Chateau de Versailles, which started as a small hunting lodge built by Louis XIII, ended as one of the largest and most spectacular of all Royal Palaces, the seat of French power and home to three French Kings, their families and Royal Courts leading up to the French Revolution.
Louis XIV envisioned creating a palace that was not only befitting of the French Crown – its power and glory – so that all the world could stand in awe, he also wanted to insure loyalty from his court by keeping them close at hand and under his watchful eye. Thus, Versailles became a gilded cage for thousands of courtiers and nobles who were forced to live at Versailles in order to serve the Sun King and gain his favor. Louis XIV instituted strict rules of etiquette at his court which, based on one’s social status, dictated how you dressed, spoke, approached and greeted others as well as who was permitted to sit in the presence of others and on what type of chair. It was a constant struggle to serve and please the monarch in order to gain his favor and increase their position both financially and in social status. With 3,000 to 10,000 courtiers at Versailles on any given day, it was also important to keep them entertained which resulted in spectacular fetes with fireworks, grand balls, gaming nights and exotic entertainment including mock battles with miniature ships in the garden’s vast lake.
Today Versailles stands as a monument to Louis XIV’s grand vision and the extraordinary talent of the men who made it possible like french classical architect Louis Le Vau, landscape architect Andre Le Nôtre, painter Charles Le Brun, and architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Their amazing talents gave rise to one the most spectacular palaces in the history of man which today is visited by over 7 million people annually.
For my most recent visit, I planned ahead and purchased a two day pass on-line for the Chateau and Jardins (€30,00 which also included the Fountain display), from the Official Website . I also purchase two separate private tours at €7 each and one for the Chateaux de Trianon for €10. By purchasing the private tours, I was able to bypass the massive line of people and enter through a small private entrance which is worth the €7 in and of itself. The private tours are offered in English and French. I was able to get one in English and one in French. The tour groups are kept to about 20 people and give you private access to rooms that the general public are not allowed to either see or go into. Once the tour is over, they leave you in the main part of the Chateau so you can see everything else at your own leisure (again avoiding the long lines at the entrance). It is a win-win situation. Below are some highlights from my visit.
The main entrance to the Chateau consists of three courtyards. The first has a massive statue of Louis XIV on horseback greeting all who enter his domain. The second two courtyards are gated with the first being black iron with gilded finials. The second gate is all gilded and shines much like the Sun King himself. The third courtyard leads to the central Marble Courtyard which is surrounded by what was once the original Hunting Chateau built by Louis XIV’s father. Rather than having the original hunting chateau destroyed, Louis XIV commanded that it be left intact. Architect Le Vau decided to create an envelope around the original structure. This stone facade adopted an Italian style of roof that was hidden by a balustrade and then adorned with trophies and statues. This brilliant idea was later used by his successor Mansart.
One of the great benefits of doing the private tour was being able to enter rooms that were off limits to the general admission public. Such was the case with the Royal Chapel. Being able to stand in the center and take in its beauty and grandeur was a gift indeed. Designed by Mansart in a blend of gothic architecture and baroque esthetics, he unfortunately did not live to see it completed. Louis XIV himself only enjoyed this marvel of design for five years before his own death in 1715. While the entire court would attend the King’s mass each day at 10am, by far the most grand of services held in the Royal Chapel was that of the marriage of the future Louis XVI to Marie-Antoinette on May 16, 1770.
Construction on the Hall of Mirrors, or the Grande Galerie as it was called in the 17th century, began in 1678. Almost 240 feet in length, it is flanked by the Salon of War to the North and the Salon of Peace to the South. It features 17 arches fitted with twenty-one mirrors each for a total of 357 mirrors. Across from each of the 17 arches is a matching arch that contains glass that overlooks the jardins. These beautiful arched windows flood the room with light which reflects from the mirrors and the gilding to create a spectacular dance of light. Each day, Louis XIV would walk through the hall from his chambers to the chapel with his entire court lined on both sides of the gallery to watch and perhaps whisper a compliment or request to the monarch as he passed. Years later, during a Ball of Yew Trees, Louis XV (dressed as a Yew Tree) met the woman who would become his most famous, and powerful, mistress, the future Marquise de Pompadour who was disguised as the goddess Diana. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, was also signed in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28th, 1919. In 2007 the Hall of Mirrors underwent a complete restoration returning it to its original state of glorious beauty.
Two additional rooms that were included in my private tour (there were many others) were the Clock Cabinet and the King’s Inner Cabinet. The Clock Cabinet was named so because of a spectacular clock that was made for Louis XV in 1754. A marvel of artistry and scientific ingenuity, it not only keeps time, but also indicates the day of the week, month, the year and the phases of the moon. In a crystal sphere at the top of this bronze masterpiece, the planets can be seen revolving around the sun following Copernicus’ system. It was this clock that was used to set the official time through the kingdom. When Louis XV had it installed, he ordered a mirror to be built behind it so that ladies, with their large and wide gowns, would be able to see the inner workings of the clock without having to navigate behind it.
The second room I found fascinating more so for its desk rather than the room itself. Louis XV ordered this desk, which took nine years to complete, to satisfy his desire to have a desk where he could leave his important documents but safe from prying eyes. This mechanical wonder was the solution as just a quarter turn of the key simultaneously locked or unlocked the roll-top and all the drawers. Additionally, there was a special port made on the desk where the King’s staff could refill his inkwell without the need of opening the desk. At the time of its completion, it was considered to be the most expensive piece of furniture ever made.
Marie-Antoinette’s bed chamber is by far the most interesting of rooms for me. Partly because of her personal and tragic history which began at 15 when she married the Dauphin and future King of France and ended at the guillotine on 16 October 1793. It is also the room where she gave birth to four Royal children in public view as was the custom. To the left of her bed there is a small door that leads from her bed chamber to that of the King’s. When the first crowds of the revolution stormed the chateau looking to seize the Queen, she fled her room through this door and down a hall to seek protection with the King in his chamber. The next day the Royal family was forced to Paris never to return again.
There is also a spectacular marble bust from 1783 by Felix LeComte of Marie-Antoinette that sits on the mantle. Most of the fabrics in the room have been remade from patterns that survived the revolution, so there is a sense that any moment the Queen will return to her room to prepare for bed.
I could easily go on for hours about the majesty and magic of Versailles, and I hope you will have the opportunity to experience yourself one day. In the meantime, please enjoy these additional photos from this most spectacular Royal Chateau.