The Palace of Versailles was the principal royal residence of France from 1682 under Louis XIV until the start of the French Revolution in 1789 under Louis XVI. It is located in the Yvelines Department of the Île-de-France region, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) southwest of the centre of Paris.
The palace is now a French Historic Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, notable especially for the ceremonial Hall of Mirrors, the jewel-like Royal Opera, and the royal apartments; for the more intimate royal residences, the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon located within the park; the small rustic Hameau (Hamlet) created for Marie Antoinette; and the vast Gardens of Versailles with fountains, canals, and geometric flower beds and groves, laid out by André le Nôtre. The Palace was stripped of all its furnishings after the French Revolution, but many pieces have been returned and many of the palace rooms have been restored.
Architecture and plan
The Palace of Versailles offers a visual history of French architecture from the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. It began with the original château, with the brick and stone and sloping slate mansard roofs of the Louis XIII style used by architect Philibert Le Roy. It then became grander and more monumental, with the addition of the colonnades and flat roofs of the new royal apartments in the French classical or Louis XIV style, as designed by Louis Le Vau and later Jules Hardouin-Mansart. It concluded in the lighter and more graceful neoclassical Louis XVI style of the Petit Trianon, completed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in 1768.
The palace was largely completed by the death of Louis XIV in 1715. The eastern facing palace has a U-shaped layout, with the corps de logis and symmetrical advancing secondary wings terminating with the Dufour Pavilion on the south and the Gabriel Pavilion to the north, creating an expansive cour d’honneur known as the Royal Court (Cour Royale). Flanking the Royal Court are two enormous asymmetrical wings that result in a facade of 402 metres (1,319 ft) in length. Encompassing 67,000 square metres (721,182 sq ft) the palace has 700 rooms, more than 2,000 windows, 1,250 fireplaces and 67 staircases.
The façade of Louis XIII’s original château is preserved on the entrance front. Built of red brick and cut stone embellishments, the U-shaped layout surrounds a black-and-white marble courtyard. In the center, a 3-storey avant-corps fronted with eight red marble columns supporting a gilded wrought-iron balcony is surmounted with a triangle of lead statuary surrounding a large clock, whose hands were stopped upon the death of Louis XIV. The rest of the façade is completed with columns, painted and gilded wrought-iron balconies and dozens of stone tables decorated with consoles holding marble busts of Roman emperors. Atop the mansard slate roof are elaborate dormer windows and gilt lead roof dressings that were added by Hardouin-Mansart in 1679–1681.
Inspired by the architecture of baroque Italian villas, but executed in the French classical style, the garden front and wings were encased in white cut ashlar stone known as the enveloppe in 1668-1671 by Le Vau and modified by Hardouin-Mansart in 1678–1679. The exterior features an arcaded, rusticated ground floor, supporting a main floor with round-headed windows divided by reliefs and pilasters or columns. The attic storey has square windows and pilasters and crowned by a balustrade bearing sculptured trophies and flame pots dissimulating a flat roof.
The construction in 1668–1671 of Le Vau’s enveloppe around the outside of Louis XIII’s red brick and white stone château added state apartments for the king and the queen. The addition was known at the time as the château neuf (new château). The grands appartements (Grand Apartments, also referred to as the State Apartments) include the grand appartement du roi and the grand appartement de la reine. They occupied the main or principal floor of the château neuf, with three rooms in each apartment facing the garden to the west and four facing the garden parterres to the north and south, respectively. The private apartments of the king (the appartement du roi and the petit appartement du roi) and those of the queen (the petit appartement de la reine) remained in the château vieux (old château). Le Vau’s design for the state apartments closely followed Italian models of the day, including the placement of the apartments on the main floor (the piano nobile, the next floor up from the ground level), a convention the architect borrowed from Italian palace design.
The king’s State Apartment consisted of an enfilade of seven rooms, each dedicated to one of the known planets and their associated titular Roman deity. The queen’s apartment formed a parallel enfilade with that of the grand appartement du roi. After the addition of the Hall of Mirrors (1678–1684) the king’s apartment was reduced to five rooms (until the reign of Louis XV, when two more rooms were added) and the queen’s to four.
