Things to know about Versailles

Like the planets around the sun, Versailles was a palace that revolved around its king. Despite this, much intrigue, plotting and mystery occurred at the palace that the king wasn’t always privy to. Versailles also welcomed some famous figures from history keen to get an audience with one of the most powerful men in the world.

Versailles in Numbers

1 Sun King. Louis XIV presided over the building of one of the most magnificent palaces the world has ever seen. His absolute monarchy, whereby all decisions passed by him made him the supreme ruler of France.
1,400 Fountains. The gardens of Versailles are remarkable for the many water features, which dominate its miles and miles of park. The bubbling fountains, which make up the bulk of these, are the apotheosis of French engineering and art.
20,000 The population of the palace and its attendant buildings before the revolution
700 rooms
2,000 windows
1,250 chimneys
67 staircases
72 years, Louis XIV ruled as King of France
350 living units in the palace. This ranged from large apartments to alcoves. Unsurprisingly the size of one’s lodgings depended greatly on one’s position in the royal court.
7,527,122 people visit Versailles each year, and counting...
721,206 square feet of floor space
87, 728,720 square feet of land
The combined roof area is an astounding 27 acres!
40,000 deaths during the French Revolution including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
The palace contains 2,102 sculptures and 6,123 paintings.

With no natural water reserves on site, one third of the entire budget spent on building Versailles was put into finding ways to get water to ensure its hundreds of fountains would perform for the king! The self-named Sun King Louis XIV, who built Versailles, takes his name from the god Apollo who was associated with light in Greek mythology. It is for this reason Apollo makes recurring appearances in the decoration of the chateau and the gardens.

The Man in the iron mask

One of the real mysteries that surrounds the rule of Louis XIV is the so-called prisoner in the iron mask. The possible identity of this man, who was known as Eustache Dauger, and the reasons for his strange imprisonment and concealed identity, is still contested today. Many books have been written about this prisoner who was incarcerated in the Bastille, amongst other notorious prisons, for a period of 34 years, until his death. The first to hypothesize about the man in the iron mask was the philosopher Voltaire who wrote about the event in his encyclopaedia. Voltaire came to the conclusion that the prisoner was an older illegitimate brother of the king. Another writer, Alexander Dumas, was to write the mystery into his famous novel, the Three Musketeers. The prisoner in this novel is forced to wear the mask because he is Louis XIV’s identical twin.

Scandal: The Diamond Necklace Affair

One of the great scandals to rock the palace of Versailles was the infamous case of the Diamond Necklace, which had been created at great expense by the Parisian jeweller Bohmer and Bassenge. Weighing in at 2,800 carats, it would have cost the equivalent of 100million USD. It had been assumed that Louis XV would buy the necklace for his mistress Madame du Barry. The king died, however, before he could purchase it. It was expected that Louis XVI would fork out the incredible sum for his new queen Marie Antoinette. However she refused on the grounds that the money could be better spent. The Comptesse de Lamotte hatched an elaborate plan to acquire the necklace and sell it on so that she could pull herself out of her large debts. She manipulated the unpopular Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace for the queen. Lamotte had her lover Rétaux de Villette forged letters in the handwriting of the queen asking the Cardinal to buy the necklace because she did not want to ask Louis XVI. It was hinted in the letters that the cardinal would become popular again with the queen if her wish was carried out. The comptesse even hired a prostitute who resembled the queen to meet the cardinal in the gardens of the palace.
On the day the necklace was to be delivered to the queen, a foot soldier was ordered to deliver the necklace from the jewellers. The foot soldier was in fact Rétaux de Villette in disguise. By the time the Jewellers asked for their first payment from the cardinal, Villette had fled to London with the necklace where he sold it on. The whole debacle ended badly for Marie Antoinette as she was implicated in the scandal. The Comptesse de Lamotte was imprisioned, the disgraced Cardinal arrested and later exiled.

Benjamin Franklin

As America’s first ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin spent 9 years in Paris. He was particularly appreciated by the court of Louis XVI for his intellect, humour and modest dress. This was a time when pomp and excess were at their zenith at court. To have someone totally disregard the codes and etiquette of court dress was seen as novel and was generally welcomed as a breath of fresh air. Louis XVI who had a keen interest in science and general intellectual pursuits, particularly approved of Franklin and he was welcomed to Versailles for many official occasions.

Champagne at Versailles

Champagne, the sparkling white wine that takes for its name the region in the north of France, where it was first made by monks, first became popular at Versailles during the reign of Louis XV. The king’s mistress Madame de Pompadour was an advocate of the drink’s supposed attributes, especially its low alcohol content. She remarked that it was especially good for a woman’s complexion the morning after. Whether she was right about this is debatable. But one of the advantages of drinking champagne in court was that it was always served in bottles - an important part of conserving its sparkling effect. During this period wine was kept in large barrels that required servants to fetch carafes. Champagne meant that servants weren’t required to be present and they weren’t witness to private conversation or raucous evenings among the king, his courtiers and courtesans.

The child Mozart visits Versailles

During the winter of 1763 the young child Mozart and his father Leopold stayed in the Palace of Versailles for 16 days. During this time Mozart played private concerts for King Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour. He also played for the royal family and was invited to dine with the king and queen.

Hygiene at the Palace

Despite the elegance, pomp and circumstance of the portraits of Louis XIV and his court, the general hygiene of Louis and his subjects would shock and disgust many people today. Basic lavatory facilities were non-existent in the palace and courtiers were forced to relieve themselves behind doors and under stairwells. The king himself hardly bathed his whole life and a pungent odour followed him wherever he went. So much so, that he ordered windows to be opened when he entered rooms so as not to overwhelm his courtiers. This fashion for uncleanliness came from the assumption, made by doctors at the time that bathing would allow for bacteria to enter the body through the water and cause disease.

Versailles in Films

Ridicule (1995)
A good introduction to the intrigues and workings of court under Louis XIV’s absolutist regime.
Dangerous Liaisons (1998)
Another scintillating portrait of court life adapted from an 18th century novel of the same title, Dangerous Liaisons was brought to screen by the British director Steven Frears and uses the lavish backgrounds of the palace of Versailles to great effect.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Set to the soundtrack of the MTV generation, Sophia Coppola’s interpretation of the life of Marie Antoinette captures all of the frivolity and ups and downs of a young queen coming of age in the court of Versailles.

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