A matter of years before the birth of Louis XIV, Versailles was little more than a geographical expression. It denoted a thinly populated site on the southern flank of the Val de Galie, some twenty kilometres to the south-west of Paris. The site’s history was as undistinguished as its geography. The discovery in 2006 of a Merovingian cemetery lying to the south of the present-day palace suggests habitation as early as the 8th century, but written records start to mention ‘Versailles’ only from the mid 11th century. The place name derives from the Old French versail, meaning a ploughed field. Though dominated by thick woods and low-lying marshland, the medieval landscape did, in fact, include, alongside vines and orchards, open fields where grain was cultivated; this was ground at a windmill located on a mound where Louis XIV would later create his palace.
Thick woodland made Versailles an ideal spot for hunting game, notably deer, boar, wolves and hare, and King Henry IV went to Versailles to hunt on several occasions from 1604 onwards. Situated close to Saint-Germain-en-Laye – where Renaissance kings had established a stylish château that became a favoured royal residence – Versailles was a convenient destination for a day-long hunting trip, but Henry IV sometimes passed the night here, too, normally in the Gondi manor house. In 1607 he took his five year old son on his first hunting expedition to Versailles.
In 1610, following Henry IV’s assassination, the boy became king. The reign of Louis XIII (1610–1643) was perturbed by religious conflicts, provincial revolts and urban commotions, and then, from 1635, open warfare with Austria and Spain in the Thirty Years War. The king was engaged in a seemingly endless sequence of campaigns across the country, and when he returned to the Île-de-France, his preferred choice of residence was Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In the late 1610s he began to make hunting trips out to Versailles. Shy, ungregarious and mildly misogynistic, Louis seemingly preferred the company of a small group of male hunting cronies to his court at Saint-Germain. In 1623 he confirmed his leisure priorities by deciding to construct a small hunting lodge here on the elevated ground by the village windmill.
This little dwelling, in which he stayed for the first time in 1624, was situated exactly on the spot now occupied by the cour de marbre at the heart of Louis XIV’s palace.
Further building at Versailles between 1631 and 1634 the hunting lodge into something resembling a country house – helped transform miniscule and even a tourist destination. In 1639 Claude de Varennes’s Le voyage de France urged visitors to the Paris region to pay a visit to Versailles: this was the first of very many guidebook recommendations. The king, moreover, was inordinately proud of his new possession. He arranged rendezvous there so that he could show it off to eminent foreign dignitaries.
On the afternoon of December 5, 1637, Louis XIII stopped in at the convent of the Visitandines in Paris, to see Louise de La Fayette, now a nun, and formerly his (chaste) love. He was on his way from Versailles to Saint Maur, where he planned to spend the night, while the queen was settled at the Louvre for the winter. And since, in the 1630s, royal residences were largely empty shells furnished only when the king lived there, Louis XIII’s bed, linens, and other necessities preceded him to Saint Maur.
The king found his conversation with Louise de La Fayette so absorbing that by the time he decided to leave, night had fallen, and a torrential rainstorm was in progress. In spite of this weather, he persisted in his earlier plan of travelling to Saint Maur, but M. de Guitaut, the captain of the guard, suggested that he go to the Louvre instead. Louis XIII immediately pointed out that his apartment there was unfurnished, only to have M. de Guitaut suggest that he spend the night with the queen, adding that it would be inhuman on the king’s part to expect his escort to ride out to Saint Maur in a rainstorm.
Instead, Louis decided to wait for a break in the weather. After a few moments, Guitaut repeated his suggestion. This time, the king gave in.
The king and queen shared the same bed because there was no other; nine months later to the day, France celebrated the birth of a baby boy whom his contemporaries and posterity alike have called the Sun King.
It was, many people said, a miracle, an act of God. After twenty-three years of unfruitful and increasingly bitter union, the king despised the queen and avoided her whenever possible. It was not only that Louis XIII vastly preferred the company of handsome young men, or that in the early days of their marriage Anne of Austria had miscarried three times; since then, she had joined the group at Court who fought the prime minister, the cardinal de Richelieu, on every issue; worse still, she had actually engaged in a traitorous correspondence with her brother, King Philip IV of Spain, in the midst of a raging war.
Still, in spite of their hatred for each other, the king and queen both wanted an heir. As things stood, Louis XIII’s brother Gaston, duc d’Orléans, would inherit the throne and destroy all he had accomplished, and the queen dreaded being sent away in disgrace. Unfortunately, the birth of a dauphin (girls, in France, could not inherit the throne) was hardly possible as long as Louis and Anne abstained from all physical contact.
There can hardly be any doubt that the birth of the dauphin was the direct result of that unexpected encounter on the night of December 5, 1637. Exactly nine months later to the day, the queen gave birth to the long-awaited heir to the throne, and because neither parent had any doubt that this arrival was the work of Providence, the baby was named Louis-Dieudonné, Louis, the Gift of God.
As a baby, Louis XIV was said to have been terrified of his lugubrious father and screamed whenever he saw him. Despite this early aversion, the child would inherit from his father a deep love of Versailles. But while Louis XIII valued the small size of Versailles, the privacy it offered away from the court, its highly masculine ambience and its fortress-like appearance, Louis XIV would turn the modest country house into a palace.
