“To the public imagination, Versailles is the epitome of opulence,” said Louise Boisen Schmidt, a Denmark-based writer at This Is Versailles. “It represents an age in French history of both France’s rise as a fashion and power center as well as the dramatic — and bloody — decline of the monarchy.”
Located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Paris, the palace is beside the settlement of Versailles. The town was little more than a hamlet before becoming the seat of royal power. By the time of the French Revolution, it had a population of more than 60,000 people, making it one of the largest urban centers in France.
From hunting lodge to palace
France’s kings were first attracted to Versailles because of the area’s prolific game. Louis XIII, who lived 1601-1643, bought up land, built a chateau and went on hunting trips. At the time, much of the land around Versailles was uncultivated, allowing wild animals to flourish.
The chateau Louis XIII built was little more than a hunting lodge having enough space to house the king and a small entourage. It was his successor, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the “Sun King,” a ruler who chose the sun as his emblem and believed in centralized government with the king at its center, who would radically transform Versailles making it the seat of France’s government by the time of his death.
Louis XIV ruled France for 72 years, and in that time transformed Versailles by encompassing Louis XIII’s chateau with a palace that contained north and south wings, as well as nearby buildings housing ministries.
Versailles was built to impress. “The most important message Louis XIV sent through the architecture of Versailles was his ultimate power,” said Tea Gudek Snajdar, an Amsterdam-based art historian, museum docent and a blogger at Culture Tourist. “He is an absolute monarch, untouchable and distant. But, even more then that, he is the Sun King. That symbolism of the Sun King is very visible in the architecture of the Versailles. The painter Lebrun, who designed the iconographic program of the Palace, focused paintings, sculptures and the architecture to one goal only — celebrating the King.”
A series of gardens, created in a formal style, stood to the west of the palace (one of them today is in the shape of a star) and contained sculptures as well as the pressurized fountains capable of launching water high into the air. The formality and grandeur of the gardens symbolized Louis XIV’s absolute power, even over nature, according to Gudek Snajder.
“From the outset Louis attached a supreme importance to these water effects. Their virtuosity formed the star turn of a tour of the gardens,” writes Tony Spawforth, a professor at Newcastle University, in his book “Versailles: A Biography of a Palace” (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “The effects were the work of engineers whose machines made Versailles a hydraulic as much as an artistic wonder.” Unfortunately, Spawforth notes, problems supplying water meant that the fountains could only be turned on during special occasions.
Building such a lavish complex was an important part of Louis XIV’s style of rule and beliefs about monarchy, which we would call absolutism, said Schmidt. “As king of France he was the embodiment of France — and his palace was meant to display the wealth and power of his nation,” she said. “Furthermore, it was vital to him to enhance France’s status in Europe; not just by military feats but in the arts as well. For instance, when the Hall of Mirrors was built, mirrors were usually imported from Italy at a great cost. Louis XIV wanted to show that France could produce mirrors just as fine as those produced in Italy, and consequently, all the mirrors of that hall were made on French soil.”
As the French government moved into Versailles, and the king found himself swamped by work in his palace, he built himself the Grand (also called Marble) Trianon, a more modest palatial structure, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) to the northwest of the palace as a private retreat where only he and those invited could visit.
Inside the palace
Spawforth notes that the palace contained about 350 living units varying in size, from multi-room apartments to spaces about the size of an alcove. The size and location of the room a person got depended on their rank and standing with the king. While the crown prince (known as the dauphin) got a sprawling apartment on the ground floor, a servant may have nothing more than a space in an attic or a makeshift room behind a staircase.
Louis XIV’s bedroom was built on the upper floor and located centrally along the east-west axis of the palace. It was the most important room and was the location of two important ceremonies where the king would wake up (lever) and go to sleep (coucher) surrounded by his courtiers. The king also had a ceremony for putting on and taking off his hunting boots.
These practices were symbols of Louis XIV’s moniker of Sun King. “His court was seen as microcosms of the universe and the king is the sun that shines over everything. Each action he would took (having a meal, strolling through the garden) became symbolic metaphor for his divine presence,” explained Gudek Snajdar. “The ‘Escalier des Ambassadeurs’ was the first and the most important Baroque ceremonial staircase. The interaction between the visitor and the king could be directed here in the most careful fashion.”
The importance of the courtiers’ presence at these ceremonies continued into the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. Spawforth notes that a courtier in 1784 wrote that “most of the people who come to the court are persuaded that, to make their way there, they must show themselves everywhere, be absent as little possible at the king’s lever, removal of the boots, and coucher, show themselves assiduously at the dinners of the royal family … in short, must ceaselessly work at having themselves noticed.”
The king had his throne in the “Apollo Salon” and worshiped in a royal chapel, which spanned two stories, which Bajou notes was built between 1699 and 1710.
Art and architecture
According to Schmidt, to our modern eyes, Versailles is a perfect example of baroque and rococo architecture. But, said Gudek Snajdar, the French of the time would not have considered it baroque. “And it’s understandable why,” she said. “It’s very different from, for example, Italian baroque architecture, which served as an inspiration for other European countries during that time.”
