The Palace of Versailles, was the de facto capital of the kingdom of France for over a century, from 1682 to 1789. On UNESCO’s World Heritage List, it is one of the most magnificent achievements of 18th century French art. It is a palace large enough to house 6,000 courtiers, a palace fit for a king, and not just any king, but Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King,’ who reigned for 72 years and whose self-glorification knew no bounds. Second only to God, and the head of an immensely powerful state, Louis XIV was an institution rather than a private individual. His comings and goings were rigidly encased in ceremony, attendance at which was an honor much sought after by courtiers. The palace site began as Louis XIII’s hunting lodge before his son transformed and expanded it, beginning in 1661. Wanting to escape the busy life in Paris, and to keep the nobility under his control, Louis XIV determined to convert it into a glittering palace. He drained swamps and moved whole forests to create 250 acres of formal gardens, tree-lined paths, flowerbeds, lakes, and fountains. And this filled only a small portion of the grounds, the entire estate covered 2,000 acres. Building Versailles required some 30,000 laborers and was so costly that it nearly wiped out the coffers of France. The main building contains grand halls and bedrooms that interior designer Charles LeBrun decorated with every ostentatious adornment imaginable. The power of France emanated from this center, there were government offices as well as the homes of thousands of courtiers, their retinues and all the attendant functionaries of court. By requiring nobles of a certain rank and position to spend time each year at Versailles, Louis prevented them from developing their own regional power at the expense of his own. Versailles served as France’s political capital and the focal point of the court from 1682 until 1789.
The Grand Apartments of the King and Queen, whose most emblematic achievement is the Hall of Mirrors designed by Mansart, where the king put on his most ostentatious display of royal power in order to impress visitors. It is a 235-foot-long drawing and ballroom lined along one side with 17 huge mirrors…fixtures that were staggeringly expensive at that time in history. In the mirrors, the courtiers could admire their own fabulously costumed selves as they danced. The mirrors were also designed to reflect the ceiling frescoes, which illustrate and pay tribute to the early years of Louis XIV’s reign. The palace’s size and opulence trumpeted his power as an absolute monarch. On the other side of the room, a row of windows opened onto vast gardens, representing the finest example of French garden design. Creating the gardens at Versailles required the genius of landscape designer André Le Nôtre, who laid out everything in formal French style. The central axis of the gardens is the mile-long Grand Canal, which is situated to reflect the setting sun. Around it spread geometric expanses of plantings, flowerbeds, paths, ponds, and lakes, not to mention fountains…1,400 of them at one time. Included is a spectacular fountain in which a horse-drawn chariot carries a triumphant Apollo, yet another reference to the glory of the Sun King. To relieve the formal design, eccentric buildings called follies were scattered here and there, as well as a grove where the courtiers danced in summertime amidst rock gardens. Marble and bronze statues are arrayed along paths and tucked into the foliage.
The construction lasted virtually until Louis XlV’s death in 1715. For the next seven years, the royal court of the young King Louis XV was the first in Paris, as he governed from his Parisian residence, the Palais-Royal. Versailles was again the unofficial capital of France from June 1722, when Louis XV returned to Versailles. Each of the three French kings who lived there until the French Revolution added improvements to make it more beautiful. In the white-and-gold baroque chapel royal, Louis XVI wed Austrian archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) when both were teenagers in 1770. Upon Louis XVI’s ascension to the throne in 1774, Marie-Antoinette ordered major redecoration of the Grand Apartements, the results of which are seen today. Among further palace additions were a paneled library, the clock room (where Mozart performed at age seven), and the opera, a huge oval theater illuminated by 10,000 candles.
The palace lost its standing as the official seat of power as the first scenes of the French Revolution were enacted at what had become a symbol of royal extravagance. At the behest of Louis-Philippe, who ascended to the throne in 1830, the palace is now the Museum of the History of France…tracing milestones in French history. The palace as it is known today is the symbol of royal absolutism and embodiment of classical French art…one of the most visited monuments in France and amongst the three most visited. Many wars have been settled through peace talks and treaties negotiated at Versailles. The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was signed in the Hall of Mirrors in 1919. Here’s a video.