The Château de Versailles — often called the Palace of Versailles, or simply Versailles — is a royal château, outside the gates of which the village of Versailles, France, has grown to become a full-fledged city.
Louis XIII often hunted in the woods of Versailles, and had a hunting lodge built there in 1624. In 1627 he entrusted Jacques Lemercier with the plan of a château.
In 1660, Louis XIV, coming to majority and taking on full royal powers, was casting about for a site near Paris but away from the tumults of the city. He had grown up in the disorders of the civil war between rival bands of aristocrats called the Fronde and wanted a site where he could organize and completely control a government of France centered upon his person. He settled on the lodge and decided to convert it into a palace. In 1661 Louis Le Vau made some additions which were further developed by him in 1668. In 1678 Mansart took over the work, the Galerie des Glaces, the chapel and the two wings being due to him. On May 6, 1682 Louis XIV took up his residence in the château.
The château was largely completed by 1688. The team of architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun and garden designer André Le Nôtre had been assembled by Louis' own finance minister Nicolas Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose grand success there was his undoing.
After Louis XIV, several smaller buildings were added to the Versailles area by Louis XV and Louis XVI including the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon , and the Hamlet of Marie Antoinette known as Petit hameau, which, in a way, is one of the world's first open air museums.
Louis XIV, in building the palace, was intent on more than merely outdoing Vaux-le-Vicomte. Versailles became the home of the French nobility and the location of the royal court. Louis XIV himself lived there, and symbolically the central room of the long extensive symmetrical range of buildings was the King's Bedroom (the Chambre du Roi), which itself was centered on the lavish and symbolic state bed, set behind a rich railing not unlike a communion rail . All the power of France emanated from this center: there were government offices here; as well as the homes of thousands of individuals. By insisting that nobles spend time at Versailles, Louis kept them from countering his efforts to centralize the French government in an absolute monarchy.
Park of Versailles seen from the palace
While the Palace was grand and luxurious, it was also expensive to maintain. It has been estimated that maintaining the Palace, including the care and feeding of its staff and the Royal Family, consumed as much as 25% of the entire government income of France. However, this figure is disputed by historians who consider that it has been exaggerated by those who wish to overemphasise the role of royal extravagance in the causation of the French Revolution. Recent estimates would suggest that the figure was much closer to only 6%.
It can also be noted that the cost of the state in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, even including the costs of Versailles, was considerably lower than the cost of the state in 21st century France, where the government consumes 55% of the national income. However, it is fair to say that modern states carry out much more missions than the states of the 17th or 18th century, such as education, retirement schemes, health care, etc.
Another way to look at this controversy over the costs of Versailles, is to consider the benefits that France drew from this royal palace. Versailles, by locking the nobles into a golden cage, effectively ended the periodical aristocratic coups and rebellions that had plagued France for centuries. It also destroyed aristocratic power in the provinces, and enabled a centralization of the state, for which a majority of modern Frenchmen are still thankful to Louis XIV, although French centralization, as further developed by the Jacobins during the French Revolution, and later the Third Republic, is currently the subject of much debate and overhauling.
The money spent on Versailles, incidentally, also enabled thousands of workers, masons, glaziers, plasterers, gilders, painters, gardeners, fountainers, and so forth, to live for years without worrying about feeding their families.
Finally, Versailles also had a tremendous influence on French architecture and arts, and indeed on European architecture and arts, as the court tastes and culture elaborated in Versailles influenced most of Europe. From the start, Versailles was conceived as much as a showcase of French arts and craftsmanshift as a home for a king. Modern Frenchmen, even the least sympathetic to the former monarchy, are still generally quite proud of the lasting influence that French arts developped in Versailles have had in the world.
For all the controversies about the costs of Versailles, one has seldom heard such controversies about the costs of, say, the Parthenon or the Taj Mahal. Versailles, after all, could be taken just for what it was meant to be from the start: a cultural statement.
The Hall of Mirrors
Proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, 1871. Bismarck
The Hall of Mirrors (French: Galerie des Glaces) is a large room in the palace. It is generally considered one of the major attractions of the palace and is currently undergoing restoration.
The galerie was started in 1678, at the time the château began to be the official residence of Louis XIV. It was completed in 1684. Many references of it are in Marie Antoinette's diary.
After the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678), at the high point of his reign, Louis XIV ordered Le Brun to paint the benefits of his government on the ceiling. The painter conceived 30 scenes, framed with stucco: the king appears as a Roman Emperor, as great administrator of his kingdom, and as victorious over foreign powers.
It was in this hall that the German Empire was proclaimed on January 18, 1871, following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. It was also here that Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919) stating that Germany was responsible for World War I.
The galerie is located on the first floor of the building. It contains 578 mirrors. It is 73 m long, 10.50 m wide, and 12.30 m high. It is located between the salon de la Guerre (Hall of War) at its northern end, and by the salon de la Paix (Hall of Peace) at its southern end.
Seventeen windows, opening onto the gardens, face seventeen arcades lined with mirrors. These mirrors, of an exceptional size for the time, were produced by a Parisian manufacture created by Colbert to compete with the products of Venice.
After the French defeat in the Prussian-French war, the castle was the main headquarters of the German army from October 5, 1870 until March 13, 1871, and the German Empire was proclaimed here on January 18.
