It’s not easy to sum up the palace of Versailles’ importance in a few words, but it’s probably apt to say it’s one of the greatest theatres of French history. The endless parade of ostentatious rooms, galleries and halls has born witness to four successive rulers and the successes and tragedies that marked their reigns. What began as a modest hunting lodge built by King Louis XIII in 1624, would become one of the greatest palaces the world has ever seen.
In 1664 Louis XIV, the self proclaimed “Sun King”, wanted to create a palace that would fit his image of omnipotence and he chose his father’s modest hunting lodge as the place where he would realize this spectacular ambition. His obsession was to create one of the modern wonders of the world. The greatest architect of the period, Louis Le Vau, was employed to turn the modest hunting lodge into the palace of his dreams. Louis XIV wished to conserve his father’s hunting lodge at the heart of the new design but this proved a challenge to Le Vau who was accustomed to knocking down buildings and rebuilding them according to his new designs. To get round this, he devised an envelope style of building around the original. Due to the impatience of the king, building work continued around the clock, night and day, to complete the palace. The mortality rate among the builders was high, due to the unsafe conditions and the pressure to build quickly. Bodies were removed at night so as not to discourage the workers. In the early days the image of Versailles as a sumptuous and luxurious palace was far from the reality. For decades it was a building site, and courtiers would complain of the dust and noise that the building work caused. Servants would relieve themselves in the corridors for lack of basic facilities.
The magnificence of the palace would extend to its gardens and Louis XIV’s ambition was to create sumptuous gardens that would extend for miles. But he had picked an awful site: it was essentially a swamp, there were no views, and it was hemmed into the side of a valley. To add to this, Versailles didn’t have the sort of trees Louis wanted for his garden. Andre Le Notre, one the century’s most celebrated gardeners, was appointed to the project by the King. He showed his talent for reimagining the landscape by dividing it up into a grid. The grid was elegantly outlined by precision-cut hedges, which formed rooms. The rooms furnished with fountains, sculptures and plants. Mature trees (Louis hadn’t the patience to see trees grow) were uprooted from different places in France and transported to the gardens at enormous price. He used the gardens and palace to hold parties. This had a political aspect, as the King sought to make Versailles one of the most fashionable courts in Europe.
As the palace began to take shape Louis XIV would move his court and ministers away from Paris and make Versailles the official seat of government. Favours and appointments depended on the king’s decision and the way to achieve this was to get access to the king. Nobles were obliged, therefore, to live in the palace and were thus under the thumb of the king. This entailed another large expansion of the Palace in order to accommodate everyone. Unfortunately for the king, Le Vau died before he could complete this project. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who would design a more imposing extension, replaced him. He further extended the palace by adding wings and he incorporated a chapel, and the stunning Hall of Mirrors into the overall project. Versailles was used as a showcase for French art and craftsmanship. The king was careful to incorporate his image into every part of the design. Painters and image-makers presented him in paintings as a Greek god like that of Apollo or Jupiter. Italy, which was revered in terms of its art and architecture, was a constant reference and the king was keen to outdo it.
With so many courtiers at Versailles Louis XVI turned his daily activities into a spectacle. During the daily royal cérémonie du lever (rising ceremony), the nobles would gather to dress the king. Position and rank within the hierarchy would depend on what piece of clothing a noble was allowed hand the King while he was being dressed. This type of ceremony would continue throughout the day. In this stultifying and codified world the king had the upper hand because everything depended on his approval. The court literally revolved around him, like the planets around the Sun.
Louis XV was not the original successor to the crown, both his father and grandfather died prematurely before they could succeed Louis XIV. He was just 11 years old when he became king in 1715. His reign was marked by scandal, defeats in war, and excesses that brought the country to near collapse. His ceding of the Austrian Netherlands (after having won them at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745), and his subsequent loss in the 7 years war, weakened France’s position on the world stage. He is largely to blame for the subsequent collapse of Louis XVI’s court and the French revolution, which took place 15 years after his death. The huge debts inherited from Louis XIV and his own unmitigated spending added fuel to the fire, as it reduced France’s ability to prosper economically. His private life faired no better: he had a voracious appetite for sex and his successive mistresses such as Madame de Pompadour and his later affair with Madame du Barry were seen as scandalous. Both were bourgeois and did not belong to the upper echelons of the aristocracy. Later in his reign he ran a brothel in the grounds of the palace. His gruesome death from smallpox had been attributed, at the time, to his dissolute private life – courtiers claimed he caught the infection from a prostitute. Despite this, Louis XV achieved significant building work at Versailles. Most notably: the Petit Appartement du Roiand the Grand Appartement de la Reine, the Royal Opera house, and the Petit Trianon (built for his favourite mistress Madame de Pompadour).
