Surely that thought occurred to King Louis XIV of France in 1682 when he moved his family and the seat of the country’s government to the Chateau de Versailles, the extravagant and majestic 2,300-room palace he built on the outskirts of Paris and whose name epitomizes the height of grandeur and power on a supremely large scale.
The thought certainly crossed my mind while outside the gilded courtyard gates as Bill, Ann and I began our tour of this masterpiece of art, architecture and design with Yvonne, our driver and guide from Private Tours Paris.
Yvonne surmised that no one, not even the king, needed or could even visit so many rooms. That wasn’t the point, though, she said. Louis XIV wanted to make a statement of absolute royal power and control, and he needed an environs commensurate with that lofty purpose. He was obsessed with the concept of power. Not satisfied with just being king, he proclaimed himself prime minister, and the dual title was unique in the annals of the French monarchy. The self-described Sun King compared himself to Apollo, the sun king of Greek mythology. The sun brings life to the earth, he reasoned, and so did the king as God’s earthly representative.
Versailles was a legitimate choice for the site of the new palace. French kings had come there for years to hunt game in the dense forests, and his father, Louis XIII, had built a humble hunting lodge, so there was an existing royal residence. Further, the site was near Paris, just 14 miles and a three-hour, horse-drawn coach ride away.
Louis XIV invited the most famous French architects, decorators, painters, sculptors, and landscape designers to build a new royal residence and gardens to impress the world. The project started in 1662 and lasted 49 years, with some 36,000 people working on the construction site. He decided to relocate when the palace was half-way completed.
The king transformed and expanded the hunting lodge, creating an “envelope” to integrate the old castle. To convey the monarchy’s stability and power, he chose the classical style, with its vertical and horizontal lines and minimal embellishments, for the exterior of the buildings. Inside, it was a different story, with an overabundance of the Baroque style – curvy lines, fancy decorations, lively and ornate patterns, gold trim and massive paintings on the walls and ceilings. All the construction materials and furnishings were made in France. In total, the estate was massive — larger than the size of Paris today.
At any one time, some 3,000-4,000 people – the royal family, friends, guests, the king’s mistresses and even his enemies – lived at Versailles. To keep the residents occupied, Louis XIV organized life around the Royal Etiquette, a series of ceremonies with prescribed times and selected lists of attendees. For instance, the 7:30 a.m. Ceremony of the Rising Sun was the official waking up of the king. He also hosted beautiful parties, feasts, concerts, plays and ballets, both indoors and in the sweeping gardens with their intricately sculpted trees, statue-lined pathways, grand canal, and over 30 fountains.
Louis XVI’s successors, Louis XV and Louis XVI, made some modifications of their own. When rioting Parisians forced the ill-fated Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, to depart Versailles for Paris during the French Revolution, that spelled the end of Versailles as a royal palace. Only three kings lived in Versailles, and for a total of only 107 years. Napoleon also used Versailles when he was emperor. In 1837, Versailles became a museum, and it’s now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The public can tour about 20 rooms – the State, or Parade, Apartments, many named for gods of mythology – and the gardens. (The queues are incredibly long, so book a private tour for quicker entry.) The rooms include the Hall of Mirrors, chapel, the king’s and queen’s bedchambers, rooms where the royals dined and entertained guests, various antechambers and guard rooms. All of them are magnificently opulent and feature original furnishings.
Certainly less showy, but I think just as appealing, are the recently opened apartments of two of the daughters of Louis XV.
Also on the property are the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, much smaller and simpler palaces where the royals escaped from their public lives.
Louis XIV wanted a palace that would impress and awe the world. More than 300 years later, the world is still properly impressed and awed.