Big houses for feudal rulers advertised the right to power of those within, while protecting them from the people they exploited to build them – today, the tradition continues in the hands of oligarchs
Caesars Palace. Palace Skateboards. Crystal Palace FC. Not one of these is actually a palace, that much is clear; the potency of the word encourages its proliferation, endowing everything it abuts with a hint of razzmatazz. We all know what a palace really is, though – right? A big house. That is precisely what the Mesopotamians, one of the earliest peoples to suffer under palace owners, called such buildings. However, the size is in fact elastic: many Italian palazzi, though undoubtedly grand, are actually no larger than townhouses.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to insist on the palace’s representational function: it is an expression of state power and a place in which some functions of the state are carried out, as it houses the ruler. But then more than a few palaces have belonged to bankers. Or, more recently, to TV producers and football club proprietors. Of course, one could argue that financiers, media tycoons and oligarchs do control some of the proper functions of the state, and so it is at least decorous that they should aspire to a heightened degree of grandeur. We could further speculate that the expansion and contraction of palace ownership over time reflects bipolar fluctuations between the centralisation and dispersal of power in societies.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Palace garden from Bundi, India
We have, in any case, established that the palace is a fuzzy type. The name’s origin is clearer: along with its European cousins, it comes from the Palatine Hill in Rome, where the earliest origins of that city can be found and which later bristled with large residences belonging to imperial rulers. But even ancient writers were not so unambiguous in their application of the terms ‘palatium’ and ‘villa’, which were often used interchangeably. While ‘villa’ suggests a rural setting, there are many indisputable palaces established at a remove from administrative centres. However, there was in antiquity at least a clear understanding that a palatium was occupied by the emperor.
What these palaces and their antecedents looked like is often a matter of conjecture, based on excavated foundations and written descriptions. But even very early palaces, such as the Iron Age Assyrian buildings from which the famous reliefs in the British Museum originate, established a recurring spatial arrangement of graduated impenetrability. This protects the monarch (a function visualised by the lamassu, a gigantic winged beast that guarded significant entrances), while encoding social hierarchies: the deeper into the complex one is permitted, the higher one’s status.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Walled Assyrian palace complex
This was not just a question of the navigation of visitors. Mesopotamian palaces were mixed-use megastructures equipped with private royal quarters, accommodation for courtiers and their retinues, throne rooms, audience chambers, ceremonial courtyards and dining halls – but they also included workshops, storehouses and shrines. While this comprehensiveness certainly had its practical advantages, it also created a microcosmic image of society, anchored by the ruler and their relationship to god.
This quasi-religious status is often expressed in palaces occupied by rulers who aspired to divinity, the layouts of which were determined by ritual and centred on chapels or temples. Temporal and spiritual power attains an exceptional degree of integration in the Escorial, which is both palace and monastery, and, more obviously, in Potala Palace and the Vatican, and the episcopal palaces of the prince-bishops of the Holy Roman Empire.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / El Escorial, Madrid
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Dalai Lama, Polata Palace Tibet
However there is also a recurring tension between the strict hierarchical arrangements of palaces and the inclination towards aristocratic leisure. This is often expressed in a flight from the city, and the establishment of stately pleasure domes such as Sanssouci or Balmoral (where, Queen Victoria wrote, ‘All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils’). Loosened stays found their architectural analogue in the dissolution of Classical order at Palazzo del Te, Frederico Il Gonzaga’s retreat beyond the walls of Mantua.
But while royal rustication appealed as a way of escaping the formalities of the court, the hierarchies these encode must still be seen to be maintained. So the Garden of Perfect Brightness outside Beijing was equipped with a miniature replica of the throne room from the Forbidden City – behind which the winding paths of the gardens beckoned the emperor to waterways and hills dotted with elegant pavilions. Occasionally, suburbanisation meant not a loosening of strictures but their intensification, as at Versailles, where relative isolation was used to enforce absolute rule over the nobles who were compelled to decamp there. This difference can be read in the preceding examples’ approaches to nature: in the Garden of Perfect Brightness there was a cultivated freedom, whereas at Versailles the gardens were strictly regimented.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Garden of Perfect Brightness
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Tepkapi Palace, Istanbul
On other occasions, the rural retreat is brought into the city, as in the lushly planted courtyards of the Alcázar in Seville, or the vast private parks of Buckingham Palace, Tokyo Imperial Palace and Nero’s notorious Domus Aurea (Golden House), in Rome. Mughal palaces had the best of both worlds: while occupying a central urban location, they usually overlooked water, thereby affording expansive views and cooling breezes to the private royal areas at the rear of the complex. Late-Roman imperial palaces often had a similar arrangement, with an open screen of columns giving onto a body of water.
