The Palace of Versailles
by Peter Kessler, 30 August 2008
It was in 1623 that King Louis XIII of France had a hunting lodge built
at Versailles-au-Val-de-Galie. The Galie Valley was a wild marshy
woodland, with a small village situated alongside it, but it was
rich in game and not far from the royal residence of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Versailles was first mentioned in 1142, in the Charter of the
Abbey of Saint-Père de Chartres. One of the signatories to that
charter was Hugo Versailles, so in usual medieval manorial practice
his name was appended to the village which existed on the manor's
lands. The village, with a church and a small castle, was mildly
prosperous until a resurgence of plague swept through it in the
fifteenth century. It emerged heavily depopulated and a mere shadow
of its former self.
In 1575, the Florentine Archbishop Jean-François de Gondi
purchased the manor and all its belongings. Carrying some influence
at court, the archbishop invited the king on several hunting trips
to his forests around Versailles. Louis XIII found himself to be satisfied with what he saw,
so he decided to
purchase the land from the archbishop. The hunting lodge, or pavilion, he ordered
to be built there in 1624 was a relatively simple structure of brick, stone, and slate.
Louis XIII spent his first night in his new lodge on 8 March
1624. After that he started spending more and more time there, not
only for the fine hunting, but to escape from state duties and the
royal court, and from the queen, Anne of Austria. He made it quite
clear that she was not welcome at Versailles, so her two visits
there proved to be her only visits.
The lodge was so much to the king's liking that in 1631 he had his architect (and royal
engineer), Philibert Le Roy, extend the building. The pavilion was
enlarged and wings were added to each side to form the Marble Court
which survives at the heart of the structure today. The first,
small, formal gardens were added alongside a moat and four
pavilions. The chateau, however, remained a maison de plaisance,
or country cottage.
The Sun King
Louis XIII died in 1643, and the country was governed by Cardinal Mazarin's
regency until the king's young son was
Straight away, in 1661, Louis XIV ordered his own architect, Louis Le Vau,
to embellish the chateau at Versailles in a project that took seven years to
achieve. Le Vau (1612-1683) was a Parisian French Classical
architect who, during the course of his career, was responsible for
work on several notable buildings, including the Palace of the
Gallery: Around Versailles
Kings of the Franks
RULERS OF EUROPE:
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Great Buildings Collection
The Palace of Versailles
The Marble Court at the heart of the palace
However, even this version of the chateau was
deemed too small and more work was planned.
In the meantime, and in a response to increasing European
awareness and interest in zoology and exotic creatures, Louis
ordered the construction of the Menagerie in 1662 or 1663. Completed two
years later, again by Le Vau, it was located at one end of the Grand Canal.
The set of buildings featured an octagonal
two-story pavilion its centre, but although animals were first
introduced in 1664, the interior fixtures and fittings were not
completed until 1670. Despite that, the fact that it was Louis'
Menagerie made it an instantly fashionable destination for visitors
and courtiers. Governors in French colonies and the Compagnie des
Indes Orientales (the French East India Company) had a standing
order for rare species, and an animal purveyor was sent to the
Levant each year. Less mighty rulers also thought it prudent to send
the Sun King wild animals as tribute.
The Menagerie was followed by the creation of the Orangery
(1663) and the Thetis Grotto (built on the North Lawn in 1664-1666).
Considered to be one of the finest single pieces of architecture in
Versailles, the Orangery was dug into the slope
below the chateau and was flanked by the Great One Hundred Step
Staircases. Double glazing and its sheltered position helped maintain
a temperature of between 5° and 8°C all year round.
As the finishing touches were made to the Menagerie, Le Vau was entrusted with the
main project to extend the palace. The concept was to envelop the
old chateau inside a new and more grand one. The east front was to
remain as it was and new construction would be built around it on
the other three sides. This plan became known as the Envelope
Design. By 1671, the basic structural work had been completed. The
Envelope was a set of structural elements in the shape of a 'U'
around the Old Chateau on the three garden sides, thus forming two
symmetrical enclosed courts. Between
1668-1670 Le Vau constructed this 'envelope' of uniformly white stone
façades which wrapped around the older buildings and was
contemporarily known as the New Chateau. The buildings were inspired by Italian baroque architecture,
and they provided the royal family with lodgings, the State
Apartments, and a large terrace on the western section which
overlooked the gardens.