Louis XIV waited until he was a young man before turning his mind to Versailles. When his father died in 1643 he was only four years old and power passed into the hands of his mother, Anne of Austria, who ruled as Regent, advised by Cardinal Mazarin. Anne based the court in Paris, preferring the Palais-Royal, the former home of Cardinal Richelieu, to the cramped accommodation of the Louvre. Versailles was effectively abandoned and fell into disrepair for a decade. In 1651, during a quiet period of the turbulent civil wars known as the Fronde (1648– 52), Louis made a visit to the site. Once the wars were ended, he started hunting more regularly in its environs. He seems to have seen potential in the semi-abandoned building, ordering its renovation in 1660 and visiting it with his new queen, Marie-Thérèse. These events took place just before he overthrew Mazarin’s successor, Nicolas Fouquet, and determined to rule directly and without a principal minister.
Louis appears to have been nurturing this political strategy in advance of a celebrated moment in July 1661 when he visited Fouquet in his sumptuous château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, some 56 kilometres south-east of Paris. Fouquet’s star had risen very high and the sheer splendour of Vaux – its buildings, its gardens and the magnificence of Fouquet’s festive reception for his ruler – must have dazzled Louis. The ‘audacious luxury’ that Louis charged Fouquet with displaying only confirmed suspicions about Fouquet’s probity and ambitions that Louis had already developed. In September 1661 Louis ordered d’Artagnan, the Commander of the King’s Musketeers, to arrest Fouquet and cast him into a prison from which he would never emerge. Louis now held his destiny in his own hands.
If Fouquet’s corruption was no surprise for Louis, what appears to have opened his eyes on his visit to Vaux was the handiwork of the creative triad behind it: architect Louis Le Vau, garden designer André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun. Almost straight away, Louis conscripted these men to the project he had developed for Versailles in his mind’s eye. At this stage, his ideas were still more than a little hazy, and Versailles did not yet fully monopolise his attention: he was simultaneously commissioning important new work for the Louvre and the Tuileries, as well as at the Château de Vincennes. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis’s new post-Fouquet ministerial factotum, was also hatching plans to make a magnificently redesigned Louvre the centrepiece of a new Paris that would match ancient Rome for grandeur. Yet it was soon apparent that Louis’s overall plans for Versailles were far bigger and better than his father’s. In addition, with the outstanding creative talents of Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun at his disposal, Louis wished not simply to emulate his finance minister’s achievement at Vauxle-Vicomte, but far to surpass it.
Louis XIII had started expanding Crown property around the Versailles château, ending the Gondi clan’s local influence. Louis XIV followed this lead, consolidating Bourbon holdings so as to enlarge the park and gardens. By the time that Louis brought his queen back to Versailles in 1663, change was well under way. Yet the queen was increasingly out of the picture at Versailles. From 1662 Louis was escaping here with the numerous mistresses he was to enjoy over the following years. In May 1664 he staged a themed festival in the palace grounds, Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée. Ostensibly in honour of his mother, the Regent Anne of Austria, the event also marked a stage in his newly hatched love affair with teenage lady-in-waiting Louise de La Vallière. The three days of festival events, attended by several hundred courtiers, and showcasing gardens in which Le Nôtre was already hard at work, included La Princesse d’Élide, a new comedy-ballet by Molière with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, tournament jousting, dancing, pageants, firework displays and sumptuous, candle-lit banquets.
The pace of festivity relented in the mid-1660s: the War of Devolution of 1667–8 attracted most of the king’s attention. But military victory only strengthened Louis’s desire to expand and make further embellishments. He celebrated victory with a lavish fête in 1668, the so-called Grand Divertissement Royal, with more contributions from Molière and Lully (which he planned as a homage to another new mistress, Madame de Montespan). Louis XIII’s private hunting lodge was being transformed into a Fun Palace where Louis could ostentatiously take his pleasure.
Managing the expansion of Versailles proved to be a fraught process. Louis XIII’s original château was in increasingly bad shape, and royal advisers argued that it was impractical to retain it. But the king, driven partly by filial fidelity to his father’s memory, and partly too by a realisation that complete renovation would put Versailles out of commission for some time, dug in his heels. He threatened, ‘with some feeling’, that even if it were demolished entirely, ‘he would have it rebuilt unchanged in its entirety’. Architect Louis Le Vau devised the ingenious solution of not only retaining it, but also expanding it considerably by loosely encasing it on three sides with extensive further building, disposed around two new courtyards. Le Vau’s ‘envelope’ thus kept Louis XIII’s hunting lodge as the symbolic and actual centre of a complex primed for even further expansion. It was from around this time too that Louis XIII’s little open courtyard was tiled in marble and received the name the cour de marbre.
The War of Devolution of 1667–8 was followed by Louis’s Dutch War of 1672–8. The king really needed an uninterrupted period of peace to oversee the kind of changes he was envisaging for Versailles. As chance would have it, this is what he got: France would fight no wars between 1678 and 1688; a decade of tranquillity allowed Louis’s Versailles plans to blossom.
In 1677, Louis XIV revealed to the world that Versailles would become the home of both his court and his government. The château would not lose its earlier vocations as hunting lodge and palace of pleasures: far from it, for Louis remained an avid huntsman and Versailles would continue for many years to be celebrated for the splendour of its festivities. Yet Louis’s announcement marked a quantum leap in his thinking. The five years after 1677 would be spent on the huge operation of readying the site for its new role as monarchical hub and governmental nerve centre. This would involve a substantial part of the government bureaucracy and the entire royal court (not simply certain choice members) being relocated, installed, accommodated and entertained.
