theme. Taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, guests were invited to experience the enchanted world of the poem’s powerful sorceress Alcine. The King portrayed Roger, Orlando Furioso’s cunning protagonist, and dressed in luxurious red garments while riding a horse whose gold harness was encrusted with precious stones. The center of much activity was the palace of Alcine. Built just for the party, the palace hosted a fireworks show, parades with floating whales, and a promenade including Apollo’s chariot.
It’s hard to know exactly what was on the menu at this major blow-out, but Louis XIV was known for ingesting rich, sizeable meals. Louis XIV’s sister-in-law once noted that “He [Louis XIV] could eat four plates of soup, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large plate of salad, two slices of ham, mutton au jus with garlic, a plate of pastry, all followed by fruit and hard-boiled eggs.” Events like the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island often boasted large buffets with two to eight dishes served within each of the four courses. Food was presented to the King first then offered down the table by rank. Main dishes would occupy central space on the table with smaller dishes filling in gaps around them. Once on the table, food would remain such that guests could serve themselves throughout the meal.
Throughout his life, Louis XIV was a generous supported of the arts; the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island was no exception. Not only were there horse races, a lottery, an equestrian parade, a ring race (a game using lances), the celebration included two noteworthy performances. The second day of festivities included the first ever combination of theater, opera, comedy and fantasy in France. Composed by Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully, the comedy-ballet La Princesse d’Elide featured dancing shepherds and fauns accompanied by flutes and violins. Louis XIV himself was an accomplished dancer, often performing for guests. Some scholars even attribute the French overture’s hallmark syncopation to the King’s beloved calf muscles, hypothesizing that the prolonged rhythm allowed Louis XIV enough time to showcase each leg while walking during entrances. Lastly, on the final night of celebrations, Molière’s long-famous play Tartuffe made its debut.
While my current holiday schedule does not include attending an event of similar magnitude – I’m am, however, accepting invites should you know of any – it’s fascinating to imagine life at any royal Court, let alone the Sun King’s.
And should you be itching to learn more about life at Versailles or the enduring legacy of King Louis XIV’s reign, check out our resources here:
Otherwise, enjoy your quieter, perhaps less bacchanalian, holiday seasons – and good luck with planning any parties!