Having his palace evoke Italian baroque architecture would have angered Louis XIV. It would have gone against his sense of absolutism, said Gudek Snajdar, the belief that he is at the center of everything. In fact, Louis XIV fired a famous Italian architect hired to work on the Louvre Palace, which was built not long before Versailles.
Some art historians now call the style of the Louvre and Versailles “French classicism.” They possess somewhat different features than Italian baroque architecture, including the emphasis on symbols of power and timeless domination. Other types of baroque architecture featured symbolic art, but not necessarily with the emphasis on divine right, kingly power and timeless rule.
“Everything in the Versailles of Louis XIV had a symbolic meaning,” said Schmidt. “The ceilings are adorned with illustrations of Roman gods with Louis XIV himself painted as Apollo, the Sun God. Throughout the palace you will find the intertwined L’s of his name. It all serves as a constant reminder that he is the king and all power comes from him by the grace of God.”
The decoration also emphasized the achievements of the king. “The ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and the adjacent Salons of War and Peace were decorated with the history of the king,” said Gudek Snajdar. The Hall of Mirrors has 30 tableaux that depict an epic story of Louis XIV’s achievements and aspirations. Victory in battle features prominently in these narratives, with one example showing Louis with his army crossing the Rhine River in 1672. He is dressed in Roman clothes, his long hair flows behind him, and he holds a thunderbolt like a projectile. He sits like a god in a chariot that is being pushed by none other than Hercules himself.
Estate of Marie Antoinette
Near the Grand Trianon, Marie Antoinette, the queen of Louis XVI, created an estate for herself. She took over a building called the “Petit Trianon” and built a number of structures, including a working farm (also called the “hamlet”), which provided the palace with fresh produce, and a nearby house and small theater.
She also built a “Temple of Love,” which modern-day curators say can be seen from her room in the Petit Trianon. It features a dome propped up by nearly a dozen columns covering a statue, which shows a depiction of “Cupid cutting his bow from the club of Hercules,” Bajou writes.
Additionally, she built the charming “grotto,” a cave that had a moss bed for Marie Antoinette to lie on. It had two entrances, prompting much speculation as to what went on in it.
Though Marie Antoinette is known for her lavishness, in reality she did not always enjoy being queen. Her estate reflects a desire for a simpler life and homesickness for her native Austria. “Marie Antoinette grew up in Vienna as the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I. In the Habsburg Empire, royalty was allotted a far greater sense of privacy and she had a remarkably “normal” upbringing,” explained Schmidt. “During her childhood she would enjoy private family dinners and played with commoners’ children, but at Versailles that was impossible. Once she had become Dauphine, her life was constantly in the spotlight. Etiquette demanded that she dine before a seemingly never-ending crowd of spectators and getting dressed was a court ceremony in itself.”
American history at Versailles
Two key events in the American Revolution happened at Versailles. Benjamin Franklin, acting on behalf of a newly independent United States, negotiated a treaty with Louis XVI, which led to America getting critical support from the French military. Spawforth notes that Louis XVI would have one of his inventions, a “Franklin chimney,” installed that produced less smoke than an ordinary fireplace.
Fittingly, the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Revolutionary War, was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, at Versailles, close to the palace in the nearby foreign affairs building. Several decades later, when King Louis Philippe (reign 1830-1848) was turning Versailles into a museum, he would include a painting that depicts the siege of Yorktown, a decisive victory in the Revolutionary War in which the Americans and French cooperated against the British.
America would reciprocate in the 1920s when oil millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. paid to have the palace’s expansive roof restored, among other buildings.
Versailles after the fall
After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette would be stripped of power, brought to Paris and ultimately beheaded. The palace fell under the control of the new republican government.
Many of its furnishings were sold to help pay for the subsequent Revolutionary Wars. When Napoleon came to power, he had an apartment created for himself in the Grand Trianon, complete with a map room.
King Louis Philippe, in the museum he created, showcased different aspects of French history. The Battles Gallery can still be seen today with its modern-day keepers noting that the gallery’s art depicts every main French battle between the Battle of Tolbiac in A.D. 496 and the Battle of Wagram in 1809.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Versailles curators would convert many of the museum areas back into palace space, trying to show how they looked before the French Revolution.
Two more pivotal events would occur at Versailles in this post-revolutionary period. In 1871, after France had lost a war against Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, adding an extra layer of humiliation to the French defeat. For several years after this defeat, the situation in France was so bad that its Chamber of Deputies and Senate opted to meet at Versailles, rather than Paris, for reasons of safety.
In 1919, France would have its revenge, of sorts, when the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed reparations on Germany, was signed in the same hall. Although the treaty formally ended World War I, it has been argued by some that it helped pave the way for World War II. Even then, centuries after its modest start as a hunting lodge, events still took place at Versailles that ultimately helped shaped the world we live in today.
Today, Versailles is one of the most-visited sites in France. Visitors are drawn to its architectural grandeur, the stunning water features (concerts are often played in the gardens during the summer) and its sense of history.