For this work, Louis could count on the continued guidance of Le Brun and Le Nôtre, both still at the height of their powers, although the other member of his original creative triad, architect Louis Le Vau, had died in 1670. His role was assumed by an equally imaginative and effective operator, Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Mansart would make significant contributions to the task of remoulding Versailles for its new vocation.
The expansion of the Versailles complex proved a convenient canvas for the display of royal symbolism. Louis’s youthful enthusiasm for Alexander the Great, whose military exploits he admired, led to early decorative references to the Greek commander. But in 1662 Louis chose as his personal emblem the sun, giver of life and centre of the universe. It represented, the king opined, ‘assuredly the loftiest and finest image of a monarch’. Emblems of the sun and the sun god Apollo (also the patron of peace and the arts) began to appear throughout the royal estates. Le Brun, whom Louis ennobled in 1662, then made Premier peintre du Roi two years later, worked with his team to decorate the great Apollo Room (Salon d’Apollon), at the heart of the enfilade of state rooms disposed along the northern side of the château. The other ceremonial rooms in the suite were named after planets that rotated around the sun (Venus, Mars, etc.). ‘Since the sun is the king’s device and since poets conflate the sun with Apollo,’ antiquarian (and royal sycophant) André Félibien wrote in 1674, lauding the ubiquity of the solar leitmotiv, ‘so there is nothing in this superb residence which does not relate to this divinity.’ Louis’s Fun Palace was becoming a Sun Palace.
The solar fixation was also evident in the château’s gardens. Particularly striking in this respect was the Grotto of Tethys, constructed in the 1660s around one of the château’s reservoirs as a private royal bathing suite, and decorated with shells, stones and mirror fragments. The decorative conceit here was of Apollo the sun god bathing in the waters of Tethys, the water goddess wife of Oceanus, at the end of his passage through the skies. The Apollo link was also referenced in key fountain displays established at the heart of the gardens.
Versailles needed workers as well as aristocrats, and Louis encouraged the formation of a new neighbourhood on the northern flank of the château, where a migrant army of building workers and artisans of every description came to reside. Colbert was tasked with purchasing old houses, demolishing them and then encouraging new housing developments. A royal charter in 1671 offered all comers a plot of land in addition to a range of inducements, on condition they built a dwelling that used approved building materials and conformed to the style and height of the château. The building of the huge administrative block on the southern side of the château known as the Grand Commun (1682–4) involved the destruction of the village’s parish church of Saint-Julien and its neighbourhood. The area would be reconstructed around the château and subsequently endowed with the parish church (now cathedral) of Saint-Louis, while the northern neighbourhood was restructured around the new parish of Notre-Dame. By the last years of Louis’s reign, the urban population of Versailles was some 45,000.
Such expansion meant that by the 1680s the château no longer stood in splendid isolation in the midst of the unpropitious terrain that Louis XIII had found when he constructed his hunting lodge. While new housing was sprouting up all over the northern and southern sides of the château, there were also significant developments behind the château to the west. Louis XIII had carved out of the wild forest a sizeable space for a park and gardens. It needed to be mastered, its combination of hilly terrain and aquatic marsh regulated and made fit for purpose. Louis XIV set in motion a massive project of earth removal, using military engineering techniques usually employed in fortification works. Soon, little trace was left of the mound on which had stood a windmill whose sails had once cast a shadow over the rooms of the château. Neatly levelled and terraced space offered a perfect environment for garden development. Between 1668 and 1672 some 130,000 trees were planted on the estate.
These gardens, however – together with an expanding royal court and a mushrooming adjacent service town – simply guzzled water. And therein lay a huge problem, which highlighted the scale of the difficulty of subordinating Nature to Culture in such a barren site. Oddly, considering how waterlogged the soil in the region was, water was a rare commodity here and water supply the long-running Achilles heel of Versailles. The Val de Galie in which Versailles was set had no major river running through it, only a number of small streams. Louis set his engineers to work in draining the marshland in ways that created a number of large reservoirs fed by the natural watercourses of the locality. The engineers lent Nature a helping hand by skilfully constructing pumps and watermills and installing subterranean aqueducts and piping. Marshy land adjacent to the south side of the château – the colourfully named ‘Stinking Pond’ (Étang puant) – was drained so as to provide a water supply to the royal kitchen garden or jardin potager, created here between 1678 and 1682, and also to source the huge nearby lake known as the pièce d’eau des Suisses.
It was soon apparent, however, that the water problem could not be solved locally and would necessitate going further afield. In the late 1660s the river Bièvre, which flowed into the Seine in Paris, was dammed to produce an inflow and this technique was then tried elsewhere. Notorious among such projects was the diversion of the waters of the Seine near Marly-le-Roi – about 9 kilometres away from Versailles, but also, more problematically, some 150 metres lower. This was an engineering challenge that was begun in the 1680s and involved the creation of the so-called ‘machine de Marly’, a huge and ingenious set of pumps of pharaonic scale. The results it achieved were, however, meagre. Nevertheless, the Marly scheme encouraged Louis to consider an ambitious plan to bring water from the river Eure, some 80 metres distant. The idea proved chimerical and had to be abandoned after France went back to war in 1688.
