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Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Famous Fête which Sparked Versailles

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Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. Photo: Jebulon / CC

Of the dozens of castles around Paris, the château de Vaux-le-Vicomte holds a very special place in French history, not only because of its innovative design, but also for the legendary palace it inspired: Versailles. Commissioned by Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance under Louis XIV, for the first time a castle’s architecture, decor and gardens were designed in unison, resulting in an architectural masterpiece of the Baroque era. The splendid castle was unveiled during a sumptuous fête which took place on August 17th, 1661 in the presence of the King. However, the young Sun King was not one to be outshined and Fouquet would not be able to enjoy his exquisite residence. We journey back to that fateful night to discover how reaching for the stars led to Fouquet’s downfall.

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Surprising Stories: Marie-Antoinette at the Hameau de la Reine

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Maison de la Reine and the Tour de Marlborough. Photo: Daderot / Wikipedia

One of the most unexpected visits when touring the gardens of Versailles is the discovery of the Domaine de la Reine where queen Marie-Antoinette commissioned a fake village, called le hameau or the hamlet. Built to resemble vernacular architecture with half-timbered houses, thatched roofs, and stucco walls, the queen entertained friends and family, sometimes impersonating a milkmaid, serving cheeses, milk and creams from her farm. Today’s visitors marvel at the incongruous setting: how did the queen fail to understand that her countrified farm was a parody of most of her subjects’ villages?  This Surprising Story reveals a different interpretation of the queen’s hamlet, suggesting that she built a model village in order to demonstrate her trendsetting good taste and the prosperity of the nation.

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Surprising Stories: Chantilly Cream

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Chantilly cream is a crowd-pleaser: from a dollop on fresh summer berries to a transformative spoonful that makes a cup of coffee into a tantalizing dessert, Chantilly cream is a world renown gastronomic delight. This week’s Surprising Story looks at the history of this Chantilly cream—whipped milk combined with sugar—and how it was concocted for celebrations at the most famous garden parties in seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

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Surprising Stories: Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais: Resistance and Sacrifice

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The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin at the Rodin Museum. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr

Today, perhaps more than any other time in recent history, we are aware of the fragility of the human body. The ongoing Covid pandemic and the worldwide protests against police brutality, makes it clear that how we view our bodies is changing how we view the world. This week’s Surprising Story looks at Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Burghers of Calais from 1895, one of his most inspiring monumental works of public sculpture that epitomizes how artists cast the human form to inspire social change.

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Surprising Stories: Fragile Flowers: Redouté, Prints and Porcelains

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Rosa Gallica Pontiana and Rosa Centifolia Foliacea by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

For most of Spring 2020 many of us have missed being able to see, touch and smell beautiful flowers up close. We can look wistfully beyond closed garden gates to try to catch a glimpse of blooms or instead settle for virtual bouquets. Long before Instagram, many artists attempted to capture the ephemeral beauty of flowers, however, few succeeded as well as Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Often called the “Raphael of flower painters,” the Belgian artist is still admired to this day as an international master of botanical illustration. Working for kings, queens, empresses and princesses, Redouté produced over 5,000 prints during his lifetime, but his recordings of Empress Joséphine’s flowers at the Château de Malmaison stand out as the most enchanting. This week’s Surprising Story looks at a lesser known aspect of Redoute’s work: his prints which inspired a rare and magnificent porcelain service dedicated to the Empress Joséphine. 

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Surprising Stories: The Buttes-Chaumont: A Model for a Green City

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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Phil Beard / Flickr

As we leave our homes after two months of lockdown in Paris, our Surprising Story this week visits the Buttes-Chaumont, one of the city’s first public parks and urban renewal projects. Part of Baron Haussmann’s mid-19th century designs for modernized Paris, we’ll see how one of the most noxious places in Paris became one of its most picturesque.

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Surprising Stories: La Place Des Vosges: Fashion and Architecture in the Marais

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When King Henri IV arrived in Paris in 1594, after thirty years of war and destruction, he faced a momentous challenge: how to restart the economy and rebuild the capital city? A Renaissance prince with an eye for profit, he imagined a spectacular open square, la Place Royale, today known as la Place de Vosges. His project didn’t go entirely as he originally envisioned; however, it did forever change the fate of the Marais, the area surrounding his regal square. This week, our Surprising Story delves into Henri IV’s ambitious architectural and city planning project for the square which transformed the neighborhood into a center for French art and culture that has continued until today.  Read more

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Surprising Stories: A Princely Wager at Bagatelle

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La parc de Bagatelle Photo: Patrick Giraud / CC

Many of the public parks in and around Paris were created over three hundred years ago by the royal family or wealthy aristocrats. These private gardens were designed as places of play and amusement where the owners indulged their tastes for the latest fashions, hiring talented landscape architects who created green lawns, a new innovation, surrounded by exotic flowers, trees and shrubs whose blooms perfumed the air. This week’s Surprising Story takes us to one of the most notorious of these gardens, the Parc de Bagatelle, which was born out of a costly royal bet, between prince and the queen, whose rivalry has left us two of the most remarkable historic gardens in France. Read more

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Surprising Stories: Monet’s Water Lilies, from Giverny to the Musée de l’Orangerie

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With the arrival of spring blossoms and warmer weather, it is all the more challenging to be confined to our homes. It was the goal of many Impressionist artists to capture this moment of nature’s splendor and few achieved this as gloriously as Claude Monet. Dreaming of his radiant gardens can offer some respite from our newly restrictive daily lives, especially his meditative water lily panels. These masterpieces have made the Musée de l’Orangerie one of the most famous museums in Paris, however, few know that the museum would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Georges Clemenceau; then the Prime Minister of France and friend of Monet. This edition of our Surprising Stories series reveals how Clemenceau, one hundred years ago today, succeeded at this impressive feat.

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Surprising Stories: Dining at Versailles: What happened to the Leftovers?

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Antichambre du Grand Couvert de la Reine ©Chateau de Versailles

Louis XIV was the most conspicuous diner at Versailles.  His meals represented the bounty of France, and his appetite was considered a sign of his good health and the well-being of the nation. Dining was a ceremonial occasion and was regulated according to a strict etiquette established during King Louis XIV’s reign.  In the latest of our Surprising Stories series, we join the Sun King at his extravagant evening meal and then see what happened to the leftovers of his copious feasts.

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