The Palace of Versailles is a royal château about 20 kilometres southwest of the French capital. It was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital after the beginning of the French Revolution. Today, it hosts the Museum of the History of France.
The Fifth Republic has enthusiastically promoted the museum as one of France’s foremost tourist attractions. The palace, however, still serves political functions. Heads of state are regaled in the Hall of Mirrors; the Sénat and the Assemblée nationale meet in congress in Versailles to revise or otherwise amend the French Constitution, a tradition that came into effect with the promulgation of the 1875 Constitution.
There were 4 major building campaigns that Versailles has undergone within almost 50 years.
The first building campaign (1664–1668) involved alterations in the château and gardens to accommodate the 600 guests invited to the party that was given to start the campaigns. The second building campaign (1669–1672) was inaugurated with the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Devolution. With the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678, which ended the Dutch War, the third building campaign at Versailles began (1678–1684). Under the direction of the architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the Palace of Versailles acquired much of the look that it has today. In addition to the Hall of Mirrors, Hardouin-Mansart designed the north and south wings and the Orangerie. Soon after the defeat of the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–1697), Louis XIV undertook his last building campaign at Versailles (1699–1710), concentrated almost exclusively on constructing the royal chapel designed by Hardouin-Mansart and finished by Robert de Cotte. There were also some modifications in the appartement du roi, namely the construction of the Salon de l’Œil de Bœuf and the King’s Bedchamber.
With the completion of the chapel in 1710, virtually all construction at Versailles ceased; building would not be resumed at Versailles until over two decades later, during the reign of Louis XV.
The Palace of Versailles was ordered by Louis XIII in the 17th century. It is a symbol of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. The Palace has survived the French Revolution, two Empires, Bourbon Restoration and two World Wars. That makes it the best place for the museum of the French history.
The earliest mention of the name of Versailles, relating to the village of Versailles, is found in a document dated 1038, the Charte de l’abbaye Saint-Père de Chartres, in which one of the signatories was a certain Hugo de Versailliis, who was seigneur of Versailles.
In 1575, the seigneury of Versailles was bought by Albert de Gondi, a naturalised Florentine, who invited Louis XIII on several hunting trips in the forests surrounding Versailles. Pleased with the location, Louis ordered the construction of a hunting lodge in 1624. Eight years later, he obtained the seigneury of Versailles and began to make enlargements to the château. Louis XIV had it expanded into one of the largest palaces in the world. The court was officially established there on 6 May 1682.
During the reign of Louis XV, Versailles underwent transformation, but not on the scale that had been seen during the reign of his predecessor. Major achievements of Louis XV’s reign were the construction of the Opéra and the Petit Trianon. The gardens remained largely unchanged from the time of Louis XIV; the completion of the Bassin de Neptune between 1738 and 1741 was the only important alteration Louis XV made to the gardens.
On 6 October 1789, the royal family had to leave Versailles and move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, as a result of the Women’s March on Versailles. During the early years of the French Revolution, preservation of the palace was largely in the hands of the citizens of Versailles.
On 21 June 1791, Louis XVI was arrested at Varennes after which the Assemblée nationale constituante accordingly declared that all possessions of the royal family had been abandoned. To safeguard the palace, the Assemblée nationale constituante ordered the palace of Versailles to be sealed.
In 1794, the National Convention decreed that the château and gardens of Versailles, as well as other former royal residences in the environs, would not be sold but placed under the care of the Republic for the public good. Following this decree, the château became a repository for artwork seized from churches and princely homes. As a result of Versailles serving as a repository for confiscated art works, collections were amassed that eventually became part of the proposed museum.
Owing largely to political vicissitudes that occurred in France during the 1790s, Versailles succumbed to further degradations. Mirrors were assigned by the finance ministry for payment of debts of the Republic, whereas draperies, upholstery, and fringes were confiscated and sent to the mint to recoup the gold and silver used in their manufacture. In 1797, the Muséum national was reorganised and renamed Musée spécial de l’École française.
Despite its designation as a museum, Versailles served as an annex to the Hôtel des Invalides pursuant to the decree of 1799, which commandeered part of the palace and which had wounded soldiers being housed in the petit appartement du roi.
With the advent of Napoleon and the First Empire, the status of Versailles changed. Paintings and artwork that had previously been assigned to the Muséum national and the Musée spécial de l’École française were systematically dispersed to other locations and eventually the museum was closed. In accordance to provisions of the 1804 Constitution, Versailles was designated as an imperial palace for the department of the Seine-et-Oise. While Napoleon chose to reside at the Grand Trianon, the apartments of Versailles were arranged and decorated for the use of the empress Marie-Louise. The château continued to serve, however, as an annex of the Hôtel des Invalides.
