Versailles was the royal residence of France for more than a century (from 1682 until 1789), when the French Revolution began. Way back when, Louis XIII built a hunting lodge at the village of Versailles outside of Paris in 1624. The small structure became the base on which was constructed one of the most costly and extravagant buildings in the world. It became the palace of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, who said of himself, “L’Etat c’est moi” or “I am the state.” Louis XV and Louis XVI also called Versailles home. (picture: formal garden at Versailles)
Creating this ultimate palace were Louis Le Vau, architect; Charles Le Brun, painter and decorator; and Andre Le Notre, landscape architect. About 37,000 acres of land were cleared to make room for tree-lined terraces, walkways, and thousands of flowering plants. There were 1,400 fountains and 400 pieces of sculpture.
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In 1676 another architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, was put in charge of redesigning and enlarging the palace.
Between 1678 and 1684, Mansart directed a building campaign which included the transformation of the marble court, the construction of the Ministers’ Wings, the Southern wing and the Hall of Mirrors which was decorated with an exquisite set of silver furnishings. The Palace of Versailles was finally completed near the end of Louis XIV’s life. The chapel was built last, finished after Mansart’s death in 1708, by his son-in-law Robert de Cotte.
Louis XV moved the court back to Versailles (from Paris) in June of 1722, and attained his majority as King the following year. He married the daughter of the exiled King of Poland, Marie Leczinska, and after the birth of three daughters, Marie finally gave birth to the Dauphin, or Crown Prince, in 1729, at the Palace of Versailles.
Anges-Jacques Gabriel, whose father had been the King’s First Architect, became the Official Architect for Louis XV in 1742. Gabriel supervised new additions of the Palace, including the Salon of Hercules, the Opera House, and the Petit Trianon. In 1755 he redecorated the King’s Council Chamber. Gabriel’s designs signaled the break from heavy ornamented Rococo decoration to the lighter Neoclassical style, with pilasters, columns and the use of symmetry throughout.
More than 36,000 workers were involved in the project, and when the building was completed it could accommodate up to 5,000 people, including servants. About 14,000 soldiers and servants were quartered in annexes and in the nearby town. During the Seven Year’s War, however, France lost most of its overseas treasure and assets to Great Britain.
The resulting economic damage almost destroyed the monarchy. Finance Minister duc de Choiseul did what he could to shore up the Treasury, but Louis XV left his successor, his grandson Louis XVI, a debt of 4000 million livres when he died in 1774. The roots of the French Revolution can be traced back directly to this financial mess.
Despite the kingdom’s shaky finances, Louis XVI immediately had the gardens replanted at Versailles, and had a new library built in his private apartments by Anges-Jacques Gabriel. His wife, Marie Antoinette, quite regularly re-decorated her private apartments; she also made use of the workshop of the Menus Plaisirs, the shops at Versailles that created special interiors, sets, and even funeral monuments. They created new portable party pavilions that the young Queen could use to entertain her group of friends.
In 1788 the French government went bankrupt. Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, a representative body of the government that had not met in 175 years. They met in the town of Versailles at the Jeu de Paume, a forerunner to a modern tennis court, soon to became the backdrop for the French Revolution.
On the morning of October 6, 1789 a mob of angry Parisians, mostly women, marched to the Palace demanding bread. They stormed the Palace, ran up the Queen’s Staircase and broke into the Guard’s Room, then into the antechamber. Marie Antoinette ran from her bedchamber into her private apartments, towards the King’s Suite to find her husband and son. They hid, safely, until the mob dispersed. In an effort to quell public discontent the King moved his court to Paris. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s chambers remain as they were in the fall of 1789. They never returned to Versailles.
After the fall of the monarchy, the Palace of Versailles was put into the hands of the new government. In 1792, portions of the Royal furniture was sold and dispersed, and many works of art from the Palace were taken to the Louvre in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte later took an interest in the Palace and commissioned restoration work, which was continued by the reinstated monarchy in 1814 by Louis XVI’s brother, Louis XVIII. In the 1830’s Louis-Phillippe decided to make the Palace into a museum of French history, which was inaugurated in 1837.
The Palace continued to play an important role in European history: in 1871 the Hall of Mirrors was the setting for the Proclamation of the German Empire and in 1919, the site were the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I.
In 1962, a decree was issued ordering all of the objects belonging to the Palace and preserved in collections throughout France to be brought back to Versailles. In the 80’s, funded by two French government grants, more than 80 rooms were involved in the largest single restoration in Versailles history. Parts of the palace that had been damaged or rebuilt after the French Revolution were restored, furniture was recovered, paintings were returned, and wall coverings were replaced.
Today, the Palace of Versailles is one of France’s many national monuments. The building is so large that only a small portion of it is open to the public. Many of the rooms are government offices. Visitors may tour the sections of the north and south wings closest to the center as well as the central section itself.