Essential Architecture-  Paris

Palace of Versailles


Louis Le Vau  1678 Jules Hardouin Mansart


Versailles, outside Paris




French Renaissance




  A panorama of the gardens at Versailles.
Images copyright Tim Devlin- click for larger images.
  The Petit Trianon
  The Grand Trianon, 1678, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, architect
  Versaille's chapel is one of the palace's grandest interiors----and The Hall of Mirrors
  Versailles: Louis Le Vau opened up the interior court to create the expansive entrance cour d'honneur, later copied all over Europe
  The King's bed.
  Marie-Antoinette's pastoral pondside Hameau in the park, built in 1783.
Monument of Louis XIV in the cour d'honneur

Monument of Louis XIV in the cour d'honneur

The Château de Versailles —or simply Versailles— is a royal château, in Versailles, France. In English it is often referred to as the Palace of Versailles. When the château was built Versailles was a country village, but it is now a suburb of Paris with city status in its own right. From 1682, when King Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in 1789, the Court of Versailles was the centre of power in Ancien Régime France.

In 1660, Louis XIV, who was approaching majority and the assumption of full royal powers from the advisors who had governed France during his minority, was casting about for a site near Paris but away from the tumults and diseases of the crowded city. He had grown up in the disorders of the civil war between rival factions of aristocrats called the Fronde and wanted a site where he could organize and completely control a government of France by absolute personal rule. He settled on the royal hunting lodge at Versailles and over the following decades he had it expanded into the largest palace in Europe. Versailles is famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy which Louis XIV espoused.


The palace grew through a series of expansions wrapped around the original modest hunting lodge, which still remains at its heart. This led to a certain incongruity in the architecture, as the centrepiece of the palace is not in scale with its final dimensions. In 1661 Louis Le Vau made some additions which he developed further in 1668. In 1678 Mansart took over the work, the Galerie des Glaces, the chapel and the two wings being due to him. On May 6, 1682 Louis XIV took up residence in the château. Furnishings had been plundered from Louis' disgraced finance minister's Nicolas Fouquet splendid house at Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose grand success there was his undoing.

Versailles is a key example of baroque palace architecture, and many of the finest craftsmen in Europe worked it for many years.

The politics of display

Versailles became the home of the French nobility and the location of the royal court - thus becoming the center of French government. Louis XIV himself lived there, and symbolically the central room of the long extensive symmetrical range of buildings was the King's Bedroom (the Chambre du Roi), which itself was centered on the lavish and symbolic state bed, set behind a rich railing not unlike a communion rail. All the power of France emanated from this centre: there were government offices here; as well as the homes of thousands of courtiers, their retinues and all the attendant functionaries of court. By requiring that nobles of a certain rank and position spend time each year at Versailles, Louis prevented them from developing their own regional power at the expense of his own and kept them from countering his efforts to centralize the French government in an absolute monarchy. At various periods before Louis XIV established absolute rule, France like the Holy Roman Empire lacked central authority and was not the unified state it was to become during the proceeding centuries. During the Middle Ages some local nobles were at times more powerful than the French King and, although technically loyal to the King, they possessed their own provincial seats of power and government, culturally influential courts and armies loyal to them not the King and the right to levy their own taxes on their subjects. Some families were so powerful, they achieved international prominence and contracted marriage alliances with foreign royal houses to further their own political ambitions. Although nominally Kings of France, de facto royal power had at times been limited purely to the region around Paris.


Proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, 1871. Bismarck in white. By Anton von Werner
The Hall of Mirrors (French: Galerie des Glaces) is a large room in the palace. It is generally considered one of the major attractions of the palace and is currently undergoing restoration.

The galerie was started in 1678, at the time the château became the official residence of Louis XIV. It was completed in 1684. There are many references to it in Marie Antoinette's diary. The Hall of Mirrors is a tribute to the hall inside the Ancient Persian Kingdom of Persepolis.

Ornate statues in the Hall of Mirrors.
After the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678), at the high point of his reign, Louis XIV ordered Le Brun to paint the benefits of his government on the ceiling. The painter conceived 30 scenes, framed with stucco: the king appears as a Roman Emperor, as great administrator of his kingdom, and as victorious over foreign powers.

