All about Versailles – France’s most important chateau
The Palace of Versailles served as the royal residence of France for over a century, from 1682 until the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. Originally, Louis XIII constructed a modest hunting lodge in the village of Versailles, just outside Paris, in 1624. This humble structure would later be transformed into one of the world’s most lavish and extravagant buildings. Louis XIV, known as the “Sun King,” who famously declared, “L’Etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”), made the palace his home. Following in his footsteps, both Louis XV and Louis XVI also resided in this magnificent castle.
The creation of this magnificent palace was a collaboration between Louis Le Vau, the architect; Charles Le Brun, the painter and decorator; and Andre Le Notre, the landscape architect. Approximately 37,000 acres of land were cleared to accommodate tree-lined terraces, walkways, and thousands of blooming plants. The palace grounds also featured 1,400 fountains and 400 sculptures, contributing to its grandeur and opulence.
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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 oversaw a significant building campaign that involved the transformation of the Marble Court, the construction of the Ministers’ Wings, the Southern Wing, and the Hall of Mirrors, which was adorned with an exquisite collection of silver furnishings. The chateau was ultimately completed towards the end of Louis XIV’s life. The chapel, which was the final piece of the palace, was finished after Mansart’s death in 1708, under the supervision of his son-in-law, Robert de Cotte.
Louis XV at Versailles
In June 1722, Louis XV returned the court to the Château de Versailles from Paris and officially became King the following year. He married Marie Leczinska, the daughter of the exiled King of Poland, and after having three daughters, Marie finally gave birth to the Dauphin, or Crown Prince, in 1729 at the palace.
In 1742, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, son of the King’s First Architect, became the Official Architect for Louis XV. Under his supervision, new additions were made to 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 marked a transition from the heavily ornamented Rococo style to a lighter Neoclassical style, featuring pilasters, columns, and symmetry.
Over 36,000 workers contributed to the project, and upon completion, the palace could accommodate up to 5,000 people, including servants. About 14,000 soldiers and servants were housed in annexes and the nearby town. However, during the Seven Years’ War, France lost much of its overseas wealth and assets to Great Britain, causing significant economic damage that nearly destroyed the monarchy. Finance Minister Duc de Choiseul tried to stabilize the Treasury, but when Louis XV passed away in 1774, he left his grandson, Louis XVI, with a debt of 4,000 million livres. This financial crisis can be directly linked to the roots of the French Revolution.
Despite the precarious financial situation, Louis XVI replanted the palace gardens and commissioned Ange-Jacques Gabriel to build a new library in his private apartments. His wife, Marie Antoinette, frequently redecorated her private apartments and made use of the Menus Plaisirs workshop at Versailles, which created special interiors, sets, and funeral monuments. They also created portable party pavilions for the young Queen to entertain her friends.
Versailles and the French Revolution
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 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.
Versailles Castle in Modern Times
The chateau 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 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.
Is Versailles an easy day trip from Paris?
Yes! We offer a Versailles trip from Paris with a private driver, skip-the-line tickets, and pick-up and drop-off at your hotel or apartment. The other option includes all of that AND a trip to Monet’s house at Giverny.