Versailles: the Grandest Palace of Them All

King Louis XIV was so proud of Versailles that he would often give tours to visiting dignitaries himself and even wrote the first guidebook.

Ah, here he comes now. Why don’t we just see if we can tag along on his next tour.

Equestrian portrait of Louis XIV of France by René-Antoine Houasse, c.1670
Equestrian portrait of Louis XIV of France by René-Antoine Houasse, c.1670
Greetings.
Welcome to my home, my court, and of course, my playground: Versailles.
I am Louis XIV, the greatest French King who ever lived.
Those closest to me say I am the best King in the world!
It is true, no … ?
Be careful with your answers, my friends …
Ah, but enough about me, let us enjoy this tour of my magnificent home.
We shall begin with les jardins … excusez moi, the gardens.
Come, come, my little petit pois, follow me …

To say that Louis liked space is somewhat of an understatement. By the end of his reign, Versailles covered a staggering 37,000 acres—bigger than the city of San Francisco.

After the revolution, only a fraction remained, but even so, today it still covers 2,014 acres—twice the size of New York’s Central Park—making it the largest royal domain in the world.

The Palace of Versailles c. 1668 by Pierre Patel
The Palace of Versailles c. 1668 by Pierre Patel

It takes aerial views to fully appreciate the sheer scale of Versailles. The multiple wings and hidden courts of the palace are just part of a huge complex around the town of Versailles.

Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles
Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles

The landscaped Gardens of Versailles have 200,000 trees, and each year, 210,000 flowers are planted.

Aerial view of the Grand Trianon, Domain of Versailles
Aerial view of the Grand Trianon, Domain of Versailles

At almost a mile long, the Grand Canal appears to vanish into the distance.

Aerial View of the Domain of Versailles. Credit ToucanWings
Aerial View of the Domain of Versailles. Credit ToucanWings

Built in the shape of a cross, the Grand Canal runs east to west, traversed by arms running north to the Trianon Palace (a little getaway for the King) and south to the Menagerie (a precursor to the modern zoo).

This east-west orientation was no coincidence. It meant that the sun would rise and set in alignment with the palace.

Grand Canal, Versailles
Grand Canal, Versailles
Palace of Versailles seen from the end of the Grand Canal
Palace of Versailles seen from the end of the Grand Canal
Orangery Garden and the Swiss Ornamental Lake, Versailles. Credit ToucanWings
Orangery Garden and the Swiss Ornamental Lake, Versailles. Credit ToucanWings
Orangery Garden and the Swiss Ornamental Lake, Versailles. Credit ToucanWings
Orangerie Garden and the Swiss Ornamental Lake, Versailles. Credit ToucanWings

Housing more than a thousand trees in planters, most of which are citrus, the Orangerie is a grand extension to the gardens built to store delicate plants during the winter months.

The Orangerie of the Château de Versailles c. 1695
The Orangerie of the Château de Versailles c. 1695

Citrus fruits were expensive and highly prized in the 17th century and the preserve of the wealthy.

Between May and October, the plants are moved outdoors to the Parterre Bas for display.

Orangerie at Versailles. Credit Panoramas
Orangerie at Versailles. Credit Panoramas

While the French populace starved, Louis was far too preoccupied with his water problem to notice.

He couldn’t get enough water pumped to the gardens to run his 1400 fountains simultaneously.

Along came the architect André Le Nôtre (1613–1700) to the rescue—the undisputed master of the baroque garden. His skills with mechanical engineering, chemistry, and horticulture made Versailles’s fountains a reality.

Le Nôtre created a network of reservoirs and canals stretching for 18 1/2 miles outside the château. A massive pumping machine thought to be the Eighth Wonder of the World brought water from the Seine River.

View over the palace gardens and the palace at Versailles in c.1860
View over the palace gardens and the palace at Versailles in c.1860

Leakage and breakdowns of the pump meant that it only supplied half the required amount of water. So Louis gave the go-ahead for an extravagant plan to divert water from the River Eure over 60 miles away.