The water problem at Versailles never entirely disappeared; however, by 1682, when the court moved to Versailles, the environmental challenges of the site had largely been met. Louis’ achievement at Versailles appeared all the more striking to contemporaries because of the scale of the physical problems (more or less) solved along the way. Even Saint-Simon had grudgingly to admit that Louis ‘delighted in tyrannising nature and taming it by dint of arts and treasures’. Louis’s fairy-tale castle, sprung magically from barren soil, thus accrued all the more emphatically to his renown. In his own as well as many of his contemporaries’ eyes, such apparent miracles justified the sobriquet the king acquired in the 1670s of ‘Louis the Great’.
Louis the Great’s transfer of court and government to the site on 5–6 May 1682 signalled the creation of the enduring myth of Versailles that was to be endlessly celebrated by royal propagandists, historians and art connoisseurs from that moment to the present day. The palace of Louis the Great did not spring into life fully formed, it was the result of compromise and negotiation, tinkering and amending, new directions and second thoughts. The royal chapel, for example, was housed in four different locations around the palace before a permanent home was found for it in the North Wing – and then only in 1710, five years before Louis’s death. Moreover, some of the king’s plans – for an opera house, for example – were never fulfilled. Construction stopped and started according to the king’s micromanaging whim – but also sometimes in a rhythm dictated by the state of the royal treasury at times of war. Louis changed his mind ceaselessly, forcing work to stop and then restart in a different direction. The palace swarmed continuously with building workers, decorators and artisans as much as with courtiers and government clerks. There was not a single spot in the whole enterprise, the Princesse Palatine, second wife of Louis’s brother Philippe, duc d’Orléans (who lived here for over thirty years), complained, with an exaggeration born of frustration, ‘which hasn’t been modified ten times’. For more than half a century Versailles was probably the biggest building site in Europe – and on the king’s death in 1715 was still not complete. Even so, it was indubitably the period from 1682 down to the king’s death in 1715 that represented the Golden Age of Versailles, in which the palace took on the shape and éclat that visitors and tourists encounter today.
As late-17th century tourists approached Versailles along the wide Avenue de Paris that led, up a slight incline, towards the palace, their eye-line was invariably drawn towards the cour de marbre at its heart. This initial glance paid involuntary homage to Versailles’s origins. The courtyard’s outline exactly traces that of Louis XIII’s little hunting lodge, which his son had insisted should be retained as his palace’s focal point. The combination of red (brick), white (marble and stone) and blueish-black (tiles) reproduces the colours that first triggered the comment that the original building was little more than a ‘house of cards’. The same design scheme was followed in the wings jutting forward at both sides of the cour. (The latter would only be transformed into stone-faced, neoclassical structures in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.)
The rustically archaic façade of Louis XIII’s original buildings around the cour de marbre was thoroughly worked over from the late 1670s by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who added the sculpture busts and the clock ensemble – each overflowing with political and allegorical messages. When the clock struck the hour, a statue of Louis XIV appeared, which was crowned with laurel by a passing goddess. The balcony, too, was Mansart’s creation: it was located in what towards the end of his life became the king’s bedroom at the very heart of the palace, thus giving the retiring ‘Sun King’ an appropriately majestic sunrise. It also allowed him to look down familiarly, for example, on Parisian market-women and fishwives (poissardes), who customarily came to the cour de marbre in delegation to congratulate the king at various ceremonial moments. Such encounters symbolised the axiom, as Louis XIV was to instruct his son, that ‘free and easy access of subjects to the king’ was an ancient singularity of the French monarchy – and one he desired that Versailles should always observe.
The Avenue de Paris took the visitor approaching the ornate outer gate of the palace complex between two magnificent stable blocks that Mansart had completed in 1681. On the right side of the Avenue, the Grande Écurie housed ceremonial and royal mounts, as well as a riding school and the school of royal pages, while the Petite Écurie to the left provided stabling for draught horses and included the palace blacksmith (the maréchalerie). Passing between the Écuries, any well-dressed individual (beggars, monks, prostitutes and recent smallpox victims were specifically excluded) could enter the palace gates from the huge parade ground (the Place d’Armes) into the Ministers’ Court in front of the palace itself. This was bounded to left and right by two long buildings jutting out from the palace façade, containing the offices of royal ministers. These structures partially hid from view the very considerable lateral palace extensions on the garden side of the inner courtyard, the South Wing (to the left on entering) and the North Wing (to the right).
Visitors advanced to the gate leading into the cour royale. Here, if they were wearing a sword denoting gentility (and they could hire one on the spot if necessary), they could enter the palace and its grounds. Once within, they might catch sight of the king or queen on their way to daily Mass in the chapel, or perhaps exercising in the gardens. Louis ordained the daily schedule in Versailles – in much the same way that he micromanaged everything else in the palace – in a highly ordered and ritualistic manner. Although only select courtiers were allowed to witness some of those rituals – notably the lever and the coucher, the moments of the king’s day in which he rose and retired – the general public were admitted to others, including the so-called grand couvert, the moment at which the king ate his evening meal. As this example suggests, visitors to Versailles were there not as participants in but as spectators of court life. Their assigned role was to goggle and be awestruck.
