Small talks from Versailles: flying chairs

Today it was a rainy and windy day. The perfect day to stay home – how original right? – and try to fix my overloaded laptop. While doing that I stumbled in a series of images and technical drawings I used some times ago and then completely forgot. I think it is the right time to bring them up again and give you more information about Versailles’ most famous invention: the flying chair!

I am not talking about a merry-go-round, a Leonardesque invention or a sort of strange, kinky piece of forniture. I am talking about a little chair used by the king’s mistresses to “fly” from one floor to another one. Call it lift, elevator or ascenseur you know what it is and one of them was built to celebrate love and paresse (laziness) in the glittering Versailles of Louis XV.

Actually, the flying chair was not really invented for the royal palace. Apparently it was Jean-Jacques Renouard, Count of Villayer (1605-1691), who invented and perfected this mechanism in Paris and then installed it at Versailles in an aristocratic mansion, and at Chantilly. The Duc de Saint-Simon in his lively Memoirs – a reading I really recommend you if you are intrigued by the life in Versailles – comments on these flying chairs “which by counterweights rise and descend alone between two walls to the floor we wish to access” telling us the funny story of the Duchess of Bourbon who remained trapped in one of them for three hours at her Versailles mansion before they freed her by demolishing the walls… you see, technology and France have always had a difficult relationship. Or maybe it is just about elevators! If you’ve been to Paris you maybe had the chance to experience one of our one-person, super small and quite scary traditional elevators usually nestled in the middle of a narrow and dusty stairwell. Well, they are not “old”, they are the direct descendants of Versailles fist elevator!*

The only known elevator built inside the Royal Palace of Versailles was the one that Louis XV had installed in 1743 for his mistress the Duchess of Châteauroux. It was located in the north side of the king’s small courtyard in order to help the Duchess to reach his apartment more conveniently. The perfected mechanism was then used by Mme. de Pompadour between 1745 and 1750 and remained in service until 1754, when it was dismantled and transferred to Fontainebleau.

As you can see from the drawing and the pictures of Fontainebleau’s “flying chair” (above, the image in the middle) the mechanism depended on counterweights and pulleys and it was quite simple but effective: the flying chair was in fact a sort of small cabinet (open or closed) through which a rope hung. The occupant could pull the rope to either lower or raise the chair. We know that Louis XV was fond of “flying” objects: he already had “flying tables” at the Chateau de Choisy and was planning to do the same at the Petit Trianon. Why having your servants around to dress the table when you can have it sent directly to the dining room already dressed? A flying chair might have seem to him like a must have, especially if it helped his love life.

Today, you can see one of these flying chairs only in Fontainebleau. All the others, including the Versailles’ one, are gone, like the flying tables of Choisy.

On the other hand, Parisian elevators are still here so… be careful! When renting a flat always ask about them! Sometimes the elevator is missing but your apartment is on the 6th floor OR the elevator is available, but your luggage doesn’t fit in it! Don’t you believe me? Just google “tiny elevator in Paris” or “smallest elevator in Paris” or “smallest elevator in the world” and enjoy the view!

*I am kidding! I know that modern elevators work in a completely different (and probably safer) way but it is nice to pretend that the modest dimension of my elevator has some sort of historical reason, apart the small dimension of the building itself and its age.

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