Until just a few centuries ago, most European homes still had natural earthen floors, with oak-planked upper levels, if they could afford it. Castles and palaces typically had stone or marble floors in the public areas, with plank or tile floors elsewhere. In the 16th century, floors began being assembled through tongue-and-groove construction, and wood flooring was able to become more sophisticated.
During the Renaissance, wooden floors began to get fancier. Artisans could inlay different types of wood in all kinds of arabesques and tessellations, rivaling marble in impact (and in cost). This type of wood treatment was called marquetry if it involved any curved shapes or naturalistic images (like the Amber Room, above). If the inlaid wood pieces were purely geometric and angular, on the other hand, it was known as parquetry, or parquet.
The term parquet (pronounced par-KAY) comes from a longstanding convention, which was to place wooden planks under thrones and other seats of honor, in order to visually demarcate the area from the rest of the room and to elevate it, literally and symbolically, above the floor. This decorative floor area was known as the parc (park) or parquet (little park), and must have evolved toward increasing decoration and inlaid patterning. By the Baroque era, parquet referred to both the technique and the genre of wooden floors inlaid in regular geometrical patterns.
Parquet floors were still something of a novelty in the 1620s, when Queen Marie de Medici of France installed an elaborate parquetry floor in the Luxembourg Palace — this flooring technique was considered to be, like Marie herself, of Italian origin. But through the next few decades, parquetry floors became THE fashionable flooring in fancy Parisian homes (like the hôtel de Lauzun, above); by the time English Queen Henrietta Maria (Marie de Medici's daughter) installed parquet floors at Somerset House in 1661, after returning from exile in Paris, the technique had become accepted as French style. A 1673 issue of Paris' most fashionable society magazine, the Mercure Galant, explained to readers that "people of quality" were forgoing dusty carpets in favor of parquetry.
Parquet floors didn't really become widespread, though, until Louis XIV had them installed at Versailles in the 1680s. Louis had spent the previous two decades expanding and renovating his father's hunting lodge in order to turn it into a seat of power commensurate with all the glories of France — and of Louis himself (not a shy man.) He initially had marble floors installed in all new areas, and had simply replaced broken earthenware tiles in the bedrooms of the original hunting lodge. But in the 1670s, the marble floors in the King's Grand Apartment were leaking when they were washed, and were rotting the joists, or floor supports. Louis and Le Vau decided to replace most of the marble with wooden floors — a decision that must have had plenty to do with aesthetics as well as engineering, considering that it was so 'on trend': in 1693, the architect Nicodemis Tessin referred to the Versailles parquet as being "in the new style."
Louis XIV's designers created a special pattern for the Versailles floors, composed of large squares of parquetry, laid on the bias, with interlaced diagonal squares within. The pattern is still known as Parquet de Versailles. But aristocrats all over France were having new parquetry patterns laid in their châteaux, patterns that are often still known by the name of the place they were first installed:
Although wooden plank flooring remained the norm in most homes, parquetry continued to be popular in grander homes through the 19th century. In the 20th century, the cutting of the wood pieces became mechanized, allowing for cheaper. more standardized and pre-fabricated parquet patterns, which led to the less-attractive parquet tile that graces so many of our rental apartments. Still, many designers still like to replicate the grandeur of antique parquet, either with reclaimed floors or flooring companies that specialize in wood parquetry.
Images: 1: Mme. Victoire's apartment at Versailles 2 The Duchess' private closet at Ham House, via Treasure Hunt 3 The Amber Room at Catherine Palace, via the State Museum-Preserve of Russia 4 The Hôtel de Lauzun, built by Louis Le Vau in 1655, via art-antiquites.eu 5 The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles 6 The Galerie des Actions at Chantilly 7 Various parquetry patterns via french-floors.com 8 An Atlanta home designed by Turner Davis with parquet de Versailles floors, via From the Right Bank
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