Well, this is definitely no simple hunting lodge. The palace of Versailles, built by Louis XIV just outside Paris, is one of the most overtly conspicuous displays of wealth and ego ever built, by a monarch for whom wealth and ego were like mother’s milk. Walking around, golden domes, gates, window adornments – golden everything – glistening in the sun, I think to myself two basic thoughts. First, wow. It is stunning. The craftsmanship, the beauty, even the art and furnishings are designed to impress and intimidate a visitor like me. Second, it is no wonder that merely two generations of kings down the line, those same peasants for whom such decadence seems astonishing would kill off the family who constructed the place.
That, however, is a story for another day, and for us today, the French Revolution will be but a footnote to the tale of Versailles and of Louis XIV, France’s Sun King.
Louis XIV was born in 1638, the son of Louis XIII (this might seem obvious but as we will see later, it isn’t a guarantee) and Anne of Austria, who was actually Spanish. After his father died in 1643, he became King of France, though a regent (his mother) and chief minister (Cardinal Mazarin) would do most of the actual ruling until 1661. His reign would be marked by a number of wars – mainly settled in favor of France – building projects done in lavish gold (like the Les Invalides building in Paris), and increased taxes that led to a budget surplus to be spent on said wars and building projects.
Known as the Sun King for both his apparent divine ability to win military conflicts and his fondness of gold, he would reign for just over 72 years, the longest of any monarch in recorded history. Monuments to him would be constructed all over France, some by his “adoring” subjects and some by his own desire to have monuments to himself. He would rule for so long that he outlived all of his children and grandchildren, leaving the French crown to his great-grandson, Louis XV. (As I said, the hereditary father-to-son passing of the throne was not always a certainty.)
In 1661, Louis XIV was hunting around his family lodge near the small town of Versailles, about twelve miles west of Paris. The Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet, invited the then-22 year old king to a feast at his nearby palace. Louis was so impressed that he decided to build his own, even more lavish, palace in the area. He also had Fouquet imprisoned. Construction would last the remainder of Louis XIV’s life, and through the reigns of both Louis XV and XVI (whose reign came to a swift and violent end at the hands of his poor and hungry people in 1793).
The result was this magnificent palace, now one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. It contains more than 2300 rooms, although only about 100 are open to the public, with fewer that that part of the “normal” tour route. The palace and its gardens occupy just under 2000 acres, which include fountains, sculpture parks, and a Grand Canal, on which the kings could sail. Until the end of the French monarchy, this was the seat of power; the city of Versailles grew around it as courtiers relocated to be near the king.
My tour begins with a small glimpse into the royal chapel, one of Louis XV’s additions. The look is only via a single door on the second floor, but it sets the stage for what is to come: doors and windows with elaborate patterns in gold inlay, marble floors, and ceilings painted with stunning frescos of mainly Greek and Roman mythological scenes.
The theme of Greek and Roman mythology continues throughout the palace, with rooms named for gods and goddesses: Diana, Mars, Mercury. Louis XIV apparently thought himself the heir to those cultures, although his lavish dress, wig, and heeled ballet shoes don’t remind anyone of Hercules, who is present in many of the scenes.
My guide explains some of Louis’ stylistic choices. As with many in his time, he was deathly afraid of the Black Death, which had killed off more than one third of Europe not too long before (not to mention more “modern” diseases like cholera) and was thought to have been spread by water. He therefore never bathed, and his hair reflected that. Hence, the wigs, which would dominate high fashion during his life and afterward. As for the heeled ballet shoes? He was actually a dancer in his youth, and was comfortable in ballet shoes, with the heels adding height for a king who was only 5’4”.
Portraits of Louis XIV are everywhere in the palace of Versailles, as well as of Louis XV. Louis XVI is less-well-represented, although his wife, Marie Antoinette, has her furnishings shown off in the queen’s bedroom, a stunning chamber of gold and ostrich feathers. As with the king’s bedroom, the queen’s has a golden gate for servants and advisors to stand behind. Her chamber allowed dozens inside on the “public” side of the gate so that each time she went into labor, the country could record that a prince or princess was indeed born.
The highlight of the interior of Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors, a vast chamber lined with windows on one side looking out at the palace’s gardens, and mirrors on the other. The cost of these mirrors in Louis XIV’s time was enormous, with each pane costing more than a merchant’s house. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of panes. Chandeliers, statues, paintings, and of course golden gilded embellishments add to the grandeur of the hall, which is still used today for state visits of foreign leaders. (It is also where the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One was signed.) My guide tells us that originally this was a balcony, but after the first winter with several feet of snow, it was enclosed.
The tour of the interior of Versailles ends with a room dedicated to Napoleon. While he did not rule from here, he did use it as a summer residence. (Part of the palace was in poor shape by that point, having been looted during the Revolution, and he did not refurbish it. He simply used what was in good condition.) Here, huge paintings depicting Napoleon as heir to the Roman emperors dominate the walls, while an obelisk to his military triumphs sits in the center.
Afterward, it is time to explore some of the gardens and grounds of Versailles. (Note: for those not on a tour, it is a separate entry for the gardens.) While the sculpted French gardens are in fairly poor shape thanks to the hot summer and drought conditions, the fountains are the stars. Latona’s Fountain, a huge golden creation, tells the story of the mother of Apollo and Diana. Others tell similar stories of Neptune or other mythological figures.
Hedge mazes now hold cafes, sculptures hide in every alcove, jets of water shoot from nearly every corner, and small outbuildings lie in the outskirts. In addition, secret passageways for Louis XIV’s many mistresses enter the palace itself from the gardens.
After about two hours (an hour and a quarter inside, and then just under an hour in the gardens), it is time to head back to Paris. Versailles is a golden monument to the reign of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV. It is beautiful, extravagant, a vanity project that would dwarf nearly all others in the history of the planet. It is a remnant of one of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, and a reminder that the “let them eat cake” attitude of those rulers who built this place would ultimately lead to their downfall.
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