The queen’s apartments served as the residence of three queens of France – Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, wife of Louis XIV, Marie Leczinska, wife of Louis XV, and Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. Additionally, Louis XIV’s granddaughter-in-law, Princess Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy, duchesse de Bourgogne, wife of the Petit Dauphin, occupied these rooms from 1697 (the year of her marriage) to her death in 1712.
The State Apartments of the King
The construction of the Hall of Mirrors between 1678 and 1686 coincided with a major alteration to the State Apartments. They were originally intended as his residence, but the King transformed them into galleries for his finest paintings, and venues for his many receptions for courtiers. During the season from All-Saints Day in November until Easter, these were usually held three times a week, from six to ten in the evening, with various entertainments.
The Salon of Hercules
This was originally a chapel. It was rebuilt beginning in 1712 as a showcase for the painting Meal at the House of Simon the Pharisee by Paolo Veronese, which was a gift to Louis XIV from the Republic of Venice in 1664. The painting on the ceiling, The Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Lemoyne, was completed in 1712, and gave the room its name.
The Salon of Abundance
The Salon of Abundance was the antechamber to the Cabinet of Curios (now the Games Room), which displayed Louis XIV’s collection of precious jewels and rare objects. Some of the objects in the collection are depicted in René-Antoine Houasse’s painting Abundance and Liberality (1683), located on the ceiling over the door opposite the windows.
The Salon of Venus
This salon was used for serving light meals during evening receptions. The principal feature in this room is Jean Warin’s life-size statue of Louis XIV in the costume of a Roman emperor. On the ceiling in a gilded oval frame is another painting by Houasse, Venus subjugating the Gods and Powers (1672-1681). Trompe l’oeil paintings and sculpture around the ceiling illustrate mythological themes.
The Salon of Mercury
The Salon of Mercury was the original State Bedchamber when Louis XIV officially moved the court and government to the Palace in 1682. The bed is a replica of the original commissioned by King Louis-Philippe in the 19th century when he turned the Palace into a Museum. The ceiling paintings by the Flemish artist Jean Baptiste de Champaigne depicts the god Mercury in his chariot, drawn by a rooster, and Alexander the Great and Ptolemy surrounded by scholars and philosophers. The Automaton Clock was made for the King by the royal clockmaker Antoine Morand in 1706. When it chimes the hour, figures of Louis XIV and Fame descend from a cloud.
The Salon of Mars
The Salon of Mars was used by the royal guards until 1782, and was decorated on a military theme with helmets and trophies. It was turned into a concert room between 1684 and 1750, with galleries for musicians on either side. Portraits of Louis XV and his Queen, Marie Leszczinska, by the Flemish artist Carle Van Loo decorate the room today.
The Salon of Apollo
The Salon of Apollo was the royal throne room under Louis XIV, and was the setting for formal audiences. The eight-foot high silver throne was melted down in 1689 to help pay the costs of an expensive war, and was replaced by a more modest throne of gilded wood. The central painting on the ceiling, by Charles de la Fosse, depicts the Sun Chariot of Apollo, the King’s favorite emblem, pulled by four horses and surrounded by the four seasons.
Salon of Diana
The Salon of Diana was used by Louis XIV as a billiards room, and had galleries from which courtiers could watch him play. The decoration of the walls and ceiling depicts scenes from the life of the goddess Diana. The celebrated bust of Louis XIV by Bernini made during the famous sculptor’s visit to France in 1665, is on display here.
Private apartments of the King and Queen
Private apartments of the King
The apartments of the King were the heart of the chateau; they were in the same location as the rooms of Louis XIII, the creator of the chateau, on the first floor (second floor US style). They were set aside for the personal use of Louis XIV in 1683. He and his successors Louis XV and Louis XVI used these rooms for official functions, such as the ceremonial lever (“waking up”) and the coucher (“going to bed”) of the monarch, which were attended by a crowd of courtiers.
