Thursday, August 26, 2010

How the Other .0001% Lives, Part II: Celebrating in Style

Fireworks at one of the Sun King's parties at Versailles

Like many women--and some men--of a certain age, I set my alarm for 3:00 AM on July 29, 1981, to watch the televised wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to Charles, Prince of Wales. Had I slept through the alarm, however, I could have relished each moment of pageantry in any of the endless "special wedding edition" magazines or commemorative books that flooded the market. As the reluctant reporter sent to spy on a society wedding in The Philadelphia Story observes, "The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges," and it's a sight that has fascinated for centuries.

Where now we have People, Us, and Hello!--not to mention my favorite Sunday indulgence, the New York Times "Weddings and Celebrations" as "scored" in Gawker's Altarcations posts--celebrity and royalty watchers of the 17th and 18th centuries had fête books, huge folio-sized volumes with engravings detailing weddings, parties, coronations, baptisms, and even funerals. As one might expect, Louis XIV, who was not known as the Sun King for nothing, had an entire series of these books commissioned to flaunt the glories of his court whenever there was the least excuse. The beautiful engraving above features a fireworks display--something only the royal or very, very rich could acquire and afford--that concluded a little summer party he threw for a few hundred intimate friends. The evening's entertainment included a new play by that up-and-comer, Molière.

Let's put on a show!!

As any good publicist can tell you, there's no point in throwing the Party of the Century if only the people invited to the party get to see it. How is one to impress one's rivals, enemies, and jealous relations without pictorial accounts of the gala being made available? Louis XIV, the patron saint of publicists, never missed a chance to remind all of Europe that he was the center of the universe and king of the most spectacular court in the history of the world. The volumes served as royal propaganda, as the king gave copies to those whom he wished to honor, and his ambassadors gave them to foreign crowned heads. To set the stage for the little "diversion" pictured here, Louis hired the celebrated Italian architect and engineer Gaspare Vigarani, who, among other things, had built the largest theatre in the world to accommodate the Sun King's marriage in 1660.

Collector's have long prized these beautiful books, both for the pure aesthetic value of the engravings and for the glimpse they offer us into the lives of the most powerful men and women in the Europe of their day. Even the most determined and well-funded Bridezilla would be hard pressed to match the glories of an ordinary midsummer masque at Versailles.

To learn more about fête books, consult Penelope Hough's Catalogue Des Livres Rares et Précieux Composant la Bibliothéque de M. Ruggieri, which describes the 1,200 lots in the auction of M. Ruggieri's impressive collection of festival books, held in Paris beginning 3 March 1873. An online resource, though sadly without images, is the catalogue for Christie's Splendid Ceremonies auction of the Paul and Marianne Gourary Collection of Illustrated Fête Books, held in New on 12 June 2009.


Photographs from Les Plaisirs de l'Isle Enchantée [bound with] Les Divertissemens de Versailles, Paris: De l'Imprimerie Royale, 1673, 1676. Courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.

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