During this phase of the building work, the Marble Court, the
original entrance to the old hunting lodge, received the paving
which gave it its name. But when Le Vau died
in 1670, François d'Orbay (died 1697), his assistant, was assigned as his replacement.
Decorator Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was entrusted with handling the
decoration of the completed interior structure. A Parisian by birth,
he was declared to be the most important painter of seventeenth
century France by Louis XIV. With a long list of major works under
his belt, including the council apartments in the Palace of the
Louvre, Le Brun was able to realise the king's grandiose dreams for
Versailles which surpassed not only the imagination but also his
budget. For his pains, Le Brun was named Premier (first) Painter by the king.
More work was undertaken in the palace's third building campaign between 1679-1684,
part of which included destroying the new
chateau's terrace which overlooked the gardens, transforming it into
the enclosed Hall of Mirrors which was intended to symbolise the power of Louis XIV's
The royal architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, was given the task
of directing the work. Born in Paris in 1646, Jules Hardouin trained under his architect
great-uncle, Francois Mansart, and inherited an enormous collection
of plans and drawings which he utilised in his later work. He also
added his great-uncle's name to his own and is generally considered
to be one of the most important French Baroque architects in Europe
in the seventeenth century. His work generated architecture which
epitomised the grand era of the Sun King. He was also the creator of
the "Mansard roof" - popular in American architecture,
especially during the Victorian era.
The Grand Stables
were built at this time (1680-1681), so named because they were the domain of the Grand
Equerry who was responsible for the horses which were highly trained
for hunting or warfare and were to be ridden by royalty only.
Finally, the Grand Lodgings, housing kitchens and tables for
officers who served the royal family and holding 600 rooms for
courtiers were completed.
Landscape architect André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), who came from a
family of royal gardeners, managed a detailed
renovation of the palace's gardens at the same time. Charles Le Brun
collaborated with Le Nôtre in landscaping the gardens, but he was
again responsible for interior decoration. One of his finest works
was the adding of the final decor to the suite of rooms which formed
the King's State Apartment between 1671-1681. The rooms were
dedicated to the planets gravitating around Apollo, the god in Greek
and Roman mythology who symbolised the sun, Louis' emblem.
The king's new home was now fit for purpose.
On 6 May 1682 Louis XIV left the palace of the Louvre in the heart
of Paris and moved to Versailles. The palace became the
official residence of the French royal court and the de facto
capital of France. It would remain so until the French Revolution.
With the king now resident at Versailles, the final stages of
the work carried on at a rapid pace, with completion following in
1684. The king used his new State Apartment exclusively for
audiences and court entertainment since the king lived in the rooms
which overlooked the old Marble Court. From what had been a huge construction site, Mansart
had overseen the raising of the North and South wings of the chateau
Louis XIV's grandson, Louis, duke of Burgundy was married in 1697,
to the twelve year-old Marie-Adelaide of Savoy. The young duchess
was a very vivacious and precocious addition to the royal court and
she quickly gained the favour of the aging king. As a sign of his
favour he presented the Menagerie to her, and the interior of the
building was redecorated between 1698-1700. The style used was a
departure from the usual courtly austerity, instead anticipating the
Rococo style that would be popular in the eighteenth century.
The almost-completed palace now contained 2143 windows, 1252
fireplaces, and 67 staircases. Le Nôtre's gardens included roughly 1400
fountains using a water system which pumped water from the Seine
through almost 160km (about 100 miles) of pipework. The
length of the garden frontage was 670 metres (733 yards). Due to the fact that it
was built up in several stages and over a span of nearly half a
century, the layout was rather sprawling.