Tourist hotspots within the château always included the great Hall of Mirrors (Grande Galerie or Galerie des Glaces). An open terrace originally designed by Le Vau to look over the gardens had not been a success: it was useable only in the summer and it leaked. The Hall of Mirrors thus started as an elaborate repair job. Constructed by Mansart in 1678 and then decorated by sundry painters, sculptors and skilled artisans over the next five years, it stretches for some 73 metres and is flanked at each end by the superbly appointed Salon de la Guerre and Salon de la Paix. The rich, multi-coloured marble, silver furnishings, exquisite Boulle marquetry and parquet flooring paled when set against the huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors stretching down one wall, with which French artisans threw down a challenge to the Venetian masters who had formerly dominated the glass-making craft. On the ceilings the Premier peintre du Roi Charles Le Brun composed a series of paintings that depicted eighteen years of the king’s victories between his assumption of personal power in 1661 and the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678. This iconography needed clearance by the royal council, for there were some who feared (probably rightly) that its chest-banging triumphalism would be taken amiss by other European powers.
Aesthetically, Le Brun’s ceiling paintings marked a significant representational shift. Hitherto, Louis’s claims to greatness at Versailles had been expressed through comparisons with mythological figures or else through the iconography of the sun. Now, however, it was Louis in person who dominated each image (albeit dressed in Roman military cuirass, with bare arms and legs, together with an improbable combination of wig and fleur-de-lys mantle). The shift from myth to history implied that Louis’s actions were elevating him to the status of legend. The central image, moreover, was captioned ‘Louis governs by himself’, and commemorated the moment in 1661, following the overthrow of Fouquet, when he decided to dispense with a principal minister and govern by direct personal rule. Versailles was irredeemably Louisocentric.
Despite the aura of openness and accessibility which Louis encouraged in the palace, strict hierarchy was the rule, and life was dictated by unwritten but strictly observed rules about access to the royal presence. The state apartments – the Grands Appartements – could be strolled through in normal times, but they were closed to outsiders for special events and for the private parties that the king held for his courtiers in the evenings – the so-called soirées d’appartement. Similarly, only the closest and most trusted members of the court – his own family, the most august aristocrats and maybe some favoured hunting companions – were admitted to the royal presence in more informal settings. Private accommodation was also out of bounds. The royal apartments were thus split into two: the state rooms for display and formal business, and a smaller and more intimate set of rooms in which the king could feel simply chez soi. Yet solitude and close intimacy were not really Louis’s style. On one occasion when the Dauphine, complaining of the vapours, asked to be excused from attending a ball, Louis replied sternly: ‘We are not like private individuals. We owe ourselves entirely to the public.’ As Jean de La Bruyère, satirist of court life, noted, ‘A king lacks in nothing, save only the charms of a private life.’
If Louis felt that he owed himself in some way primarily to the public, he also believed that the courtiers housed in Versailles owed everything of value in their lives to him as reigning monarch. There was nothing new about a royal court – kings had long had them, though much about their ceremonies and protocols had emerged from the Renaissance onwards. What Louis did at Versailles was, however, genuinely innovative: he planned the court as a place which his mightiest subjects would feel compelled to attend and which would also, as Saint-Simon put it, make them feel ‘in certain disgrace for not being present’. As the Italian envoy Primi Visconti, writing in the 1670s, noted: ‘the passion of courtiers to make themselves noticed by the king is unbelievable’.
Three factors incentivised courtiers to adapt so eagerly to the new Versailles. First, the court was the main source of state patronage, and presence at the new palace was viewed as a sine qua non of royal favour. Both honour and income were involved. Moreover, the expensive court lifestyle led high nobles increasingly into dependence on handouts from the state treasury. Second, the court offered an exciting and unmatchable social and cultural life. Third, there was the fact that Louis provided them with lodgings at the state’s expense. Initially, Louis’s encouragement to relocate in Versailles had been targeted at getting the high nobility to build hôtels particuliers in the town. The construction of the Écuries in the 1670s and early 1680s had, in fact, involved the destruction of several aristocratic residences opposite the palace gates. Although many courtiers retained town lodgings, all state and court officials were in theory housed in the palace and its dependencies. Courtiers were non-paying guests at Versailles.
The more successful this Versailles formula was, the more space it required, particularly as government ministries were now also based in Versailles. Building programmes were instituted in order to produce more suites of rooms. This had been the motivation behind Le Vau’s ‘envelope’, whose encasing of the original château more than doubled available space. Mansart then followed this up by building a lateral southern wing between 1679 and 1682, with an identical northern wing bringing the requisite symmetry from the late 1680s. Space for lodgings was also created by relocating service functions. The wings of the cour royale, for example, had housed stables, kitchens and offices in the 1660s. Stables were subsequently moved to the new Écuries on the Avenue de Paris, while the massive quadrangular Grand Commun was constructed behind the southern ministry wing for administrative staff and for service functions, as well as providing overflow lodgings. With these bulky new structures in place, it was clear that Louis had established Versailles as a new kind of monarchical institution: a hub of government, a brilliant artistic and architectural showcase, and home of the high aristocracy.
