The official residence of the King of France, Versailles served as Louis XIV’s palace and the summer residence of Marie Antoinette. The magnitude of the palace and its grounds, the opulence of the buildings and their interiors, and the scale of grandeur that was imposed on this once country village can not be captured in pictures. The château, approximately 20 km southwest of Paris, became the center of French political power beginning 1682 when Louis XIV moved from Paris. It remained as such until the unrest surrounding the French Revolution forced the royal family to return to the capital city in October 1789. The building served as a symbol of the country’s absolute monarchy founded on the ancien régime. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site visited by nearly 15 million tourists each year! We’ve seen it near the peak of tourist season (not recommended except for the fact that the gardens are beautiful in full flower) and in the dead of winter (recommended only because of the low daily numbers). And it, too, is a different site since restoration known as the “Grand Versailles” project began in 2003.
The palace site began as a mere hunting lodge for the father of the Sun King, Louis XIII, but soon became young Louis XIV’s obsession to create a château to out-rival that at Vaux-le-Vicomte. This he did with the assistance of the architect Le Vau, painter Le Brun, and gardener Le Nôtre. Versailles is the paragon of French royal indulgence, begun in 1664 with construction lasting nearly until the king’s death in 1715. Versailles became the headquarters of every arm of the state, where at least 20,000 nobles, administrative staff, merchants, soldiers, and servants lived in the palace in a state of unhygienic squalor.
La Grande Galerie (the Hall of Mirrors) served as the 17th Century passageway, as well as the waiting and meeting place for courtiers and the visiting public. Its function as a ceremonial hall was kept for exceptional occasions including diplomatic receptions, social functions such as balls or games, or on the occasion of princely weddings. La Grande Galerie served as the site where the treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, ending the First World War. The Hall of Mirrors was restored last in 2007 to its current condition and is much better condition than when we first visited in the late 1980s.
It is hard to describe the talents of the artists enlisted to glorify the work of Louis XIV. The king provided unlimited funds and great freedom in their endeavors to capture the mood of their subjects. The artists, Mignard and Rigaud, are renown for their abilities to celebrate the victories of Louis XIV with oil paintings on the ceilings of Versailles. These transform the entire palace into one continuous art gallery, highlighted by gold leaf. For example, the vaulted ceiling of the Royal Chapel, an enormous room lined with Corinthian columns over arches, is painted with biblical scenes depicting the Ascension, God in his Glory, and the Pentecost. Nearly every inch of wall space is carved with rosettes, shells, and garlands, in addition to autoerotic angels draped in antique garments.
Located nearly 1 km from the palace is The Petit Trianon, considered to be the most refined group of buildings anywhere in the world of Versailles. It is a small, neo-classical château that acted as the lodging for Louis XV’s mistress. After her death, Louis XVI gave the palace and grounds to Marie Antoinette. It is constructed of pink marble and porphyry surrounded by delightful gardens. It is a single story palace that is influenced by Italian architecture but mimicked the same grandeur as Versailles. The Trianon’s original furniture was scattered during the French Revolution; most of the present pieces date from the First Empire.
The same late December 1999 storm that damaged Vincennes also wrecked havoc with Veresailles and its gardens. Only “minor” damage was experienced by the Château, but the gardens and grounds were severely affected. More than 200,000 trees were damaged, with over 10,000 were snapped or uprooted, and nearly 80% of the rare and historic taxa destroyed. The park also lost its oldest tree, known as “Marie-Antoinette’s oak,” planted in the reign of Louis XIV near the Queen’s Walk. It’s hard to see the damage, today, as the gardens have been restored to their grandeur, albeit without the tree cover of former times.
Whether entering or leaving the World Heritage site, one neither can ignore nor be underwhelmed by the quantity of gold used in its ornamentation. The latest restoration of the palace’s entrance gates, a replica of that demolished during the French Revolution. was completed in 2008. It cost $8 million to clad the 87-yard-long steel gate with 100,000 gold leaves! Truly an amazing cultural heritage.