Princes at the Court of Versailles
VERSAILLES, 28 July 1999 - Blurred
memories of a disappointing visit to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul,
Turkey's most famous museum, over a quarter of a century ago did not
induce me to hurry to see "Topkapi à Versailles".
recalling the stunning setting high on the hills overlooking the
Bosphorus, I also remembered the building's odd architecture, which,
begun in 1462, was a curious mixture of antique, medieval, and
Byzantine. The dark interior was stuffed haphazardly with what
undoubtedly were precious objects amassed by the descendants of Soliman
the Magnificent, but which had lost all attraction in the murky gloom.
the dramatic staging of the Turkish treasures inside the Château
of Versailles finally brought to life the Oriental Princes of my
exhibition was held to commemorate the seven hundredth anniversary of
the Ottoman Empire, one of France's oldest allies, which officially
dates back to 1290.
"Among the diplomatic presents sent
to France over the years were a horse and harness, carpets,
semi-precious stones and two tents", Corinne Thépaut,
documentalist of the show at Versailles told me.
original tents offered to Louis XV in 1742 had disappeared, so Topkapi
sent us one which we used to give an atmosphere to the exhibition. A
sumptuous eighteenth century summer tent in silken shades of red, royal
blue and turquoise, hand-embroidered with golden thread billowed at the
top of a grandiose staircase, inviting the visitor to step back in time.
idea has been to present the exhibits in a setting which demonstrates
their usage; the Turks were essentially a nomad civilisation and much of
their treasure was taken as trophies, so the exhibition logically begins
with a display of their military greatness."
and seventeenth century weapons, armour, including ornately decorated
helmets and shields, and intricately carved spurs are theatrically
presented, inspired by a Ucello painting of "The Battle of San
Romano" in the Louvre.(one of a trilogy - the two others are in
Florence and London).
sixteenth century painting of a Sultan sitting upon the golden
ceremonial throne of Bairam sets the scene for the next part of the
exhibition; twelve magnificent caftans line a central aisle leading to
the majestic throne portrayed in the painting and which has been allowed
out of Turkey for the first time. Made out of walnut and covered in gold
encrusted with peridots, it is one of the masterpieces of the
here is a masterpiece", Jean-Paul Desroches, curator of the musée
Guimet, told me. "The Turks lent us all their most beautiful works."
Desroches, who worked with Versailles curator, Béatrice
Saule, and Swiss architect Roberto Ostinelli to stage the show recounted
how the French President, Jacques Chirac spent almost half an hour out
of a forty-five minute visit admiring the porcelains. "They are the
most stunning things you have", he commented to a surprised
Monsieur Suleyman Demirel, President of the Republic of Turkey. He knew
what he was talking about, for the unique collection of Chinese
porcelain dating back to the middle of the fourteenth century
constitutes a treasure in itself.
possesses the largest and most important collection of Yuan china in the
world", said Desroches. "I chose the fifty pieces on display
because they are exceptional for their size, quality and condition, and
thus extremely rare. Some of the earlier plates, in blue and white,(131)
have abstract Muslim designs and were made to order for an Islamic
clientele, whereas later ones are more Chinese in design.
wanted to show all these elegant pieces in their rightful setting, and
so we laid the plates out on a long table. Drinks were often kept in
locked vases to reduce the risk of poison and were served after the
meal; so they appear on another table. Small bowls for fruit and yoghurt
are displayed at the end."
so much refinement, the vulgarity of the jewels came as a bit of a
shock. Certainly the sultan's egrets, one of them containing the largest
ruby in the world were magnificent, but they were also very dirty. The
ruby, uncut and unpolished glowered rather than glowed atop two emeralds
whose only virtue seemed to be their size. The surrounding diamonds,
yellow and white were of every shape and size.
by far were the women's jewels, the earrings of rubies, diamonds and
emeralds, hand mirrors inlaid with precious stones, shining golden
necklaces, and exquisite tinkling ankle bracelets. But to be sure, the
wives, concubines, favourites, and the pretty young girls, bought at
slave markets, or carried off as war trophies, who also constituted an
important part of the Sultan's treasure were locked up more securely in
the harem than any stone in their Master's safe.
doubt, the French have a particular chic to present things at their
best. Let's hope the exhibition, an hour or two's enchantment, gives
some new ideas to Istanbul!
à Versailles - Trésors de la Cour ottomane
de Versailles, Versailles, France
Untill 15 August 1999
(0) 1 30 84 74 00
: Château de Versailles
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