Why bother being “the most interesting man in the world” when divinity affords one to be “the vainest man ever.” Such was the repute embraced by Louis XIV, who hardly needs introducing. In standing with his sense of self, he felt obliged to not tell, but rather show, his people that God himself had ordained him to rule. What better display than the conversion of a former hunting lodge to a country palace that would cost $300 billion in taxpayer dollars to build today? In the name of what Louis referred to “his glory,” he enlisted 35,000 workers including Europe’s greatest master architects, designers and craftsmen to build Versailles.
Some of those divinely recruited paid with their lives at the time of construction, which ended in 1682 allowing Louis XIV to relocate his court to Versailles. The treasonous mirror-making Venetians who gave away the state secrets that had until then ensured a worldwide monopoly were assassinated upon their return to their homeland. But the true bloodletting was not unleashed until the 2,000-acre, 2000-room palace came to represent excessive extravagance in the face of a peasantry descending into impoverishment. Louis XV’s penchant for tawdry affairs did nothing to raise the symbol’s sordid reputation.
By the time of Louis XVI 1774 crowning at the age of 20, France’s economy was weakening; the ranks of destitute swelling. To the relief of struggling colonists an ocean away, the young king directed parliament to quietly begin supplying American revolutionaries. This successful foreign policy drove France to the brink of bankruptcy. Such were the stresses of office, the king often required Versailles’ diversions. As financial depression loomed, the French masses learned of their Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette’s $3.6 million (today’s dollars) wardrobe budget overrun and her “magnanimous” rebuff of one jewel whose foregone cost funded a ship the French Navy desperately needed.
The rest may be history, but the age of excess did anything but die with the demise of the French monarchy. If anything, the country which France helped to gain its independence would go on to redefine opulence. A century after the French Revolution, America’s gilded age brought the world the Robber Baron with the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt coming to personify the economy’s growing divisions.
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Danielle DiMartino Booth is CEO and Director of Intelligence at Quill Intelligence
For a full archive of my writing, please visit my website — www.DiMartinoBooth.com
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