The Magnificence of Versailles
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Versailles – Voltaire described it best – “a masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence”. Created by the Sun King, Versailles is one of France’s most visited attractions and inspirations for many re-creations across the world.
Versailles has long been on my bucket list but has seemed to allude me on two previous trips to Paris, so I was excited to spend the day at this infamous property. I had done my research and was ready for the crowds & sheer vastness of the property and I was still overwhelmed by it all. Versailles in its day was 1/3 larger than today’s Euro- Disney.
Let’s start with some numbers:
- 700-room palace
- 2,150 windows
- 5,000 pieces of furniture
- 1,250 chimneys
- 67 staircases
- 6,000 paintings
- 1,500 drawings
- 2,100 sculptures
- 800-hectare (2,000-acre) garden
- 12 miles of roads
- 200,000 trees
- 1,400 fountains and waterfalls (only 607 of them remain today)
- 300 statues, vases and busts decorate the paths
- In 2014 it recorded over 7,500,000 visitors with ticket sales greater than $40 million.
- Versailles employs over 600 people.
This is the entrance to the Versailles with some very long lines. See Tips at the end to avoid these.
While waiting in line, you will be looking at 8 million dollars… Just the gate – not the building behind it. The Golden Gate of Versailles was reconstructed in 2008 after being torn down over 200 years ago in 1793 and melted for its copper after the French Revolution at the end of the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The gate has been faithfully restored to its 1680’s design under Louis XIV the Sun King with a total of 100,000 gold leaves crafted into the shapes of fleur de lys, crowns, masks of Apollo, & cornucopias.
When the King settled down in Versailles, in 1682, he ordered the doors of the castle open to the people, so that anyone who wished to visit his residence could do so. The gates were kept open all day, with guards at the entrances to protect the king. They made sure no firearm was brought inside the castle, and checked the horse-drawn coaches authorized to enter the courtyard. Even the most humble of the king’s subjects were allowed to enter as long as they followed proper etiquette.
The property is a tale of four Louis’s, but most prominently this property was created by Louis XIV – the Sun King.
Louis XIII purchased the property & the village of Versailles in 1623, for its abundant deer hunting. Its location 12 miles from Paris also made it a private retreat for his extra-marital trysts.
Louis XIV became King at 4 years old. France was ruled by his mother, Anne, as Regent until Louis XIV was 19. Louis was the “golden boy” and had many military victories across Europe making France both wealthy and powerful. He named himself the Sun King.
- Starting in 1661, the King decided to transform the hunting lodge into the new capital of France. The new chateau would house the entire French court and the gardens would be transformed into a stage. This power statement was also designed to force the French nobility to spend time at court where the Sun King could keep an eye on them and prevent them from growing too powerful in their own rights. The exorbitant cost of Versailles was paid for by state funds as the Chateau was to be the “showcase” of France with all decoration manufactured in France by the French.
- In 1682, Louis moved in along with most of the court and its entourage – 20,000 people in all and continue to expand Versailles. Louis XIV’s reign lasted 72 years, the longest in the history of France.
- Much of the cost was documented in the French records. It is estimated to cost at a minimum of $2billion in today’s cost to have built Versailles and some estimate as high as $300 Billion in today’s money.
Louis XV: In 1715-1774, Louis XIV’s five-year-old great grandson, succeeded him and when he was old enough, continued adding to the palace’s overblown grandeur.
Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette reigned here from 1774 to 1789 until they were arrested at Versailles. The end of an era of this indulgent lifestyle.
Following the Revolution and the fall of the monarchy, Versailles fell into disrepair and most of the furniture was sold. Some restoration work was undertaken by Napoleon in 1810 and Louis XVIII in 1820, but the principal effort to restore and maintain Versailles was initiated by Louis-Philippe in 1833, when he changed the palace to a museum dedicated to French history.
In 1923, the John D. Rockefeller donated $1 million ($120 Million in today’s money) for renovation of Versailles.
From 2000 – 2020, France has undertaken a $455 million Grand Versailles renovation. The project is to make necessary repairs (Boiler, replacement of the 1940’s electrical system, fire and burglar alarms), modernization of facilities (windows, toilets, cafes), restoration including facades, staircases, interiors (paintings, furniture, gilding) and addition of entertainment equipment in the gardens and Opera Royal.