Charles Le Brun
Sculptures of Versailles (in French)
Within those sprawling gardens the Grand Trianon was a focal
point. It could be reached by boat sailing along the
Grand Canal, and it replaced a 'pavilion d'agrément' which had been
used as a spot at which to take refreshment. This had been built by
Louis Le Vau in 1669-1670, and was redecorated in 1672-1674 by a
collection of experts. As it was covered in blue and white porcelain,
its name of the Porcelain Trianon was ideal. Unfortunately its
lifetime was a short one. It was prone to cold weather damage and
Louis so liked the spot that he
commissioned the building of the Grand Trianon there.
The Grand Trianon was erected in 1687-1689 by Mansart, replacing
the Porcelain Trianon, in order to provide Louis with the retreat
he wanted at the far end of the park. Despite having sealed
himself off from most of society at Versailles, the king felt he
needed a way of escaping the crowd of courtiers and the constraints
The building consisted of two wings joined together at the far
end by a peristyle which was adorned with columns and tiled flooring
through which visitors could catch a glimpse of the ornamental and
flower gardens beyond. It would have been (and very much remains) the perfect place to stand
during summer showers.
The building followed the Italianate school of style and consisted merely of a
ground floor which was covered by a flat roof (hidden by a
balustrade). Pink Languedoc marble
pilasters punctuated the façades.
Louis was particularly fond of the Trianon (as it was
originally known). He would visit for short stays in the summer
along with his family, and occupy three apartments in turn, one on
the right wing (1688-1691), another in the left wing (1691-1703),
and then he returned to the right wing (1703-1715).
Elsewhere, in the fourth construction campaign of 1699-1703,
redecorating work and decorative additions were added to the
The Grand Trianon at Versailles which forms the hub of
the king's retreat
Portrait of Marie Leszczinska in the Chapel Salon of the Grand Trianon
Meanwhile, the little village of Versailles had prospered and
grown into a small city in line with the massive works on the
palace. While at its peak before the Revolution, the city would have a population of more than 50,000,
even at the start of the eighteenth century it could boast around
20,000 inhabitants. Eventually, something in the region of 36,000 workmen were employed on
the various stages of construction on the palace, and the city
enjoyed the benefits.
End of the Sun King
By 1710 Louis was seventy-two, and one major feature remained to
be added to the palace which had been his full-time home for
twenty-eight years. The Chapel Royal was completed and
consecrated in 1710 under the direction of Robert de Cotte,
after Jules Hardouin-Mansart died at Marly in 1708. De Cotte
(1656-1735) was Mansart's brother-in-law, and he succeeded him as
the king's architect from 1708 to 1735.
A mixture of Gothic and Baroque styles, the chapel's height resembled a
medieval cathedral while its columns and balustrades were very
typical of the early 1700s. The chapel was consecrated to St Louis
(King Louis IX, the Crusader king) and is considered to be one of
the palace's highlights.
No more construction work was to be undertaken at the palace for
around twenty years, and the king's last years were not entirely
His son, the dauphin (the heir to the throne), died in 1711. His
grandson, Louis, duke of Burgundy, became the dauphin, but he only
survived his father by a year. His wife, the by-now twenty-six
year-old Marie-Adelaide, contracted measles and Louis refused to
leave her bedside. As a result he also contracted the disease and the couple died
within a week of each other. His death precipitated a minor
crisis in the succession, as his son, another Louis who was aged
just five, also died of measles less than a month later. His younger
brother became dauphin and Louis XIV, realising his own days were
limited, organised a regency to govern the country until the child
reached his majority.
Robert de Cotte (in French)
Splendours of Versailles
Louis XIV died in 1715, shortly before his
seventy-seventh birthday. He left the throne to that five year-old
great-grandson, Louis, duke of Anjou, who was now Louis XV.
When Louis XV returned to his childhood home in 1722, a certain
amount of work had already been undertaken to complete the Hercules Salon
in 1710-1714, which
had lain unfinished since the death of the old king. This included
removing the older decor and adding new ornamentation, but there was
more to follow, as the new king sought a level of privacy in his
Adjacent to the King's Chamber and opening into the Hall of
Mirrors, the Council Study took its final form in 1755, when it was
created by combining two rooms together: the King's Study, where
Louis XIV had held his ministerial councils for financial and state
matters, and the Terms Study, which was a more intimate room to
which the king retired with his family or inner circle in the
evenings for supper. Various apartments for the royal family were
also completed within the chateau.