This relative openness was lost in succeeding centuries in Western Europe, as the porous palace complex was replaced by the more heavily fortified castle. This reflected the fragmentation of power and a corresponding decline in security. Crenellations, massive walls, arrow slits and moats are all markers of the castle, while the palace generally has a less-fortified appearance. However, the distinction is not quite so clear: most palaces have some defensive features, and some ‘castles’ are fortified only in a very superficial way.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Pfaueninsel, Berlin
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Pena Palace, Sintra
There have been two moments in Western Europe in which these typological boundaries have been particularly blurred, reflecting massive changes in society: when the fortified house turned into the palazzo in Trecento Italy, responding to the growing power and security of proto-bourgeois cities; and as 19th-century monarchs sought to shore up their declining prestige against bourgeois upstarts by decorating their palace retreats with fantastic battlements, as at Balmoral, Neuschwanstein and Sintra. At Pfaueninsel outside Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm II built himself a habitable ruin, a kind of architectural expression of the death drive from a king battling the Enlightenment.
Few royal palaces have been built since the bourgeois revolutions. In situations in which monarchies clung to power, as in British India, there were some very late examples of the type: the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, for instance, and the Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur, constructed between 1929 and 1943. The latter is one of the largest private residences in the world, and is still home to the descendants of the maharajah – although half of it is now a luxury hotel. (Contrariwise, the Heliopolis Palace in a suburb of Cairo started out as ‘the most luxurious hotel in Africa’, and has since been converted into a presidential palace.)
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Umaid bhavan palace, jodhpur
During revolutions, palaces become the target of ire, the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg being the obvious example. In the aftermath, other, more democratic ‘palaces’ have occasionally supplanted them, symbolically overturning the historic meaning of the word and the essential exclusiveness of the type. ‘Palaces of culture’ – social clubs incorporating libraries, concert halls and other facilities – were erected across the Soviet Union while, in East Berlin, the Palast der Republik was built on the site of the former Stadtschloß. This provided facilities for popular recreation alongside the country’s parliament; it was demolished, in turn, in 2006 and is in the process of being replaced with a reconstruction of the imperial palace.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Palace of Culture and Science
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Palast der Republik
In other, less demolition-happy new regimes, the question arises: what to do with palaces that have been emptied of their residents? Some have been converted into museums, for example the Louvre, and others into the official residences of elected heads of state, as in Paris and Berlin. (Sometimes, such facilities are built ex novo, as in the case of the White House.) The palace as seat of undivided power returns whenever rule is seized once more by a single pair of hands. Dictators such as Nicolae Ceaușescu, and supposedly democratic leaders such as President Erdoğan, have built themselves vast presidential palaces, where the residence of the ruler is once more the locus of decision.
Nevertheless, palace building does not come to an end in liberal democracies. The palace type has often been adopted as a model for new parliaments and museums, and on the domestic front too, enormous examples continue to be built by the rich. Their grandeur is by no means inappropriate as these are true sites of power; what that says about the societies that foster them is another question. In any case the phenomenon is not new: at least since the Renaissance, palaces have also been built by oligarchs, and their courtyards and piano nobiles have functioned as the dispersed audience chambers of clientelist regimes. Such builders have typically imitated rulers’ residences when they could get away with it, as in the case of the Medici and later the Rucellai in Florence, both of whom borrowed the bifore windows of the Palazzo della Signoria.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / White Palace in Ankara
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Biltmore, Asheville, NC, US
Some have continued this practice into the industrial era, as with Hearst’s castle and the chateaux of the Rothschilds and Vanderbilts. More recently, there is Love Boat-funded The Manor in Los Angeles constructed for Aaron Spelling, and the similarly vast and classicising Fair Field in the Hamptons, built by questionable financier Ira Rennert (in 2017 Rennert was ordered to pay $213 million in damages for funnelling money from one of his corporations into the house). Rarely have palace builders opted for a more modern look: a striking exception is the skyscraper-palace built by petrochemical billionaire Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai. Here, an oligarch has opted to imitate not the power of some long-gone ancien régime, but rather the more current pre-eminence manifested by postwar corporate headquarters. At least when it comes to storming such buildings this one won’t be hard to find. More sinister are the seasteading fantasies of Peter Thiel, who dreams of a post-apocalyptic life on the ocean wave in palaces floating beyond the reach of the societies on which they feed.
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / 2 billion Mumbai residence
Typology: Palace by Tom Wilkinson / Seasteading
Lead image: Caesars Palace hotel and casino, established in 966 in Las Vegas, is filled with replicas of antique statuary, including a 6m-high portrait of Augustus Caesar. Image courtesy of George Rose / Getty Images
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