Versailles is a palace of two faces. Anyone approaching it from the town side in the east along the Avenue de Paris immediately observed the traces of the original Louis XIII structure. Despite some modernisation, the façade as a whole retained its red, white and blue palette. Yet for the visitor who successfully ran the gauntlet of gateway checks on entry, and then ventured into the gardens, a completely different Versailles opened up. The style imposed by Louis Le Vau on the western side of his ‘envelope’ structure – and continued by Mansart for the exterior of the Hall of Mirrors and for the façade of the two lateral wings – was more in accordance with classical precepts: stone replaced brick and no roof was visible behind an ornamental balustrade. The extraordinary width of the palace, partly obscured from the town perspective, was very apparent from the garden side: the ‘enveloped’ original château together with the wings stretched more than a quarter of a mile in all. It was majestically imposing – as well as quite unmissable – from vantage points in a garden and adjoining park that stretched out to the horizon across huge expanses of open land and reflective expanses of ornamental water.
The gardens were encompassed within the area that Louis XIV and his father had pieced together through purchases and acquisitions and which became known as the Grand Parc (Great Park). A terrain that came to extend to 15,000 hectares, it incorporated more than 20 villages with an overall population of several thousands, contained within a 3-metres-high wall 40 kilometres long, with 24 points of access. Louis XIII had come to Versailles in the first place to hunt, and the Grand Parc was where he and his successors did just that. Within this sprawling terrain of the Grand Parc, Louis XIV marked out the so-called Petit Parc. Its roughly 1,700 hectares were less wild and more manicured than the Grand Parc, though less ornate and punctiliously designed than the formal gardens nearest the house.
The Hall of Mirrors presents a grandstand view of the gardens, with the eye ranging from Culture (the gardens) to wild Nature (the Grand Parc) by way of tamed Nature (the Petit Parc). A striking visual feature of the latter was the Grand Canal. The principal arm of this cruciform feature extends a mile in length (the transverse arm is slightly shorter) and is in a direct line with the central avenue (the Grande Allée), which symmetrically divides the gardens in two for the viewer standing at the middle of the Hall of Mirrors. The dimensions and depth of the canal were sufficient for it to take all manner of craft, including galleys, gondolas (the gift of the Doge of Venice), Neapolitan feluccas, English yachts, Dutch barges and replicas of French battleships. A small village on the edge of the canal, known as La Petite Venise, housed shipworkers and their families.
The Grand Canal was laid out by the mastermind behind the whole setting of the palace, namely André Le Nôtre. A powerful figure who won the personal friendship and respect of the monarch (who uncharacteristically greeted him with an affectionate bear hug), it was Le Nôtre who laid out the ‘boulevardised’ avenues that approached the palace from the town side. He also ensured that the gardens were not a secondary feature of the palace but integral to its design and impact. Their importance was established early: indeed, the most brilliant moments in Versailles’s early history had precisely been those Arcadian fêtes such as the Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée (1664) and the Grand Divertissement royal (1668), which had revealed the gardens’ charms.
Louis showed the importance that he attached to the gardens in 1679 by sending Le Nôtre, who was already over sixty years old, on a tour of Italy, hitherto regarded as the acme of garden design, to cherry-pick ideas to import to Versailles. On his return, Le Nôtre worked closely with the other principal players in the king’s artistic team, initially ministerial factotum Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Charles Le Brun and Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Water-engineers, most famously the Florentine Francini dynasty, played a role in the placement and functioning of fountains that from the 1660s became one of the king’s special passions. The profusion, variety and height of the Versailles fountains became a thing of wonderment for all visitors.
In what became celebrated as the very archetype of the formal ‘French garden’ style that swept Europe thereafter, Le Nôtre made sure that the Versailles gardens showed Nature disciplined as a kind of mini-kingdom under Bourbon control. They were symmetrically organised around the axis provided by the Grande Allée, which divided the site. Around this, unilinear paths were set out between geometrically shaped parterres and flowerbeds where flowers were displayed to advantage behind box-border hedging and topiarised shrubs. The tight grip over Nature was relaxed slightly in places – notably in the areas given over to groves or bosquets. These were confined modular spaces, multimedia installations combining artfully arranged vegetation with hydraulically controlled water effects, sculptures, follies and garden furniture. Although disciplined shaping and pruning were never far away, they were set in designs planned to surprise, intrigue and delight by their apparent spontaneity. The Bosquet du Labyrinthe, for example, was a maze with 39 mini-fountains (it gave way to the Bosquet de la Reine in 1778). The Bosquet de la Colonnade was made up of an assemblage of Ionic columns, and the Bosquet de la Salle de Bal comprised a cunningly disposed series of waterfalls around a dance floor. From the 1680s, especially as Mansart took a more controlling hand in the design of the bosquets, the solar theme went into decline (as was the case in the Versailles interiors) and references became historical and naturalistic rather than mythical, allegorical or cosmological. Thus the Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe had a mini triumphal arch and a cascade of fountains memorialising the king’s military victories.
Many visitors were also forcefully struck by the profusion and quality of the statues located in the gardens, within the bosquets and without. More than a hundred sculptures, ranging from antique specimens to examples from the very finest contemporary artists, and fashioned in stone, iron, lead and other media, they made (and make) the gardens a huge open-air sculpture museum. Although many were free-standing, they often formed an integral part of the water features and bosquets. From the Hall of Mirrors, for example, the visitor looked down along the Grande Allée towards the famous Bassin de Latone, a complex water feature with dozens of sculptures around the central figure of Latona, daughter of Apollo. Beyond, the eye tracks along a unilinear lawn (the Grand Tapis) to the line of the Grand Canal. Just in front of this lies the Bassin d’Apollon with Apollo on his chariot marking the rising of the sun.