One tenth of France’s entire military worked on the project, digging a canal and aqueduct, plus all the shipping channels and locks to keep the workers supplied with raw materials.

Were it not for the outbreak of war bringing the work to a halt, Louis’s big water problem would have been solved.

Fountain in the Gardens of Versailles. Credit edwin.11
Fountain in the Gardens of Versailles. Credit edwin.11
Le Bassin d'Apollo - the Greek god Apollo rising from the sea in a four-horse chariot. Credit J. degivry
Le Bassin d’Apollo – the Greek god Apollo rising from the sea in a four-horse chariot. Credit J. degivry
Fountain in the Parc de Versailles. Credit edwin.11
Fountain in the Parc de Versailles. Credit edwin.11
Fountain in the Parc de Versailles. Credit Gaudry daniel
Fountain in the Parc de Versailles. Credit Gaudry daniel
Gardens of Versailles. Credit G CHP 2
Gardens of Versailles. Credit G CHP 2

Scattered throughout the gardens are over three hundred statues and sculptures of everything from flute playing shepherds (Acis), to daydreaming princesses (Ariadne), to sea monsters, and Trojan priests (Laocoön) being attacked by giant serpents.

Acis Playing His Flute by Jean-Baptiste Tuby, 1674
Acis Playing His Flute by Jean-Baptiste Tuby, 1674
Daydreaming Ariadne at Versailles. Credit Yair Haklai
Daydreaming Ariadne at Versailles. Credit Yair Haklai
Sea monster sculpture in the Gardens of Versailles. Credit Gaudry daniel
Sea monster sculpture in the Gardens of Versailles. Credit Gaudry daniel
Laocoön and his sons (1696). Credit Adesio2010
Laocoön and his sons (1696). Credit Adesio2010
Louis XIV of France by Nicolas-René Jollain Le Vieux
Louis XIV of France by Nicolas-René Jollain Le Vieux
Ah, there you are my little petit bonbons.
As you can see, I’m working on my next building project.
How did you like mes jardins? … excusez moi, my gardens?
Exquisite, no?
Bon. You answered correctly. You are keeping your head today.
Come along, come along, follow me—we have much to see inside …
Marble Courtyard at the Palace of Varsailles
Marble Courtyard at the Palace of Varsailles

At the beginning of each day would be a routine called the leverthe royal awakening ceremony.

To see the King rubbed down with rose-water, watch him shave, or even go to the bathroom, was considered a great honor.

The King's Apartment, Palace of Versailles
The King’s Apartment, Palace of Versailles
Palace of versailles, Hall of Mirrors. Credit Thibault Chappe
Palace of versailles, Hall of Mirrors. Credit Thibault Chappe

Following this elaborate wake-up ritual, Louis would then pass through the Hall of Mirrors on his way to the chapel.

Facing the gardens and the rising sun, shafts of sunlight would stream into the room, filling it with a golden light.

Halls of Mirrors at Versailles. Credit Myrabella
Halls of Mirrors at Versailles. Credit Myrabella

Self-styled the “Sun King”, Louis chose the sun as his personal symbol.

Naturally, his courtiers thought the sun shined out of his derrière. One look from Louis in their direction had their heads spinning.

When the King condescends to glance at someone, that person considers his fortunes made and says to others “the King looked at me!”Primi Visconti, chronicler to the French court

Cunning as he was, Louis was a master at keeping people dangling with the words, “we’ll see.”

Louis's sun symbol on the gates of Versailles. Credit Dennis Jarvis
Louis’s sun symbol on the gates of Versailles. Credit Dennis Jarvis

In the chapel, he required all in attendance to face him, not the altar, so that they could witness the King worshipping God.

He saw himself as the living embodiment of the Greek God Apollo—god of music, prophecy, healing, and the sun.