The ravages of war and neglect over the centuries have left their mark on the palace and its huge gardens. Modern French governments of the post World War II era have sought to repair these damages. They have on the whole been successful, but some of the more costly items, like the vast array of fountains, have yet to be put back completely in service. As spectacular as they might seem now, they were even more extensive in the 18th century. The 18th century waterworks which fed the fountains was probably the biggest mechanical system of its time. The water came in from afar on monumental stone aqueducts, which have long ago fallen in disrepair or been torn down.
Post-royal: the monument-museum
At the Revolution the paintings and sculpture, like the crown jewels, were consigned to the new Musée du Louvre as part of the cultural patrimony of France. Other contents went to serve a new and moral public role: books and medals went to the Bibliothèque Nationale, clocks and scientific instruments (Louis XVI was a connoisseur of science) to the École des Arts et Métiers. Versailles was still the most richly-appointed royal palace of Europe, however, until a long series of auction sales on the premises unrolled for months during the Revolution, emptying Versailles slowly of every shred of amenity, at derisory prices, mostly to professional brocanteurs. The immediate purpose was to raise desperately-needed funds for the armies of the people, but the long-range strategy was to ensure that there was no Versailles for any king ever to come back to. The strategy has worked. Though Versailles was declared an Imperial palace, Napoleon never spent a summer's night there.
Versailles remained both royal and unused through the Restauration. In 1830, the politic Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King" declared the chäteau a museum dedicated to "all the glories of France," raising it for the first time above a Bourbon dynastic monument. At the same time, boiseries from the private apartments of princes and courtiers were removed and found their way, without provenance, into the incipient art market in Paris and London for such panelling. What remained were 120 rooms, the modern "Galeries Historiques".
In the 1960s, Pierre Verlet , the greatest writer on the history of French furniture managed to get some royal furnishings returned from the museums and ministries and ambassadors' residences where they had become scattered from the central warehouses of the Mobilier National. He conceived the bold scheme of refurnishing Versailles, and the refurnished royal Appartements the tourist views today are due to Verlet's successful initiative, in which textiles were even rewoven to refurbish the state beds.
Today, the wise visitor is standing at the entrance to the Grands appartements du Roi at 8:30, not to spend hours in line. By 11 AM the state rooms are as crushed as a Métro rush hour. Tour guides rally their groups with a handkerchief on a stick for visibility in the mob and project simultaneous commentaries. In the summer months, the royal appartements close at 5:30 PM, and the most knowledgeable visitor arrives shortly before 5, pays a reduced price, and is the last to leave.
The Would-Be Versailles
The most lasting monuments to the past glories of Versailles are not in France but in the other countries of continental Europe. When Louis XIV had Versailles constructed, France was the most powerful and the richest state on the continent. Versailles ignited a competitive spate of building palaces in fountain-filled gardens among the power elite of Europe, not all of them kings.
In the small courts of Germany, echoes of Versailles sprang up, as ambitious as local funding permitted: at Bonn, Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl for the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne , at Mannheim, at Ludwigsburg , at Schwetzingen near Heidelberg and at Karlsruhe; both the New Palace (Neues Palais) in Potsdam and the palace in formerly rural Charlottenburg near Berlin; Herrenhausen in Hanover; Neues Schloss Schleißheim near Munich; and the Residenz in Würzburg.
One of the great German imitations of Versailles is the Wilhelmshöhe at Kassel, built in 1786 by Wilhelm IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel.
In the north there was Drottningholm, Stockholm. To the east there were Schönbrunn in Vienna; Eszterháza in Hungary.
In Italy, the "would-be Versailles" include Caserta near Naples, (by Luigi Vanvitelli, from 1752 onwards), Colorno and Stupenigi outside Turin, which had begun as a hunting lodge as Versailles had.
In the Iberian peninsula there are two competitors for Versailles stand out:, La Granja near Madrid, and Queluz in Portugal.
That the several "Polish Versailles" are aristocratic as well as royal is a sign of where true power lay where the great aristocrats elected their king. The royal version, Wilanów, begun in the late 17th century as the "New Villa" just south of Warsaw erected for Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, then, as Versailles was, extended in several building campaigns. Wilanow is symmetrically ranged round a cour d'honneur with two patterned parterres on stepped levels. Wilanow was inherited by a series of Polish aristocrats, and it inspired other great Polish magnates to imitation, as at Lazienki so that Italian and French architects and garden planners were drawn to Poland for employment.
Wilanow had a rival in the aristocratic Branicki Palace in Bialystok.
In England, even more than in Poland, the "would-be Versailles" tell of the final success of an aristocracy in curbing a monarchy. Royal palace projects of Late Stuart kings came to naught: Charles II envisaged a palace at Winchester that never left paper. St James's Palace in London remained a Tudor rabbit-warren. Renovations at Hampton Court for William III could not compare to an all-but-royal Chatsworth, and other Whig magnates built almost as grandly. The direct British answer to Versailles is Blenheim Palace, built as a national monument for Louis' nemesis, the Duke of Marlborough.
The grandest, most impressive effort was perhaps that made by Peter I of Russia. In addition to Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk, he had the Peterhof complex of buildings in gardens and parks built in the outskirts of Saint Petersburg (small illustration, right). the great palace of the complex is a spectacular building, set atop a hill above a cascade outdoing its model, Louis XIV's cascade at the Chateau of Marly.
The last shot in this war of sumptous architecture was probably fired by Ludwig II of Bavaria when he asked for a nearly identical copy of Versailles, Herrenchiemsee, to be built on an island on the bucolic Chiemsee lake in the countryside of Bavaria. His funds ran out too soon but the central portion was finished, along with its hall of mirrors, and formal French gardens were planted around it.
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