The Château of Versailles: Our visit to this colossal royal palace

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This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.


You know what we don’t have in America?  Gigantic royal palaces.

Sure, we have fine homes galore.  Take the Biltmore, for example, home to the Vanderbilts, once one of the wealthiest families in America.  At more than 135,000 square feet, this Gilded Age, Châteauesque-style abode is the largest privately-owned home in America.

But it’s no match for what I’m thinking of–-a royal complex the size of a small village.  Or the Pentagon.  The kind of estate that makes the average American’s jaw drop at the sheer magnificence and audacity of it all.

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The Biltmore Estate.  How quaint! (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Palace of Versailles, with its 721,200 square feet of floorspace, 700 rooms, and the ability to hold up to 20,000 people, is both magnificent and extremely audacious.

During our trip to Paris, my mom, sister, Dale, and I visited Versailles–one of Europe’s largest estates¹and were appropriately impressed.  The grandeur was almost incomprehensible.

The Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles

Versailles is also an enduring French landmark and inextricably tied to the French Revolution, and a little history is in order before we share pictures of this royal palace.

A brief history of Versailles 

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Statue of King Louis XIV, near the entrance to Versailles. The palace is sprawled out in the background

Versailles’ beginnings were actually quite humble: it started out as a hunting lodge for King Louis XIII.  But when his son, Louis XIV (also known as “Louis the Great” and the “Sun King”), ascended the throne, he decided to transform the lodge into a palace, a lengthy process that began in 1661.  21 years later, the Sun King left the Louvre Palace and moved into his new home, and the town of Versailles replaced Paris as the seat of the royal court and the French government.

Louis XIV wanted a palace like the world had never seen before, one that would not only dazzle foreign dignitaries but also subdue the rebellious French nobility, who resented the king’s belief that, as monarch, he had the divine right to do as he pleased.  His status as God’s chosen leader rankled the aristocracy, but he won them over when he invited them all to live in his grand palace.

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Portrait of Louis XIV in the Apollo Room of the king’s Grand Apartment at Versailles

Louis XIV bled the country’s coffers to build not just Versailles, but several other extravagant châteaux as well; Versailles, however, was the most splendid of them all.  According to PBS, the palace would cost billions of dollars if built today.

The successive kings continued to add to the palace and make it bigger and grander; however, it grew not only in size but also in symbolism: for the people of France, Versailles became the “symbol of royal absolutism,” a gilded behemoth representing the many abuses and excesses of the French monarchy.

A little over a century after Versailles became the seat of royal power, a storm in the form of the French Revolution would sweep through the palace and strip it of its fine furnishings, its artwork, and its royal residents–King Louis XVI (the Sun King’s grandson four times removed) and his queen, Marie Antoinette–both of whom paid for the profligacy of the monarchy with their heads.

France had been facing a serious financial crisis for many years, exacerbated by expensive wars, including France’s assistance to the colonists in the American Revolution.  The state was also burdened by the expenses of the royal family and by a wealthy aristocracy and clergy who refused to pay their own fair share of taxes.

Faced with food shortages and high taxation, the average French citizen was suffering, and by 1789 the populace was fed up.  On July 14, Parisians stormed the Bastille and started the French Revolution.

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Marie Antoinette

Once the revolution started, the royal family was never secure.  In October 1789, a crowd of people descended upon Versailles and drove them from their home, and they were forced to move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where they were placed under house arrest.  The king and queen were imprisoned in various locations for the remainder of their lives.  Both underwent trials in 1793 and both were convicted of treason.  Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793, the only King of France in history to be executed.  Marie Antoinette would remain in prison for another nine months before she was executed on October 16.

The Palace of Versailles will always be intimately associated with the royalty who lived there and with the violent revolution that brought them down.  Walking through this vast, extravagant palace, I admit that I sometimes felt sympathetic to the cause of the French commoners who grew tired of their greedy leaders.

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One of the beautiful golden gates at the entrance to Versailles

That being said, the palace is both incredibly beautiful and historically significant, and I am very glad that intensive efforts have been made to preserve this amazing place.