The work was overseen by the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel
with sumptuous wood panelling carved by Antoine Rousseau from
Gabriel's drawings. Gabriel was
born in Paris in 1698 and had been partially trained by his father.
He succeeded his father as Premier Architect at Versailles in 1742,
after working as his assistant for seven years.
The gardens were left much as they were, but Louis left the
Grand Trianon to his wife, Marie Leszczinska
and her father Stanislas, former king of Poland during the Polish
War of Succession in 1733. But in 1750 his interest in the Grand
Trianon was renewed and the building was redecorated.
The Petit Trianon was constructed in 1761, under the direction of
Louis and with Gabriel's assistance. This was his best-known
work; a Neoclassical structure with a squarish plan and
double-height Corinthian columns. It was designed for Madame de
Pompadour, the king's beloved mistress (Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson,
eleven years the king's junior and his close confidant in her later
years), but unfortunately she died just three years later.
In the city of Versailles, the strict rules on building which
had been in place under Louis XIV were abandoned under his
successor, which lead to speculative building and plots exchanging
hands for greatly inflated sums.
More minor work continued on the palace itself and on the grounds in the
1760s and 1770s. It continued right up to 1774 when Louis XV died at the age of
sixty-four, after a reign which had generally been a disappointment to his
people owing to a perceived lack of morals, and failings in his
Little work of note was completed on the palace during the reign
of Louis XVI, except that which is more properly ascribed to his
wife, Marie-Antoinette. Much of that work involved remodelling and
redecoration instead of construction. The 'Louis XVI' style was
developed by Gabriel, the Premier Architect, and was one of simple
classical ornamentation and gilded panelling.
The Petit Trianon was given over to Marie-Antoinette during her time as queen.
It was a very private part of the gardens and park in which she
could escape. Hills were removed and lakes and streams were created.
Overlooking the lake, the Belvedere, a small eight-sided pavilion,
was built in 1774-1777. and the Temple of Love was built over the next
year on an artificial island. This structure was a shallow cupola
supported by twelve tall columns that provided a setting for Bouchardon's statue of the God of Love carving his bow from
Finally, the best-known of Marie-Antoinette's constructions was
the Hamlet, which was constructed in 1783-1785. The Hamlet (or
Hameau) was a working village in miniature which contained a farm,
twelve thatched cottages with gardens, a dovecote, a mill, and a
tower from which the whole scene could be viewed. The queen herself
would visit, wearing plain white dress and a straw hat.
Unfortunately, in pursuing her desire for a private life,
Marie-Antoinette spent extravagantly from the royal treasury,
stretching an already-fragile budget in difficult financial times
and adding to her unpopularity with the public. The public knew
nothing of her quest for a private life, preferring to believe
outrageous stories of extravagant life at the palace, and this
contributed much to her becoming a symbol for the discontent of the
Louis XVI himself neglected to keep the Menagerie fully maintained. Money was
in short supply and some people thought it might be wiser
to present the Menagerie as a site for the study of natural history
rather than royal pomp. The Count
de Buffon, a naturalist, author, cosmologist, mathematician and
biologist, who found the menagerie to be too artificial to
be a useful observation post, had warned of exploited animal slaves
in his first pages on domestic animals.
Subsequently, some restoration work was carried out between
The palace remained the home of the king until 1790, when the
beginnings of the French Revolution were witnessed in the capital -
which was still Versailles. A Paris mob invaded the palace on 5-6
October 1789, and Louis and his family were forced to return to
Paris. The Revolutionary National Constituent Assembly followed, and
Versailles lost its role as the nation's capital. Following on from
those dramatic events, the city's population also started to
diminish. By 1806 it had sunk below 27,000 people.
The furniture was removed from the palace and Grand Trianon during the
years of the Terror in 1793-1794. Royal emblems were removed, books
and ornaments were stolen, and
some areas of the palace were used as an arms dump, while the rest
Following the Revolution, the aging
Menagerie was included in the list of things to be sold off. In 1797
the palace was designated as a museum devoted exclusively to French
works, and it opened in 1801, only to be taken over by Napoleon
Bonaparte shortly afterwards.
