Inside the Baroque palace

The mid-17th century saw the beginning of a 100-year-long surge in palace-building, unmatched before or since. All over Europe, from Russia to Portugal, monarchs and other important rulers built or renovated palaces as their main centres of power, while lesser rulers and noblemen imitated them with their great houses. These Baroque creations, with their seemingly endless sequences of impressive rooms and vast formal gardens, have established the blueprint of what a palace should be.

The most famous and influential of all palaces was the Château de Versailles, near Paris, France. Its huge buildings and their landscape settings were planned to glorify King Louis XIV (reigned 1643 – 1715) and to accommodate the pomp and ceremony that revolved around him. Rulers across Europe took note and soon began to emulate Versailles and other French royal palaces, first in northern Europe and Scandinavia and later, after 1700, in central, eastern and southern Europe.

Many Baroque palaces included features such as grand staircases and a carefully codified arrangement of rooms that symbolised and reinforced power structures. Most of all, however, they were united by a shared richness and opulence. Their decor utilised luxurious materials and exquisite craftsmanship, as seen in a tapestry in our collection. From a series representing Louis XIV's royal residences, the foreground demonstrates the luxury of court life, with its display of textiles and other precious objects.

Vincennes or July, Charles le Brun of the Gobelins workshops, 1670 – 1700, France. Museum no. T.371-1977. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Staircases

Baroque palace staircases were also used as statements of power. Combining imposing architecture with symbolic imagery, they were intended to make a tremendous impact on the visitor. The most famous example was the Ambassadors' Staircase at Versailles, designed by the architect Louis Le Vau and built by François d’Orbay and Charles Le Brun between 1672 and 1679.

View of the Staircase of the Ambassadors, Louis de Surugue de Sergis after a drawing by Jean Michel Chevotet, about 1720, France. Museum no. E.93-1901. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Richly decorated in marble, gilt bronze and paintings, the staircase celebrates the victory of Louis XIV in the Franco-Dutch War (1672 – 78). Painted panels can be seen on the first floor: one of these panels survives today in the collections of Versailles and gives an indication of the scale and magnificence of the staircase. Two of the panels imitated tapestries depicting Louis' military victories, while two more represented people from all over the world, appearing to lean over and admire the palace – suggesting that the visitor should be taking that same attitude. The bust of the King was positioned at the very centre of the staircase, just as he was at the centre of court life.

The scale and design of the Versailles staircase inspired many others across Europe, including at the palaces of Caserta in Italy, Würzburg in Germany and the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Ambassadors' Staircase was demolished in 1752 to make way for new developments, so an engraving in our collection is an important record of the staircase's grandeur.

Galleries

In some of the greatest Baroque palaces, the gallery was the principal room, the supreme symbol of the owner's dynastic, political and cultural aspirations. The most famous example is the Galerie des Glaces, or Hall of Mirrors, at Versailles, completed in 1684. On one side, great windows overlook the gardens. They are reflected on the opposite wall by mirrored recesses of equal size – a stupendous and extremely expensive innovation.

Stereograph of the Palais des Versailles, an interior view of the 'Galerie des Glaces' (Hall of Mirrors), unknown maker, late 19th century, France. Museum no. E.1523-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Galleries were multi-purpose spaces. Sometimes they were used to display collections of art. At Versailles, the whole court assembled in the Galerie des Glaces every day to see the King pass through to the chapel. The Galerie could also be dressed up as a setting for diplomatic or ceremonial events, featuring Louis XIV's famous silver throne.

Throne rooms and audience chambers

All palaces and great houses were divided into apartments: suites of rooms for particular individuals. The most important of these was the state apartment. As most of the daily ceremonies of court life occurred here, its design was determined by a carefully controlled system of etiquette. The interconnected rooms were arranged in a line (en enfilade), and a visitor's rank was indicated by how far through the rooms he was admitted. Most apartments began with a guards’ hall and concluded with a state bedchamber and a closet with other, more private rooms, beyond. In between, there were antechambers used for eating and rooms for holding audiences.

A gilded table in our collection, such as those that furnished apartments of Roman palazzi, indicates the opulence of such apartments. In addition to its lavish gilding, it is richly carved with dramatic leafy scrolls and a grotesque mask at its centre.

Console table, about 1700, Italy. Museum no. W.35-1977. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dining in the Baroque palace

In the Baroque palace, the ruler ate ceremonially in public attended by the court. Eating was a movable event, although larger meals usually took place in a special room near the entrance to the apartment. At Versailles, Louis XIV ate supper in public, in his bedchamber. The ancient tradition of public feasting continued for special occasions. Tables were often decorated with elaborate sculptures made from folded linen or cast sugar and the buffet was piled high with huge silver dishes and vessels. Every detail proclaimed the power and wealth of the host.

