Wednesday 28 December 2016

Frogs v. Absolute Monarchs at Versailles

Yesterday, thanks to my French-resident big sister Nicky Nicholson, I came face-to-face with the class war in France. On a trip to Versailles, we saw the Latona fountain shooting its jets of water into the winter sunshine. Its labouring peasants are back, being turned into frogs in perpetuity. They were punished for questioning Leto/Latona’s right to demand their clean water for her children, one of whom was Apollo, the avatar of Louis XIVth, the Sun King himself.

Latona & the Frogs by David Teniers
As tasteless as everything else in Versailles’ 2,000-acre testimonial to economic exploitation of the under-classes, the fountain has recently been put back in action after a lengthy restoration. It transfixes in lead, marble and gilt this ancient parable of cosmic hierarchy told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6.

Frogification in Teniers' painting
Lizards and turtles set the watery theme at ground level. Next come the peasants undergoing metamorphosis, and multiple rows of frogs. Latona, mother of the Sun King, stands on the summit, oblivious of their suffering. She gazes west towards the next massive fountain, which portrays her son in his adult glory, perpetually arising at dawn in Apollo’s magnificent chariot.

Thirsty Versailles Peasant-Frog
The don’t-get-above-your-station message of the Latona story had been a favourite of absolute monarchs with a 'divine right' to rule for centuries before Louis XIVth. It unsurprisingly fell out of favour in the Age of Revolution. But we could bring it back, with fountains in cities across the world portraying the international super-rich and their financial-‘industry’ lackeys lording it over the rest of us frog-people.

The ultimate irony is that it was lack of clean water for the lower orders, not for the aristocracy, which was one cause of the 1789 revolution. Louis-S├ębastien Mercier advised his readers  at that time not to stop drinking water from the Seine: ‘Some say it loosens your bowels, but I drink it every day, and I’ve never suffered anything like that. But then I let it stand for a while. That way the filth settles at the bottom.’ I wish the same could be said of human filth in our political systems. A trenchant Greek proverb gets it right: 'It is not only ducks which float upon the water.'
In the Hall of Mirrors with sister Nicky

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