Chapel in Palace of versailles. Credit Thibault Chappe
Chapel in Palace of versailles. Credit Thibault Chappe
Chapel in Palace of versailles. Credit Thibault Chappe
Chapel in Palace of versailles. Credit Thibault Chappe
Royal chapel of the Palace of Versailles. Credit Jebulon
Royal chapel of the Palace of Versailles. Credit Jebulon
Louis XIV, King of France
Louis XIV, King of France
Bonjour, my little petit fours.
How do you like my stockings? Ooh la la! You will not find a finer pair in all the world!
Bon. You answered correctly.
I must leave you now for my little “coucher”—my sundown ceremony.
Enjoy yourselves, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do …
Au revoir.

Bravado might well have been Louis’s middle name—he certainly had the stats to back up the swagger:

700 rooms, over 2,000 windows, 1,250 fireplaces, 67 staircases, 5000 pieces of furniture, 6000 paintings, 352 chimneys, hundreds of mirrors (357 in the Hall of Mirrors alone), dozens of chandeliers (43 in the Hall of Mirrors), and even its own opera house!

The Palace of Versailles stands at a crossroads in history. Copied throughout Europe, it marks the pinnacle of decadence and the beginning of the end for absolute monarchy.

Queen's grand apartment. Credit Dom Crossley
Queen’s grand apartment. Credit Dom Crossley
Bedchamber of the dauphin. Credit Tim Schapker
Bedchamber of the dauphin. Credit Tim Schapker
Small apartment of the king - Louis XVI Library. Credit Fanny Schertzer
Small apartment of the king – Louis XVI Library. Credit Fanny Schertzer
Small apartment of the king in the Palace of Versailles. Credit Lional Allorge
Small apartment of the king in the Palace of Versailles. Credit Lional Allorge
Antechamber of the Emperor at Grand Trianon at Château de Versailles. Credit Moonik
Antechamber of the Emperor at Grand Trianon at Château de Versailles. Credit Moonik
The peace salon, Versailles. Credit Coyau
The peace salon, Versailles. Credit Coyau
Grand Condé's reception in Versailles by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Grand Condé’s reception in Versailles by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Stairway inside the Petit Trianon. Credit Trizek
Stairway inside the Petit Trianon. Credit Trizek
Pet Salon Petit Trianon, Versailles. Credit Heleashard
Pet Salon Petit Trianon, Versailles. Credit Heleashard
The King's Desk. Louis XV's roll-top secretary, designed between 1760 and 1769. Credit TCY
The King’s Desk. Louis XV’s roll-top secretary, designed between 1760 and 1769. Credit TCY
Royal Opera House, Versailles. Credit Tanya Hart
Royal Opera House, Versailles. Credit Tanya Hart
Visit of Queen Victoria to Paris in 1855, the dinner offered by Napoleon III in the hall of the Opera of Versailles, August 25, 1855
Visit of Queen Victoria to Paris in 1855, the dinner offered by Napoleon III in the hall of the Opera of Versailles, August 25, 1855

Who were the real heroes of Versailles? Not those who lounged in its luxuries, surely?

The real heroes were the architects, builders, laborers, and the 30,000 soldiers drafted in to help, many of whom died from fever and disease in the swampy conditions of the early Versailles.

We salute you, citizens of France. You did not die in vain. Your work lives on as a testament to human achievement.

The construction of the Palace of Versailles by Adam Frans van der Meulen
The construction of the Palace of Versailles by Adam Frans van der Meulen

Such excesses don’t last forever. The revolution brought sweeping change and streets filled with the blood of the decadent.

And across a blue ocean, a new country was in its infancy. A land that would welcome the downtrodden masses with open arms.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Emma Lazarus
Château de Versailles at night. Credit Romaric Juvanon
Château de Versailles at night. Credit Romaric Juvanon

Popular Posts

 

References
Wikipedia.
The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, Andre Le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles by Ian Thompson.
The Khan Academy.

Read more:
Edwardian Fashion: A 5-Minute Guide

16 of the Best Authors in History—vote for your favorite

Happy Thanksgiving

Close