The public rooms of Versailles Chateau were designed to intimidate and impress both the French Court and any visiting dignitaries. The rooms are decorated with elaborate paintings of Greek and Roman allegories to exalt all of the Sun King’s and French victories.
Now that Versailles is a museum, additional paintings of Napoleon’s triumphs have been added inside the Chateau.
Hall of Mirrors
Another of the Sun King’s golden creations, the 220 foot hallway has seventeen mirrored arches, each containing 21 mirrors, that reflect the seventeen corresponding windows that overlook the gardens. That is a total of 357 mirrors. If all that was not enough, there is 8,460 feet of parquet flooring, 30 paintings decorating the vaulted ceilings, gold gilding, chandeliers and crystal to make this over the top opulent.
Mirror making was a Venetian guarded secret. So Louis XIV tried to import Venetian’s to train the French. Rumor has it the Venetian’s sent assassins to poison them to keep the Venetian secrets proprietary…. but the mirrors were created.
In the 1700’s, the Hall contained even more gilded statues and silver furniture, but these were melted down to finance different wars. The 2007 renovation and refurbishment of the hall cost was $16 million with 40% of mirrors being replaced.
The Hall of Mirrors has been used for the King to just walk to the chapel, balls, weddings, and political events. Some of the more significant events:
- In 1871, at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian king, William I, was declared German emperor thereby establishing the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors – a stinging victory to the French in their prized landmark.
- In 1919, the treaty of Versailles was signed which sealed the end of the First World War and the terms of which sealed the certainty of World War II.
The royal bedrooms were a stage. This is the Queen’s bedroom and has been recreated to how Marie Antoinette had it decorated. The railing existed in that time and there are about 20 cushioned seats for the courtiers to sit on. There are also secret doorways in the paneling leading to hidden rooms.
The Courtiers rooms were more like a hotel. Many bought property nearby for their families as they often had just a small room but were required to be at Court. This was both advantageous to gain information and favor of the King and disadvantageous in time spent away from their own properties and businesses.
The gardens were designed to have sweeping views and the paths all radiate out from the Chateau – the power centre. This is the view from inside the Chateau on the second floor of the first level outside the Chateau.
First Level looking back at the Chateau. The second tier with fountains and many more statues. On either side of the main alley are square bosquets, gardened rooms with walls of foliage. In each of the 16 bosquets, there are different fountains and statues and some have musical shows. Continuing on the central alley to the Grand Canal This Fountain of Apollo depicting the Greek sun god Apollo rising from the sea at daybreak in his four-horse chariot accompanied by Tritons. The depiction was created as a correlation to Louis XIV – the Sun King. The Grand Canal where you can rent boats.
Special aqueducts were built to collect and power water fountains – 6.2 million liters of water per hour to run. The king did not want to waste this valuable liquid, as water was so rare at the time, so he ordered that only the fountains he passed on his daily strolls be activated.
This next section is on the right side of the Palace. These statues lead down 2 levels, first to a Cherub Fountain and the to the Dragon Fountain. This path will also lead to the Grand and Petite Trianon.
In 1717, Russia’s Peter the Great stayed here and was inspired by many of the things he saw at Versailles and wanted reproduce in Saint Petersburg. Napoleon also chose to live here to avoid the over-indulgence of the Chateau.
The Petit Trianon was Louis XVI gift to Marie Antoinette so she could have privacy from the court at the Chateau of Versailles and perhaps her husband at the Grand Trianon.
The property is further enhanced with landscaping of Belvedere’s and monuments.
Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet
Marie, tired of court life and her Petite Trianon, had “The Hamlet” built to replicate country life. The building scheme included a farmhouse, dairy, dovecote, boudoir, barn, mill and a tower in the form of a lighthouse. Each building was decorated with a garden, an orchard or a flower garden. The hamlet was basically an Epcot version of country life for Marie to play dress-up with her friends and live out pastoral fantasies.
Conclusion: Versailles is magnificent… no other way to describe it. It’s more opulent than almost anywhere else I visited with possibly the exception of St. Petersburg. However, the cost to create this is just staggering. I surely would have been singing Les Miserables as part of the French Revolution.