The king’s fondness for the Versailles gardens was signalled by the fact that between 1689 and 1705 he wrote no fewer than six versions of a personal guide to them, the Manière de montrer les jardins de Versailles. He visited them almost daily and, when gout restricted his mobility in the 1680s, had a little wheelchair specially constructed. He seemed quite as exercised by what his visitors thought of the gardens as by their views of the palace itself. The guidebook included no invitations to linger or to daydream, and permitted no games, picnics or fishing trips. Visitors were there to be impressed and to admire: out of obedience to the king’s command, therefore, their progress around the gardens was to be brisk, disciplined and respectful.
The spectacle that visitors witnessed was designed to mark the king’s mastery and display of Culture as well as Nature in all their richness and superabundance. The range of works of artistic genius from the modern as well as the ancient world, in a dazzling array of forms and media, seemed to endeavour to recapitulate and condense western culture within a single site. Nature, too, was commanded by human ingenuity into miraculous forms. Water – so problematic a presence at Versailles – had been managed and channelled so that brilliant water features could decorate the site. The earth had been reshaped by human heft into geometrical regularity. The Menagerie contained a copious collection of fauna from around the globe – ostrich, flamingo, elephant, camel, lion, parrot, gazelle (a rhinoceros would follow in the 18th century). Parterres displayed plants and shrubs gathered from across France (Norman daffodils, Provençal roses, Languedocian maples), while the new Orangerie designed by Mansart in 1686 to replace Le Vau’s earlier model acclimatised exotic fruits from around the world (displaying the reach of French global commerce), as well as the largest collection of orange trees in Europe, 2,000 in all. And the Potager du Roi contrived to provide the king with figs in springtime and strawberries at Christmas. Nature seemed to genuflect to the Bourbon will.
As time went on, signs appeared that Louis was tiring of his self-assigned task of ceaseless publicity, and of the constant stream of gawping visitors it brought to his palace and grounds. In 1685 he closed the gardens to public access, reopening them only in 1704. Already in 1679 – even before the court’s formal relocation to Versailles – he had started work on a major new project, the building of a château at Marly, which was intended as a more relaxed retreat for him and a select group of his closest courtiers. Situated towards the perimeter of the Grand Parc, Marly was over eight kilometres distant from the palace. Even closer at hand was the blue tiled ‘porcelain’ Trianon which Louis had designed in 1670 as a kind of summer house. In 1687–8 Mansart was commissioned to raze it and to create a much more splendid structure on the site. This was the Marble Trianon (Trianon de marbre), which became known as the Grand Trianon. Louis devoted a huge amount of attention to its superb gardens, which became famous for their flower displays.
The new Trianon was not decorated quite as sumptuously as one might have anticipated. There was a new emphasis on lightness, notably through the use of mirrors and white paint, which was both a financial and an aesthetic choice. The heavy, sumptuous, polychromatic look of early Versailles was coming to be seen as dépassé. In addition, the royal treasury was feeling the pinch. To the expenditure on the main house and garden, and then on Marly and the Trianon, were added the huge demands of European warfare. The extensive makeover of the palace and its gardens had been facilitated by the decade of peace between 1679 and 1688. But the outbreak of the War of the League of Augsburg (1688) inaugurated an international landscape that would remain sombre for France right through to Louis’s death in 1715. Peace in 1697 would be followed by the ruinously expensive War of the Spanish Succession (1701– 14). Moreover, weather conditions in 1693–4 and 1709–10 (the 1709 winter was so cold that wine froze in glasses, ink on pens and birds to boughs) produced near-famine conditions throughout the country, massively reducing the tax take. With warfare increasingly tying the king’s hands, plans for new projects were put on hold and the buildings budget for Versailles was severely reduced. In 1689, as much out of financial desperation as from national solidarity, the king dispatched all his palace silverware from Versailles to be melted down for coin.
In these last decades of Louis’s reign there were still moments when the financial vice relaxed enough for the king to envisage substantial initiatives. Changes to the king’s apartment included the creation – partly out of his former bedroom – of a large antechamber, the Salon de l’Œil de Boeuf (named after the bullseye shape of its main window). This allowed the king’s bedroom, the Chambre du Roi, to be relocated in 1701 to the exact centre of the first-floor apartment in what had formerly been his dressing room. The most significant structural change in this period was the decision to complete the construction of the chapel. Plans had been readied by Mansart in 1687, but it was only consecrated in 1710, two years after Mansart’s death. This huge structure was the fifth chapel in the palace’s brief history – and was to be its last. No time or money was available to fill the site of the old chapel with a planned Salon d’Hercule.
It was not only financial constraints that led to a fading of the splendours of the palace. The change of mood was also linked to Louis’s own temperament and disposition. Following the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse in 1683, his almost immediate secret marriage to Madame de Maintenon – the former nanny to his illegitimate children with Madame de Montespan – was critical in this respect. She encouraged the king towards domestic calm and sober piety and away from profligate expenditure, sexual adventures and court gaiety. The festive schedule dwindled, partly also owing to the king’s frequent extended absences from the palace. ‘The king doesn’t seem to like Versailles as once he did,’ remarked one courtier in 1698. ‘Every Tuesday he goes to Marly or Meudon and sometimes to the Trianon, which is only at the end of the garden, and he only returns on Saturday evening.’ In the last years of his reign, Louis was spending up to half of his time in Marly.
