Seven hundred rooms, 67 staircases, 352 chimneys, 2153 windows, 6300 paintings, 2100 sculptures and statues, 15,000 engravings, 5000 decorative art objects and furnishings, 4.7 million château visitors annually: no wonder visiting France’s most famous, grandest palace can be overwhelming. Six days a week, tourist madness consumes the prosperous, leafy and bourgeois suburb of Versailles, political capital and seat of the royal court from 1682 until 1789, when Revolutionary mobs massacred the palace guard and dragged Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette back to Paris to eventually have them beheaded.
It was during the reign of Sun King Louis XIV (1643–1715) that Château de Versailles was built. Intended to house his court of 6000 people, the sheer scale and décor of Versailles reflected not only the absolute power of the French monarchy but also Louis XIV’s taste for profligate luxury and appetite for self-glorification. He hired four talented men to take on the gargantuan task: architect Louis Le Vau; Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who took over from Le Vau in the mid-1670s; painter and interior designer Charles Le Brun; and landscape designer André Le Nôtre, under whom entire hills were flattened, marshes drained and forests moved to create the seemingly endless gardens, ponds and fountains for which Versailles is so well known. Some 30,000 workers and soldiers toiled on the structure, the bills for which all but emptied the kingdom’s coffers.
The vast château complex divides into four main sections: the 580m-long palace building with its innumerable wings, halls and bedchambers and the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments; the vast gardens, canals and pools to the west of the palace; two smaller palaces known as the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon; and the Hameau de la Reine (Queen’s Hamlet).
Few alterations have been made to the château since its construction, bar most of the interior furnishings disappearing during the Revolution and many of the rooms being rebuilt by Louis-Philippe (r 1830–48), who opened part of the château to the public in 1837. The current €370 million restoration programme is the most ambitious yet and until it’s completed in 2020 a part of the palace is likely to be clad in scaffolding when you visit.
Luxurious and ostentatious appointments – frescoes, marble, gilt and woodcarvings, with themes and symbols drawn from Greek and Roman mythology – ooze from every last moulding, cornice, ceiling and door in the palace’s Grands Appartements du Roi et de la Reine (King’s and Queen’s State Apartments). But the opulence peaks in its shimmering, sparkling, amazing (insufficient superlatives for this one) recently restored Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). This 75m-long ballroom with 17 giant mirrors one side and an equal number of windows the other has to be seen to be believed.
History and/or art buffs keen to delve deeper into life at court, music, Louis XV and XI’s private apartments and so on can sign up for an informative lecture tour.
This article was originally published in July 2010. This article was refreshed in August 2012.