After the disasters which beset Louis XV’s reign, the people had high hopes for his successor: Louis XVI and his young wife Marie-Antoinette of Austria. Although reticent about ruling, Louis XVI was committed to being a just and philanthropic monarch, in line with the enlightenment philosophy of the time. The huge debts incurred by his predecessors, however, and the unbending nobility in the face of reforms to the taxation of land, would result in a revolution that would have dire consequences for the monarchy, the church, and the nobles. Huge losses incurred during France’s support of the American colonists during the American War of Independence was only to make matters worse for the state finances.
Louis XVI tried to impose a tax on the nobles to pay for the debts and relieve the people of some of the poverty that had ravaged the country. He failed on three successive occasions do this and was obliged to convoke the three estates. The three estates contained and represented the clergy, the nobility and the rest of France. Unable to come to an agreement, political deadlock meant the objectives of the three estates were never achieved. The third estate broke away and formed a general assembly that represented the people of France. They demanded the writing up of the constitution. Louis XVI’s rule ended when a crowd of starving women marched from Paris to Versailles and demanded the king to act. The crowd stormed the palace the next morning and the Royal Family was taken prisoner and removed to the Louvre. They would never set foot in Versailles again. During the revolution much of the furniture was sold and the palace was slowly emptied. The king’s art collection would be moved to the Louvre.
After the execution of Louis XVI and the royal family, there would be three successive restorations of the monarchy, the last of which would be King Louis-Philippe I who turned Versailles into a museum dedicated to the history of France or “À Toutes les Gloires de la France”. A large picture gallery was created by the modification of the Prince’s apartments. Paintings depicting the key battles of France were assembled along with sculptures and portraits.
1664- 1710 The Four Building Campaigns
Louis XIV hired the best architect of the day Louis Le Vau to make the first of many interventions on the hunting lodge that belonged to his father. The first of these was the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island (1664), a party organised by the king for 600 guests. Le Vau made alterations to the Chateau and gardens to accommodate the king and his guests. Following this was the ‘Envelope Design’ (1669), which Le Vau created to incorporate Louis XIII’s hunting lodge into the overall plans of the expanding palace. It was at this stage that the palace began to take on the appearance that we would recognize today. The third building campaign (1678) began under the aegis of architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Mansart added extensively and ambitiously to what his predecessor had begun, adding the now iconic hall of mirrors, the north and south wings, and the Orangerie. The fourth and final building campaign carried out under Louis XIV was almost entirely concentrated on the construction of the Royal Chapel. Designed by Hardouin-Mansart and completed by the young Robert de Cotte, the Royal Chapel took 11 years to complete and was inaugurated in 1710.
1682 Louis XIV moves his entire court and government to Versailles
Many of the conspirators who had plotted against the young Louis XIV during the period known as La fronde, were based in Paris. It was a notoriously difficult city for a French monarch to control and exert his influence. Louis decided, therefore, that it would be more pragmatic and safe to house all of the court under the same roof at Versailles so that he could be privy to intrigue and have control over his noble subjects.
Louis XV – Louis XVI (1722-1798)
The first project carried out by the young king Louis XV was the decoration of the enormous Salon of Hercules (1722). Other additions to the palace were the Petit Appartement du Roi, the Appartements de Mesdames, the Appartement du Dauphin and the Appartement de la Dauphine. The spectacular Opera and Petit Trianon were also new additions under the reign of Louis XV. The gardens of Versailles remained unchanged under Louis XV. Louis XVI spent much of his reign completing what his grandfather had begun. He had ordered a complete replanting of the gardens to make way for an English garden, which was popular during the 18th Century but much of these works would be interrupted by the French revolution of 1789.
1789 The French Revolution
This was the year that would change France and the world forever. It was the year when the people of France rose up and challenged the absolute power of its king. One of the first decisive events that would be a game changer in this important episode was the storming of the Bastille Prison in Paris. The king and queen in Versailles would hardly remark upon this event but in reality many knew that it signaled the beginning of the end of the old order. On the 6th October 1789 the royal family were ordered to leave Versailles and moved to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. This event is known as the Women’s march on Versailles, when many poor and starving peasants marched from Paris to Versailles demanding the King provides them with food. The family would never see the inside of Versailles again. The palace was emptied and its contents sold during the following years.
1800 Napoleon and his second wife the empress Marie-Louise use the Trianon as a residence.
1833 Louis-Philippe, the restored monarch, transformed Versailles into a museum dedicated to the military glories of France. The princes’ apartments in the Aile du Midi were transformed into the Galerie des Batailles. Paintings and portraits lined the walls of this gallery celebrating
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