The Palace

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In the years following the onset of the French Revolution, many of Versailles’ furnishings were sold to pay for government expenses, and the palace fell into disrepair.  No significant renovations took place until 1833, when the monarchy was restored and King Louis-Philippe decided to transform Versailles into the Museum of the History of France.  It has been in the process of repair and restoration ever since.  Some of the items that we saw were originals, while others were replicas based on careful research of authentic pieces from the era.

A palace of this size is only going to have a fraction of its rooms open for viewing, but the areas that we toured certainly met our voyeuristic desire to see how the French royalty once lived.²  See for yourself:

Grand Appartement du Roi

The Grand Appartement du Roi (King’s Grand Apartment) was a seven-room suite that served as the king’s state apartment and was used for business of the court.  It was decorated in the mode of Italian palaces and devoted to the seven known planets at the time along with their corresponding Roman deities.  It was no accident that Louis XIV’s apartment was dedicated to the Roman gods; from what I’ve read, he thought highly of himself and felt that he shared many characteristics with these deities that he admired so much.

Here are a few of the rooms from his suite:

Hercules Room

The Hercules Room was the first room in the suite and occupies the site of what was once a chapel.  Hercules, the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Alcmene, was known for his strength and adventurous spirit.

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Ceiling artwork: The Apotheosis of Hercules.  This work of art is the largest canvas ceiling painting in Europe (covering 5166 square feet of surface area)
Mars Room
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Ceiling painting: Mars on a Chariot Drawn by Wolves

The Mars Room has a military theme, appropriate considering that Mars was the Roman god of war.  Originally this space was used as a guard room for the king’s apartment; later it became a ballroom.

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The Apollo Room

Apollo, the Roman god of the sun and of arts & peace, was the Sun King’s favorite Roman deity, and this room was the most luxurious of all.  It was originally King Louis XIV’s bedchamber but later became the throne room and was used to receive distinguished guests.

The paintings and ceiling decor are original, but the fine silver furnishings that once adorned this room, including the king’s throne, were melted down in 1689 to pay for expenses of the state, including expensive wars.

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Ceiling artwork: Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun Accompanied by the Seasons
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Where the king’s throne once sat
The Mercury Room

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Mercury was the Roman god of trade, commerce and liberal arts; the room dedicated to him was used for games and entertainment.

Like the Apollo Room, the Mercury Room was also at one time filled with solid silver tables, mirrors, chandeliers, and other furnishings, all of which were melted down in 1689.

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Ceiling art: Mercury on His Chariot Drawn by Two Cocks

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Grand Appartement de la Reine

The Grand Appartement de la Reine (Queen’s Grand Apartment) consists of four rooms that form a parallel enfilade to the king’s Grand Apartment.  This suite of rooms functioned as the queen’s residence, and three French queens lived here: Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, wife of Louis XIV; Marie Leszczyńska, wife of Louis XV; and, finally, Marie-Antoinette.

The Nobles Room

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The queen held formal visits in this room.  In 1785, it was lavishly redecorated by Marie Antoinette in the style of the day.  When not in use for receiving guests, the Nobles Room served as the antechamber to the queen’s bedroom.

 

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This carpet was woven during the reign of Louis XIV at the Sovonnerie royal factory
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Ceiling artwork: Mercury Surrounded by the Arts and Sciences
Queen’s Bedchamber

This was the official bedchamber of the Queen of France.  It was refurbished between 1948-1976 to simulate its original splendor and the way it looked in 1789.

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On the night of October 6, 1789, Marie Antoinette escaped from the rioting crowd through this door:

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Bust of Marie-Antoinette (1783)

Personally, I much preferred the queen’s rooms to the king’s.  The bold red of his rooms are so aggressive, whereas the queen’s rooms are feminine and so very, very floral.  Plus, the ceiling of her bedchamber looks like a golden ripple of water.

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The ceiling is mesmerizing…
Antechamber of the Grand Couvert

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Grand Couvert refers to the court ceremony in which the royal family dined in public, and visitors were allowed the privilege of watching (from afar) as the king and queen ate.  Certain select guests, such as members of the aristocracy, could sit near the table on stools.

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Appartement du Roi (King’s Apartment)

In addition to the Grand Apartment, another, smaller, suite of rooms was created for the king’s use when, in 1701, Louis XIV moved his bedchamber to a drawing room that faced the rising sun.  He used this apartment as his living quarters and quiet sanctuary; Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, however, used it as a work space.