It was in this hall that the German Empire was proclaimed on January 18, 1871, following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. It was also here that Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919), officially ending World War I between her and the victorious Entente powers.

The galerie is located on the first floor of the building. It contains 357 mirrors. It is 73 metres long, 10.50 metres wide, and 12.30 metres high (239.5 ft by 34.4 ft by 40.4 ft). It is located between the salon de la Guerre (Hall of War) at its northern end, and by the salon de la Paix (Hall of Peace) at its southern end.

Seventeen windows, opening onto the gardens, face seventeen arcades lined with mirrors. These mirrors, of an exceptional size for the time, were produced by Saint-Gobain, a Parisian manufacture created by Colbert to compete with the products of Venice.

Park and garden

The central axis of Le Nôtre's garden seen from the Bassin de Diane centered on the château
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The grounds of Versailles contain one of the largest formal gardens ever created, with a extensive parterres, fountains and canals designed by André Le Nôtre.


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Several smaller buildings were added to the park of Versailles, starting with Louis XIV's Grand Trianon (originally the Porcelain Trianon), continuing with additions by Louis XV and Louis XVI including the Petit Trianon, and the Hamlet of Marie Antoinette known as the Petit hameau.

While Versailles was grand and luxurious, it was also expensive to maintain. It has been estimated that maintaining Versailles, including the care and feeding of its staff and the royal family, consumed as much as 25% of the government income of France [citation needed]. This may seem extraordinarily large, but Versailles was the centre of government as well as a residence. Additionally, the 25% figure is disputed by historians who consider that it has been exaggerated by those who wish to overemphasise the role of royal extravagance in the causation of the French Revolution. Recent estimates would suggest that the figure was much closer to 6%. [citation needed]

The 2001 McDougal Littell text book, World History: Patterns of Interactions, places the cost of building at approximately 2 billion dollars (USD) in 1994. This figure is regarded by many as a gross underestimate of the costs of the estate. [citation needed] Surviving government records from the period have mentioned the figure of 65 million "golden" livres. It is unclear whether the "golden" livre referenced is meant to mean the golden "Louis D'Or" coin (which was worth 24 livres) or the standard livre currency. In any case, if these figures are to be believed and one uses today's values for Gold ($600 per ounce) and Silver ($12 per ounce), the cost of the Versailles estate soars to a minimum cost of $12,480,000,000 and a maximum cost of $299,520,000,000.

Another way to look at this controversy over the costs of Versailles, is to consider the benefits that France drew from this royal palace. Versailles, by locking the nobles into a golden cage, effectively ended the periodical aristocratic groups and rebellions that had plagued France for centuries. It also destroyed aristocratic power in the provinces, and enabled a centralization of the state, for which a majority of modern Frenchmen are still thankful to Louis XIV, although French centralization, as further developed during the French Revolution, and later the Third Republic, is currently the subject of much debate and overhauling. Versailles also had a tremendous influence on French architecture and arts, and indeed on European architecture and arts, as the court tastes and culture elaborated in Versailles influenced most of Europe. From the start, Versailles was conceived as much as a showcase of French arts and craftsmanship organized in the royal workshops of the Gobelins, as a home for a king. Modern Frenchmen, even the least sympathetic to the former monarchy, are still generally quite proud of the lasting influence that French arts developed in Versailles have had in the world.

War uses
After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the palace was the main headquarters of the German army from October 5, 1870 until March 13, 1871, and the German Empire was proclaimed here on January 18.

The ravages of war and neglect over the centuries left their mark on the palace and its huge bushes. Modern French governments of the post World War II era have sought to repair these damages. They have on the whole been successful, but some of the more costly items, such as the vast array of fountains, have yet to be put back completely in service. As spectacular as they might seem now, they were even more extensive in the 18th century. The 18th century waterworks at Marly— the machine de Marly that fed the fountains— was probably the biggest mechanical system of its time. The water came in from afar on monumental stone aqueducts, which have long ago fallen in disrepair or been torn down.