The Bourbon Restoration saw little activity at Versailles, but with the Revolution of 1830 and the establishment of the July Monarchy, the status of Versailles changed again. In March 1832, Versailles was designated as a crown dependency. Like Napoleon before him, Louis-Philippe chose to live at the Grand Trianon; however, unlike the emperor, the king did have a grand design for Versailles. In 1833, he proposed the establishment of a museum dedicated to “all the glories of France,” which included the Orléans dynasty and the Revolution of 1830 that put him on the throne.
After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, with the Siege of Paris dragging on, the palace was the main headquarters of the Prussian army. On 18 January 1871, Prussian King Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors, and the German Empire was founded.
After World War I, it was the site of the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, also on 18 January. The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in the same room five months later, blamed Germany for causing World War I.
The interiors of the Palace of Versailles were undergoing the modifications as often as the whole construction of the castle. The most important part at the times of Louis XIV, the grands appartements, was the work of Charles Le Brun, the originator of Louis XIV style, and one of the best French architects of all time.
As a result of architect Louis Le Vau’s design of Louis XIII’s château, the king and the queen had new apartments in the new addition, known at the time as the château neuf. The grands appartements, known respectively as the grand appartement du roi and the grand appartement de la reine, occupied the main floor of the château neuf.
Le Vau’s plan called for an enfilade of seven rooms, each dedicated to one of the then known planets and their associated titular Roman deity. He designed a heliocentric system that centred on the Salon of Apollo which was assigned as the king’s bedchamber, but served as the throne room.
The configuration of the grand appartement du roi conformed to contemporary conventions in palace design. The rooms were decorated by Charles Le Brun and demonstrated Italian influences, particularly that of Pietro da Cortona, with whom Le Brun had studied while he had been in Florence and whose style, devised for the decoration of the Pitti Palace in Florence influenced Le Brun’s Louis XIV style at Versailles.
With the inauguration of the third building campaign, which suppressed the terrace linking the apartments of the king and queen, the salon de Jupiter, the salon de Saturne, and the salon de Vénus for the construction of the Hall of Mirrors, the configuration of the grand appartement du roi was altered. The decorative elements of the salon de Jupiter were removed and reused in the decoration of the salle des gardes de la reine; and elements of the decoration of the first salon de Vénus, which opened onto the terrace, were reused in the salon de Vénus that we see today.
Forming an enfilade parallel with that of the grand appartement du roi, the grand appartement de la reine served as the residence of three queens of France – Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, wife of Louis XIV, Marie Leszczyńska, wife of Louis XV, and Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI.
When Le Vau’s design of the château vieux was completed, the grand appartement de la reine came to include a suite of seven enfilade rooms with an arrangement that mirrored almost exactly the grand appartement du roi.
As with the decoration of the ceiling in the grand appartement du roi, which depicted the heroic actions of Louis XIV as allegories from events taken from the antique past, the decoration of the grand appartement de la reine likewise depicted heroines from the antique past and harmonised with the general theme of the décor of a particular room.
With the construction of the Hall of Mirrors, which began in 1678, the configuration of the grand appartement de la reine changed. The chapel was transformed into the salle des gardes de la reine and it was in this room that the decorations from the salon de Jupiter were reused.
The salle des gardes de la reine communicates with a loggia that issues from the escalier de la reine. The loggia also provided access to the appartement du roi, the suite of rooms in which Louis XIV lived, and to the apartment of Madame de Maintenon. Toward the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the escalier de la reine became the principal entrance to the château, with the escalier des ambassadeurs used on rare state occasions and demolished in 1752. After that, the escalier de la reine became the main entrance to the château.
With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the court moved to Vincennes and shortly after to Paris. Seven years later, Louis XV reinstalled the court at Versailles and began modifications to the château’s interior. He ordered a complete redecoration of the chamber de la reine to commemorate the birth of his son Louis in 1729. Elements of the chamber de la reine as it had been used by Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche and Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie were removed and a new, more modern décor was installed.
During her life at Versailles, Marie Leszczyńska lived in the grand appartement de la reine, to which she annexed the Salon of Peace to serve as a music room. In 1770, when the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette married the dauphin, later king Louis XVI, she took up residence in these rooms. Upon Louis XVI’s ascension to the throne in 1774, Marie-Antoinette ordered major redecoration of the grand appartement de la reine. At this time, the queen’s apartment achieved the arrangement that we see today.
In the evolution of the château of Versailles there have been five chapels. The current chapel, which was the last major building project of Louis XIV, represents one of the finest examples of French Baroque architecture and ecclesiastical decoration.
L’Opéra was perhaps the most ambitious building project of Louis XV for the château of Versailles. Completed in 1770, the Opéra was inaugurated as part of the wedding festivities of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.