King’s Bedchamber
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King’s Bedchamber–King Louis XIV died in this room on September 1, 1715, after reigning for 72 years–the longest-reigning king of any known monarch in Europe

The royals had almost no privacy, as illustrated by the Grand Couvert, above, as well as the lever and coucher, morning and evening ceremonies in which courtiers and guests were allowed to join King Louis XIV as he went through his daily routines.  In the morning, visitors witnessed the king’s entire–and I do mean entire–routine, including getting dressed, grooming, and going to the bathroom!  The coucher was essentially the same thing, just in reverse.  Louis XIV felt that this was an important way to maintain a connection with his people; however, his successors were less thrilled about this invasion of privacy and therefore less devoted to these customs.

The Bull’s Eye Room

This room is so called because of the oval-shaped windows.  Courtiers would wait here before being admitted into the king’s bedroom.

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A “bulls eye” window

The War Room, Peace Room, and Hall of Mirrors

The War Room
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The Sun King on his horse, victorious in battle

This room is actually the last of the seven rooms in the king’s Grand Apartment.  The initial plan was to call it the Jupiter Room, but instead, it became the War Room, dedicated to the “glorious” wars and victories of France under King XIV.

 

 

 

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The ceiling artwork is dedicated to Louis XIV’s war campaigns. The central painting depicts France, represented by the figure in the center, surrounded by her victories

The War Room sits on one side of the Hall of Mirrors, with the Peace Room (below) on the opposite end.

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Arched entrance to the Hall of Mirrors from the War Room
The Hall of Mirrors
Entering the Hall of Mirrors
Entering the Hall of Mirrors

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The Galerie des Glaces, or Hall of Mirrors, is probably the most famous of all of the rooms in Versailles.  It is an enormous gallery–about 240 feet in length, 34 feet in height, and 40 feet in width–with a vaulted ceiling, seventeen bay windows, and seventeen arches that are adorned with mirrors.  In all, there are 357 mirrors in the hall, which was an exorbitant luxury at the time the room was created, as mirrors were very expensive to produce.

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The king walked through the hall daily to access the queen’s apartment and to attend mass in the chapel, and courtiers lined the wall in order to catch a glimpse of or request an audience with him.  But the Hall of Mirrors was a room designed to impress, and the grandest of the palace’s events were also held here, including balls, celebrations, and receptions for important visitors.

This is the site where, at the end of World War I, Germany officially surrendered and the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

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Signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Peace Room

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The War Room is at one end of the Hall of Mirrors; so what’s on the opposite end?  You guessed it–the Peace Room.  It was originally part of the queen’s Grand Apartment and used as a study.

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Ceiling painting: The Benefits of Peace

The Mesdames’ apartments

The six daughters of Louis XV were collectively called Mesdames, and the suites of rooms known as the Mesdames’ apartments served as their residence. Only two daughters, Adélaïde and Victoire, were still living at Versailles at the time of the French Revolution.

Grand Cabinet of Madame Adélaïde

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Bedchamber of Madame Adélaïde

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Interior cabinet of Madame Adélaïde

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Library of Madame Victoire
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Interior cabinet of Madame Victoire

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Bedchamber of Madame Victoire

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Grand Cabinet of Madame Victoire

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A few other random, beautiful items that were located… I have no idea where!

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Napoleon I

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And remember: when walking through a palace, always look up
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Look at the texture of that ceiling!

~~~

That’s it for the Palace of Versailles.  But there’s more: we haven’t even gotten to the gardens yet.  If you think the palace was spectacular, just wait till you see the gardens.  Both were designated a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1979.

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A portion of the gardens, as seen from within the palace

Google Arts and Culture has a virtual tour that presents a much more comprehensive look at Versailles than we could offer here.

Notes: 

¹ The topic of “world’s largest palace” is controversial, and it’s difficult to definitively rank the largest palaces in the world.  The estate of Versailles covers 87,728,720 square feet (2,014 acres) and holds the title of “world’s largest royal domain,” as measured by total property area; however, many palaces, including The Louvre, are much bigger than the Palace of Versailles by itself.

² We had a ton of pictures and I did my best to match the photos with the rooms, but if you’ve been to Versailles and you notice I’ve mislabeled something, please let me know.