Post-royal: the monument-museum

After the Revolution the paintings and sculpture, like the crown jewels, were consigned to the new Musée du Louvre as part of the cultural patrimony of France. Other contents went to serve a new and moral public role: books and medals went to the Bibliothèque Nationale, clocks and scientific instruments (Louis XVI was a connoisseur of science) to the École des Arts et Métiers. Versailles was still the most richly-appointed royal palace of Europe, however, until a long series of auction sales on the premises unrolled for months during the Revolution, emptying Versailles slowly of every shred of amenity, at derisory prices, mostly to professional brocanteurs. The immediate purpose was to raise desperately-needed funds for the armies of the people, but the long-range strategy was to ensure that there was no Versailles for any king ever to come back to. The strategy has worked. Though Versailles was declared an imperial palace, Napoleon never spent a summer's night there.

Versailles remained both royal and unused through the Restoration. In 1830, the politic Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King" declared the château a museum dedicated to "all the glories of France," raising it for the first time above a Bourbon dynastic monument. At the same time, boiseries from the private apartments of princes and courtiers were removed and found their way, without provenance, into the incipient art market in Paris and London for such panelling. What remained were 120 rooms, the modern "Galeries Historiques".[1] The curator Pierre de Nohlac began the conservation of the castle in the 1880s until the 1930s, which is considered a significant contribution to the great modern interest in Versailles.

In the 1960s, Pierre Verlet, the greatest writer on the history of French furniture managed to get some royal furnishings returned from the museums and ministries and ambassadors' residences where they had become scattered from the central warehouses of the Mobilier National. He conceived the bold scheme of refurnishing Versailles, and the refurnished royal Appartements that tourists view today are due to Verlet's successful initiative, in which textiles were even rewoven to refurbish the state beds.

Today, the wise visitor is standing at the entrance to the Grands appartements du Roi at 8:30, not to spend hours in line. By 11 AM the state rooms are as crushed as a Métro rush hour. Tour guides rally their groups with a handkerchief on a stick for visibility in the mob and project simultaneous commentaries. In the summer months, the royal appartements close at 5:30 PM, and the most knowledgeable visitor arrives shortly before 5, pays a reduced price, and is the last to leave.

The Would-Be Versailles
Würzburg Residenz: garden front
Würzburg Residenz: garden front
Peterhof (1714-1725) and the Grand Cascade
Peterhof (1714-1725) and the Grand Cascade
The most lasting monuments to the past glories of Versailles are not in France but in the other countries of continental Europe. When Louis XIV had Versailles constructed, France was the most powerful and the richest state on the continent. Versailles ignited a competitive spate of building palaces in fountain-filled gardens among the power elite of Europe, not all of them kings.

The most direct homage to Versailles was at the request of Ludwig II of Bavaria when he asked for a nearly identical copy of Versailles, Herrenchiemsee, to be built on an island on the bucolic Chiemsee lake in the countryside of Bavaria. His funds ran out too soon but the central portion was finished, along with its hall of mirrors, and formal French gardens were planted around it.

An impressive effort was made by Peter I of Russia. He visited Versailles during the "Grand Embassy" and later decided to build a residence "better than Versailles". In the outskirts of Saint Petersburg he had the Peterhof complex of buildings in gardens and parks built (small illustration, right). The great palace of the complex is a spectacular building, set atop a hill above a cascade outdoing its model, Louis XIV's cascade at the Chateau of Marly. Another great impression is the mighty fountains of Peterhof, working every day during warm season -- while choosing place for new palace, the key feature was existence of rich and reliable water sources at the vicinity.

Efforts in England included renovations at Hampton Court, and the all-but-royal Chatsworth. The direct British answer to Versailles is Blenheim Palace, built as a national monument for Louis' nemesis, the Duke of Marlborough.

Several other large palaces were also created throughout Europe, but the degree that they were inspired by, or copied from Versailles cannot be known definitively.

In the courts of Germany, several Versailles-like palaces were constructed, including Wilhelmshöhe at Kassel Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl Ludwigsburg, Herrenhausen ,Schloss Schleissheim and the Residenz all

In the Sweeden, there was Drottningholm, in Austria Schönbrunn, and in Hungary Eszterháza.

In Italy, the "would-be Versailles" include Caserta Palace, Colorno and Stupinigi.

In the Iberian peninsula two competitors for Versailles stand out:, La Granja near Madrid, and Queluz in Portugal.

Poland also had Lazienki and Branicki Palace.