The King’s apartment was accessed from the Hall of Mirrors from the Oeil de Boeuf antechamber past the Guardroom and the Grand Couvert, the ceremonial room where Louis XIV often took his evening meals, seated alone at a table in front of the fireplace. His spoon, fork, and knife were brought to him in a golden box. The courtiers could watch as he dined.
The King’s bedchamber had originally been the State Drawing Room and had been used by Queen Marie-Theresa, but after her death in 1701 Louis XIV took it over to use as his own bedroom and died there on September 1, 1715. Both Louis XV and Louis XVI continued to use the bedroom for their official awakening and going to bed. On October 6, 1789, from the balcony of this room Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, joined by the Marquis de Lafayette, looked down on the hostile crowd in the courtyard, shortly before the King was forced to return to Paris.
The bed of the King is placed beneath a carved relief by Nicolas Coustou entitled France watching over the sleeping King. The decoration includes several paintings set into the paneling, including a self-portrait of Antony Van Dyck.
Private apartments of The Queen
The petit appartement de la reine is a suite of rooms that were reserved for the personal use of the queen. Originally arranged for the use of the Marie-Thérèse, consort of Louis XIV, the rooms were later modified for use by Marie Leszczyńska and finally for Marie-Antoinette. The Queen’s apartments and the King’s Apartments were laid out on the same design, each suite having seven rooms. Both suites had ceilings painted with scenes from mythology; the King’s ceilings featured male figures, the Queen’s featured females.
The Grand Gallery
The Grand Gallery is a set of three highly decorated reception rooms, dedicated to the celebration of the political and military successes of Louis XIV, and used for important ceremonies, celebrations and receptions.
The War Salon
The War Salon commemorates the victorious campaign of Louis XIV against the Dutch, which ended in 1678. The centerpiece is an enormous sculpted medallion of Louis XIV, on horseback, crossing the Rhine in 1672, created by Antoine Coysevox. Above the fireplace is a painting of Clio, the Muse of History, recording the exploits of the King.
The Hall of Mirrors
The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), is perhaps the most famous room in the château of Versailles. It took the place of the rooftop terrace overlooking the gardens which formerly connected the apartments of the King and Queen. The construction of the room began in 1678 and finished in 1689. The gallery is more than 70 metres (230 ft) long, and it is lined with 17 wide arcaded mirrors, designed to match and reflect the windows opposite facing the gardens. Charles Le Brun painted thirty scenes of the early reign of Louis XIV on the ceiling. The centerpiece is a painting of the King titled, “The King Governing Alone”. It shows Louis XIV, facing the powers of Europe, turning away from his pleasures to accept a crown of immortality from Glory, with the encouragement of Mars.
The hall was originally furnished with solid silver furniture designed by Le Brun, but these furnishings were melted down in 1689 to help pay for war expenses. The King kept a silver throne, usually located in the Salon of Apollo, which was brought to the Hall of Mirrors for formal ceremonies, such as the welcome of foreign ambassadors, including a delegation from the King of Siam in 1686. It was also used for large events, such as full-dress and masked balls. Light was provided by candelabra on large gilded guerdirons lining the hall. Those on display today were made in 1770 for the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, based on the moldings of earlier silver versions made by LeBrun that had been melted down. The twenty-four crystal chandeliers were hung only for special occasions. Courtiers gathered in the Hall to watch the King walk from his apartments to the chapel, and sometimes took the occasion to present him with requests.
The Peace Salon
The Peace Salon is decorated to illustrate the role of France as the arbiter and peacemaker of Europe under Louis XV. The painting on the ceiling by François Lemoyne, Louis XV offering an olive branch to Europe, illustrates this theme. During the reign of Louis XV, the Queen, Marie Leszczyńska, used this salon as a music room, organizing concerts of secular and religious music each Sunday.