In 1801, the Menagerie
was destroyed, with the exception of two of the former duchess
of Burgundy's pavilions. Today, the Pavillion de la Lanterne, a
hunting lodge and the only
surviving vestige of the former Menagerie, is being restored to
provide visitors with a
glimpse of the lively decoration used in this lost masterpiece.
Empire and afterwards
The French First Empire was declared in 1803, and Napoleon
Bonaparte had the palace restored and rearranged, with imperial
emblems being installed throughout in 1806.
also evolved under Napoleon, with work being carried out between
1810-1812. He envisaged moving there, to install himself in the
former Queen's Suite, while the Empress Marie-Louise, his second
wife, would reside on the ground floor. His sister, the playful
Pauline, was allocated the Petit Trianon. In the end it seems he may
only have visited once.
After that the palace was almost totally abandoned for a while. Louis Philippe,
the last king of France (1830-1848) rescued it from total
ruin by creating a national monument of it in 1833 - the Museum of
French History, which was opened in 1837. He often stayed at the
Grand Trianon with
In 1871, following the Prussian defeat of France in the
Franco-Prussian War, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed
emperor of Germany. The pronouncement took place in the Hall of
Mirrors. Just two months later the Paris Commune forced the French
authorities to move temporarily to Versailles. The signing of the
Treaty of Frankfurt on 10 May 1871 was followed by the creation of a
new provisional government headed by President Louis Adolphe Thiers
at Versailles. From there the government was able to quell the
uprising militarily. Instead of moving directly back to Paris, the
government toyed with the idea of remaining permanently located in
Versailles to avoid the frequently volatile Paris mob. After
remaining there for some time the idea was dropped by the
continually successful republicans in 1879, with all popular support
for a restoration of the monarchy having been defeated.
Seven years of rule from Versailles did leave the palace with
one memento: a large hall which was built into an aisle in the main
palace and which is still in use today by the French government when
amendments to the constitution are planned.
The Grand Trianon and the palace were the locations used for the
signing of the various treaties which brought an end to the Great
War in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Grand
Trianon on 28 June 1919.
With the population of the city of Versailles now surpassing its
previous record levels, important renovations were undertaken in 1957
thanks to a decision by General de Gaulle. The Opera
House restoration work was completed in that year, and more was
undertaken between 1962-1965 on both
the Grand Trianon and in order
to install apartments for the President of the Republic and for
heads of state on official visits. For the most part, the
renovations recreated the way the palace had looked under Napoleon I, except for pieces dating from the reign of
In 1975 the Queen's Bedroom was restored, followed by the the
King's Ceremonial Bedroom and the Hall of Mirrors in 1980, the ground floor Royal Apartments
in 1986, and in 2008 the Petit Trianon and Maria Antoinette's gardens were fully restored.
Today visitor numbers for Versailles are at around 2.58 million a
year, making it the fourth most popular cultural attraction in
The Apollo Fountain marks the beginning of the Grand Canal
Ask Travel for Fun web site
Bluche, François - Dictionnaire du Grand
Siècle, Arthème Fayard, Paris 1991
Établissement public du musée et du domaine
national de Versailles
Fletcher, Sir Banister - A History of
Architecture, Eighteenth Edition, revised by J C Palmes,
Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1975
Galerie Marc Maison web site
Howe, Professor Jeffery - A Digital Archive of
Mississippi State University - Splendours of
Versailles, Educational Supplement, Jackson Mississippi 1998
Palace of Versailles web site
Salmon, Xavier - François Lemoyne à Versailles,
Gourcuff, Paris 2001
Sharp, Dennis - The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of
Architects and Architecture, Quatro Publishing, New York 1991
Thompson, Ian - The Sun King's Garden: Louis XIV,
André Le Nôtre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles, Bloomsbury
Publishing, London 2006
Van Vunckt, Randall J, ed - International Dictionary
of Architects and Architecture, Volume 2, Architecture, St James Press,
Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original
feature for the History Files.