The Palace of Versailles is the central part of a complex that housed the French government, most notably its royalty, during the reigns of Louis XIV (France’s famed “Sun King”), Louis XV and Louis XVI. After the French Revolution in 1789, it ceased to be a permanent royal residence.
Located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Paris, it is beside the settlement of Versailles. Before the construction of the palace by Louis XIV, this settlement was little more than a hamlet but by the time of the revolution it had a population of more than 60,000 people, making it one of the largest urban centers in France.
Before the revolution, the Versailles complex included the palace, gardens, a walled-in royal hunting ground, a smaller palatial structure known as the Grand (or Marble) Trianon and an estate used by Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s queen. Between the palace and the town there are also buildings that housed the war and foreign affairs ministries, residences for those not entitled to live in the palace, stables and a kennel, among other structures.
The palace was chock full of paintings and sculptures, ornately designed rooms (like the “Hall of Mirrors”) and even technological innovations — such as pressurized water fountains in its gardens that jetted water into the air — and an opera house with a mechanical device that allowed the orchestra pit to rise up to the stage, allowing it to be turned into a dance or banqueting hall.
Overall, the palace was built to impress. “Versailles is a mirage, a sumptuous and theatrical entertainment. It is also a manifestation of glory and power imposed to a great extent by art, luxury, and magnificence,” writes Valérie Bajou, a modern-day curator at Versailles, in her book "Versailles" (Abrams, 2012).
From hunting lodge to palace
The first thing that attracted France’s kings to Versailles was its 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 the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (1638-1715), 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.
He 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. 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.
“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.
In addition a grand canal, constructed to the west of the garden and running about a mile long, was used for naval demonstrations and had gondolas, donated by the Republic of Venice, manned by gondoliers.
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. Like the palace itself it had an abundant garden whose smells were said to overpower visitors
“The tuberoses drive us away from Trianon every evening,” wrote Madame de Maintenon in a letter dated Aug. 8, 1689. “The excess of fragrance causes men and women to feel ill.” (Source: Versailles official website)
Scholars have suggested a number of factors that led Louis XIV to build a great palace complex at Versailles and move the French government there. It’s been noted that by keeping the king’s residence some distance from Paris, it offered him protection from any civil unrest going on in the city. It also forced the nobles to travel to Versailles and seek lodging in the palace, something that impeded their ability to build up regional power bases that could potentially challenge the king.
Sparforth notes that the French Duke Saint-Simon (1675-1755) commented on how easy it was to see all the officials he needed because they were all located in one complex. Saint-Simon wrote that someone at Versailles “could see everyone he needed in the space of an hour,” something that would have taken much longer in Paris.
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.
The bedroom of Louis XIV, built on the upper floor and located centrally along the east-west axis of the palace, 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. “The room where the king slept became the nucleus of the residence and, therefore, of the kingdom,” Bajou writes.
The importance of the courtiers being 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.”
Complementing these court ceremonies was the beauty of the palace itself, which emphasized the achievements and power of the king. The king’s bedroom and apartment area were located close to the Hall of Mirrors. Spawforth writes that the hall has 30 tableaux that tell an “epic narrative” of what “Louis (XIV) as King of France aspired to be.”
Victory in battle features prominently in these narratives with one example showing Louis with his army crossing the Rhine River in 1672. “Hair streaming, dressed in Roman style and holding a thunderbolt like a projectile, Louis sits godlike on a silver chariot pushed by Hercules while riding roughshod over female personifications of nearby enemy towns.”
The design of the hall added to the effect. “Viewing was to be helped by the famous wall of mirrors, which diffuses the daylight, except above the windows, where the detail is shadowy.”
The Hall of Mirrors was flanked on its north side by the Salon of War, which has art depicting the king’s victory against a European coalition in a war that ran from 1688-1697, and on its south side by a Salon of Peace, which has art depicting the benefits of the forthcoming peace.
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. The power of the king once again figures prominently in the decoration of the chapel, “the iconography of the painted and sculptural decorations corresponds to a theological and political plan to demonstrate that the powers and duties of the monarch are given by divine right,” writes Bajou.
One interesting limit on the king’s power was with communion. Spawforth notes that both “Louis XIV and his successors were too pious to take communion during their adulteries.” Furthermore, when they committed adultery they had to cancel a ceremony they undertook in which they would touch people inflicted with scrofula and supposedly cure them. Spawforth said that canceling these ceremonies was considered “scandalous.”
Despite the richness of the palace, the kings had to make do with makeshift theaters up until 1768 when Louis XV allowed the building of the royal opera. It contained a mechanism that allowed the orchestra level to be raised to the stage allowing it to be used for dancing and banqueting. Spawforth notes that the opera required 3,000 candles to be burnt for opening night and was rarely used due to its cost and the poor shape of France’s finances.
Estate of Marie Antoinette
Near the Grand Trianon, the queen of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, 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 had a nearby house and small theater.
Some of the structures in the estate have a meaning that is more difficult to understand. She 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.
Even stranger is the “grotto,” a cave, which Marie Antoinette had constructed for herself with a moss bed, which she could lie on. It had two entrances, prompting much speculation as to what went on in it.
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. Franklin was also a keen observer at Versailles noting the presence of wooden booths (merchant stalls) in the Minister’s Court, just in front of the palace. These “ridiculous” structures “accord so little with the majesty of the place” he wrote.
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 his powers, brought to Paris and ultimately beheaded, the palace falling 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.
— Owen Jarus is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. His main areas of expertise are history, archaeology and urban & regional planning. He has also written articles on health, politics, community events, education and amateur sports. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications. His website is www.owenjarus.com.