The Yew-tree Ball (Le bal des ifs)

"The Yew-tree Ball"    (Le bal des if)

by Elena Malaffo

This is the reconstruction of one of the most legendary mundane events in the history of the Kingdom of France; it is based on the historical chronicle along with the following artistic descriptions, plus a bit of fantasy of few writers.



When you were a child you were certainly able to use your fantasy in order to give life to inanimate objects as well as to fantastic creatures; you may be curious to know that, during a night of 1745, even the trees danced at the court of the King...

The wedding of the Dauphin Louis - son of the King Louis XV and the Pole Queen Maria Leczinska- with the Infant of Spain Maria Teresa Rafaela, took place in the Royal Chapel in Versailles on 23 February 1745. The celebrations were rich and various and went on until the next Shrove Tuesday, the masked ball which took place on Thursday evening (25 February 1745) became a legend: there is a drawing of the event, almost a modern picture, by the famous Cochin that reports the event exactly; the title says “Décoration au bal masque donné par le roi dans la grande galerie du chateau de Versailles, à l’occasion du marriage de Louis, dauphin de France, avec Marie Thérése, infante d’Espagne, la nuit du 25 au 26 fevrier 1745” (Picture of the masked ball donated to the King in the Great Gallery of Versailles Castle, organized for the wedding of the Dauphin of France with the Infant of Spain Mary Therese, during the night of 25 February until 26 February 1745).
The picture shows a rank of figures that are eating sat on the floor, and the many guests with bare face as well as masked: Harlequins, Pierrots, Scaramouches, Persians wearing long dresses, Turkish with big turbans, Indians, magicians, shepherd lads, goddesses that mix together their colours and shapes. Versailles was floodlit and the carriages that crowded Avenue de Paris at eleven o’clock, looked at its stunning façade lit-up by thousands of candles. The admittance at the ball was free, so the courtyard was full of hundreds of people. The ushers were told to stop the guests only to ask them to show their face under the mask, in order to register their name. Men were asked to wear their own swords, although there was the opportunity to rent a sword at the castle. Suddenly the salons and galleries were completely crowded by the masks, it is reported that 600 people sat on the floor in the Oeil de boeuf waiting for the opening of the dances.
The buffets were prepared at the two ends of the Mirrors Gallery and by the Ambassadors Stair: as it was supposed to start eating in the early ours of Friday, the dinner was quite light, and included a vast range of fishes, pâté and fresh fruit. The orchestra played in the Hercules Salon were the guests danced; the apartment was newly papered with red damask, lit-up by Catherine wheels made of pure silver, one of them stolen. Among the hundreds of guests there were a lot of known and important people, like the heir of the English Kingdom, Charles Edward. By midnight the Queen came in through a mirrored door wearing a beautiful white dress enlightened by pearls and with the famous couple of diamonds, Régent and Sancy, adorning her hair. The Dauphin and his wife, masked like a gardener and a lovely flower girl, followed her. The Duke and Duchess of Chartres, who would have danced the quadrille with their cousins, closed the short procession.

The Dauphin’s wife showed a particular, brilliant attitude on opening the ball on Wednesday evening, but despite being extraordinary able at dancing, her ability would have caused her troubles the day after. She danced for a long time with a masked knight; such informed about the gossips of the Spanish court, that she thought he was a very important person in Madrid. In order not to be forced to reveal his real identity, the ‘mysterious’ knight left the ball quite soon without accepting the invitation of the Marquees of Tessé for dinner; the Marquees, a real great man of Spain, was pleasantly hit by his clever conversation. The day after the mystery was unravelled as the knight happened to be the Spanish cook of the Lady of Tessè...Due to the crowded place other incidents happened; the Princess of Conti, the mother of the Duchess of Chartres, decided to take off her mask in the dining room because of her tiredness, to make her suddenly recognizable and offered a seat. Unfortunately nobody seemed to paid attention to her so she left the ball furiously and offended, murmuring unkind words to the guests.

The absence of the King was suddenly noticed, causing a certain disappointment to Madame d’Etiolles, known as Madame Pompadour and forthcoming lover of the King, who strongly hoped to meet him. Like any other charming young woman...This apparently unlucky situation gave to Jeanne-Antoinette an opportunity, nevertheless: Voltaire, hit by the beauty of this woman masked as Diana the Huntress, sent her a madrigal written in a language known only to an initiate to celebrate her:

“When Cesar, this charming hero
adored by the Romans,
beat whether the Belgian or the German,
everyone cheered up along with the divine Cleopatra.
This hero of the lovers as well as the warriors
who joined the myrtle and the laurel tree.
But is the yew-tree that I adore
nowadays, which I prefer to the
bleeding laurel trees of the proud God of battles
and to the myrtles of Citera”.

Suddenly the doors of the royal apartments opened and a few, limping people came out, dressed in dark-green colour, perfectly similar to each other who represented the yew-trees of the park of the Castle. Louis XV was supposed to be the author of the perform, as he liked to astonish his people as well as to confuse the young girls in search of personal advantages. The trees were surrounded by a crowd of ambitious women: “There is always somebody who claims for favours” said the Abbot of Bernis, as the last King’s lover, Madame de Chateroux, has died.
This joke put the nice Madame de Portail in trouble as she didn’t lose time and looked for intimacy with one of the masks thinking he was the King: she unfortunately discovered that Louis XV was still in the ball-room, talking friendly to Madame d’Etiolles, after having taken off his heavy mask. At that point Madame threw herself into the task...