Louis was still able to push the boat out occasionally – the reception for an envoy of the Shah Persia in February 1715 saw him staggering under the of a gold costume studded with over 12 million livres’ worth of diamonds. But courtiers sensed that his heart had not been in it for some time: court routines were becoming exceptional rather than quotidian, as Louis lingered elsewhere. Versailles seemed to be losing its charm – and to a degree its raison d’être.
A terrible wave of mortality within the royal family in the last years of the king’s reign added to the air of melancholy. The king lost successively and in short order no fewer than three Dauphins: his son Louis (1711), his grandson, the duc de Bourgogne (whose wife also died around the same time, 1712) and his great-grandson, the duc de Bretagne (1712). The only heir left standing was another great-grandson, the infant duc d’Anjou, born in 1710.
The death of Louis XIV in 1715 brought to the throne his only surviving heir and greatgrandson, the five-year-old duc d’Anjou – frail survivor of a bout of measles that carried off his parents and his older brother in a matter of months – who took the title of Louis XV. Power passed almost at once to the late king’s least-favourite nephew, the bon vivant reprobate Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, who became Regent for the infant king. On his deathbed, Louis XIV had counselled that the child should live away from Versailles to protect his health – there was a general suspicion that the unhealthiness of the site had been linked to the deaths over the previous few years of many of his closest relatives. The old king had proposed Vincennes, but Orléans thought otherwise, and, in September 1715, the whole court and government shipped out of Versailles to Paris. The young king took up residence in the Tuileries Palace, while Orléans preferred to stay in his own dwelling, the Palais-Royal.
Versailles was so closely and inextricably connected with Louis XIV ‘the Great’ that this wilful removal from his palace cast doubt on whether it would ever again be the principal residence of his Bourbon successors. Pending a decision, the palace, deprived of governmental and court personnel, remained an empty shell. The palace’s governor took advantage of the situation to undertake a Herculean cleaning operation and also ensured that the fountains in the grounds played at regular intervals to attract sightseers. When Czar Peter the Great of Russia visited in 1717 he looked avidly around the palace and gardens with little by way of supervision or diplomatic escort.
In Paris the growing Louis XV still clearly nurtured nostalgic feelings for the house where he was born. In June 1722 the twelve-year-old monarch took the decision to move court and government back to Versailles. On arriving at the palace, after visiting the chapel, the boy romped excitedly around palace and gardens, leaving his followers panting in his wake, before he collapsed in a heap on the parquet flooring of the Hall of Mirrors to admire the ceiling paintings of Charles Le Brun representing the illustrious career of Louis XIV. This final gesture was a revealing augury for the future. The young king saw it as his mission to command Versailles to wake, Sleeping Beauty-like, from its slumbers and to stay true to the spirit of its founder.
Both Louis XV and, from 1774, his successor Louis XVI showed punctilious respect for the founder of Versailles and all his works. Throughout the six decades of Louis XV’s reign the great clock on the palace’s cour de marbre was made to show the exact moment that Louis XIV had died. Louis XV’s palace ran on Louis XIV-time. Early in his reign Louis XV formally outlined his intentions with the words, ‘I wish to follow in everything the example of the late king, my great-grandfather,’ a lapidary statement that also proved a programme for action – or inaction. Over his long reign he changed very little in the basic structure of the site. Versailles was certainly not set in aspic: the new king had a passion for building and spent hours poring over architectural drawings and discussing them with his architects, and the palace endlessly buzzed with building work. Yet this was only advanced tinkering and more radical plans stayed on paper. The main mark he left on the palace took the form of three projects, all of which were directly inspired by Louis XIV.
Firstly he undertook the completion of the Salon d’Hercule, which was located in the space formerly occupied by the chapel. Louis XIV had started the project in 1712 and work resumed in the early 1720s. By the time it was finished it was viewed as the most magnificently appointed reception room in the whole palace, with fine marble decorations matched by François Le Moyne’s superbly detailed ceiling and a huge Veronese canvas on one wall (where it can still be seen). The room was formally inaugurated in 1739 by the marriage of the king’s daughter Elisabeth to the Spanish royal heir.
Louis was as respectful of his predecessor’s gardens as he was of his palace. His second significant achievement, the Bassin de Neptune – the most elaborate and brilliant combination of aquatic sculpture and fountain in the whole estate – was again essentially finishing work initiated by Louis XIV.
Louis had a bigger task with the third project, namely the construction of an opera house. Louis XIV had adored opera and ballet and only the impact of warfare had prevented his creating an opera house in the late 1680s. Later hostilities – notably the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years War (1756–63) – would delay Louis XV’s plans also, but building finally got under way in 1768. Designed by Premier Architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, and constructed in a rush for the marriage in 1770 of Louis’s grandson and heir, the duc de Berry, the future Louis XVI, with the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, Gabriel’s construction was generally regarded as the finest opera house in Europe.
And now little bears are dreaming of their fast approaching visit to Versailles and the royal opera house… Stay tuned…