Developing concepts of civility and decorum, and the introduction by the French court of new types of food and service, prompted the invention of new forms of tableware, such as soup tureens, wine coolers, condiment sets and sauce boats. A personal plate, knife, fork and spoon became normal when recommended by the French diplomat and civil servant Antoine de Courtin, the author of popular etiquette manuals for the upwardly mobile, in 1672.

Knife, fork and spoon set, 1670 – 75, England. Museum no. M.325-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These grand occasions – and their corresponding tableware – were echoed in the homes of noblemen, as can be seen in the Macclesfield wine set in our collection. It consists of a wine fountain, cistern and cooler made for Thomas Parker, 1st Earl of Macclesfield, and exemplifies the grandeur and drama of the Baroque style.

Macclesfield wine set, Anthony Nelme, 1719 – 20, England. Museum no. M.25:1 to 3-1998. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The cooler was placed on the floor, while the fountain and cistern sat on shelves above. Water from the fountain was used for rinsing glasses, while the cistern standing beneath the fountain tap caught the tipped-out water. Finally, the wine cooler, filled with ice, was used to chill white and red wines. The set was designed to be seen together and to create a strong visual impact. It formed part of a buffet display in the new dining room at Macclesfield's Oxfordshire home, Shirburn Castle, which had marble shelves made specifically for displaying silver. Only the extremely wealthy could afford a set of such magnificence and this set would have cost around £1,200 – the kind of grandeur usually associated with official ambassadorial entertaining.

Bedchambers

At the terminus of the state apartment was the bedchamber – the most richly furnished room of the Baroque palace. State bedchambers were often just symbolic of the royal presence, the ruler sleeping elsewhere. At Versailles, Louis XIV's actual sleeping chamber was the setting for elaborate court ceremonies, including the daily rising (the lever) and going to bed (the coucher), as well as special public occasions. The state bed was the most expensive piece of furniture in the building and, in a custom that began in France, it was given a throne-like setting, raised on a platform or placed behind a balustrade. The silver fire equipment and upholstered furniture found in the Baroque bedchamber were marks of high status. For women, the daily ceremony of the toilette prompted the creation of elaborate toilette or dressing sets, equipped with mirrors, brushes and small pots and vessels, often in silver. French-style bedchambers and furnishings were adopted all over Europe, though not all courts used their bedchambers in the French manner.

Desk, about 1700, France. Museum no. 372-1901. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cabinets and closets: rooms beyond the bedchamber

The rooms beyond the bedchamber were open only to the select few. A level of furnishing and luxury unseen outside was packed into the inner sanctum of small rooms such as the dressing room and closet. The exclusivity of these rooms and their relative lack of ceremonial function also made them the setting for influential innovations in furniture and interior decoration. For example, small rooms (closets) of cabinets were sometimes entirely and expensively decorated with walls of mirror and lacquer. Sometimes containing cabinets on stands, closets also introduced types of furniture still used today, including desks and upholstered sofas and easy chairs. These small rooms were also naturally suited to the display of collections of precious objects and, in central Europe, china rooms became glittering treasure boxes, as much a display of mirrorwork and inlay as they were of porcelain.

Our collection includes an exceptionally delicate version of a cabinet on a stand, a form that became the pre-eminent type of luxury furniture throughout Europe in the 17th century. This cabinet was almost certainly made for the household of the duc d'Orléans, brother of King Louis XIV of France. Measuring only 126 centimetres in height, it is one of only two known French cabinets of this period made on this small scale. Ivory's expense frequently limited its use to details of decoration, making this cabinet's lavish use of the material unique in French cabinetmaking.

Cabinet on a stand, possibly by Pierre Gole, 1660 – 71, France. Museum no. W.38-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gardens

While there wasn't a unified style of Baroque garden, there were common, shared features. The gardens were, for example, conceived on a grand scale. Like the palaces themselves, they were expressions of power – particularly demonstrating power over nature. André Mollet's 1651 Le Jardin de Plaisir is an indispensable guide to the main features of Baroque garden design, describing key features of a "perfect pleasure garden" such as a grand alleé (avenue) of elms or lime trees, bosquets (artificial woods) and palissades (hedges). He also recommends that each alleé should terminate in a statue or fountain. This pattern is found in important gardens of the period, such as Versailles, Het Loo, in Apeldoorn, Netherlands and the palace of Caserta Palace in Italy.

Apollo flaying Marsyas, Antonio Corradini, 1710 – 50, Italy. Museum no. A.6-1967. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Antonio Corradini's statue Apollo flaying Marsyas belongs to a series of garden sculptures made for Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, for his gardens in Dresden. It shows a subject from classical mythology – the god Apollo slaying and skinning the satyr Marsyas, after beating him in a musical contest. Carved in Corradini's Venetian studio and exported to Saxony to be placed in the French-style gardens of the Holländisches Palais in Dresden, it also demonstrates the international nature of Baroque.

Background image: View of the Staircase of the Ambassadors, Louis de Surugue de Sergis after a drawing by Jean Michel Chevotet, about 1720, France. Museum no. E.93-1901. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London