The Chapel was the last building at Versailles to be completed during the reign of Louis XIV. It was consecrated in 1710, and was dedicated to Louis IX of France, the ancestor and patron saint of the King. Construction was begun by Hardouin-Mansart in 1699, and was completed by de Corte. Daily services, wedding ceremonies, and baptisms were held in this chapel until 1789. Like other royal chapels, it had two levels: the King and family worshipped in the Royal Gallery on the upper level, while ordinary courtiers stood on the ground level.
The paintings on the ceiling display scenes depicting the three figures of the trinity. In the center is The Glory of the Father Announcing the Coming of the Messiah by Antoine Coypel, above the altar is The Resurrection of Christ, and above the royal gallery is The Holy Spirit Descending Upon the Virgin and the Apostles. The corridor and vestibule that connected the Chapel and the State Apartments included later art, commissioned by Louis XV, intended to portray the link between Divinity and the King: a statue of Glory Holding the Medallion of Louis XV, by Antoine Vassé; and Royal Magnanimity by Jacques Bousseau.
The Royal Opera of Versailles was originally commissioned by Louis XIV in 1682 and was to be built at the end of the North Wing with a design by Mansart and Vigarani. However, due to the expense of the King’s continental wars, the project was put aside. The idea was revived by Louis XV with a new design by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in 1748, but this also was temporarily put aside. The project was revived and rushed ahead for the planned celebration of the marriage of the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI, and Marie-Antoinette. For economy and speed, the new opera was built almost entirely of wood, which also gave it very high quality acoustics. The wood was painted to resemble marble, and the ceiling was decorated with a painting of the Apollo, the god of the arts, preparing crowns for illustrious artists, by Louis Jean-Jacques Durameau. The sculptor Augustin Pajou added statuary and reliefs to complete the decoration. The new Opera was inaugurated on May 16, 1770, as part of the celebration of the royal wedding.
In October 1789, early in the French Revolution, the last banquet for the royal guardsmen was hosted by the King in the opera, before he departed for Paris. Following the Franco-German War in 1871 and then the Paris Commune until 1875, the French National Assembly met in the opera, until the proclamation of the Third French Republic and the return of the government to Paris.
Museum of the History of France
Shortly after becoming King in 1830, Louis Philippe I decided to transform the Palace, which was empty of furnishings and in poor repair, into a museum devoted to “All the Glories of France,” with paintings and sculpture depicting famous French victories and heroes. The walls of the apartments of the courtiers and lesser members of the royal family on the first floor (second floor U.S. style) were demolished, and turned into a series of several large galleries: the Coronation Room, which displays the celebrated painting of the coronation of Napoleon I by Jacques-Louis David; the Hall of Battles; commemorating French victories with large-scale paintings; and the 1830 room, which celebrated Louis-Philippe’s own coming tol power in the French Revolution of 1830. Some paintings were brought from the Louvre, including works depicting events in French history by Philippe de Champaigne, Pierre Mignard, Laurent de La Hyre, Charles Le Brun, Adam Frans van der Meulen, Nicolas de Largillière, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean-Antoine Houdon, Jean-Marc Nattier, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Hubert Robert, Thomas Lawrence, Jacques-Louis David, and Antoine-Jean Gros. Others were commissioned especially for the museum by prominent artists of the early 19th century, including Eugène Delacroix, who painted Saint Louis at the French victory over the British in the Battle of Taillebourg in 1242. Other painters featured include Horace Vernet and François Gérard. A monumental painting by Vernet features Louis Philippe himself, with his sons, posing in front of the gates of the Palace.
The overthrow of Louis Philippe in 1848 put an end to his grand plans for the museum, but the Gallery of Battles is still as it was, and is passed through by many visitors to the royal apartments and grand salons. Another set of rooms on the first floor has been made into galleries on Louis XIV and his court, displaying furniture, paintings, and sculpture. In recent years, eleven rooms on the ground floor between the Chapel and the Opera have been turned into a history of the palace, with audiovisual displays and models.
Gardens and fountains
André Le Nôtre began transforming the park and gardens of Versailles in the early 1660s. They are the finest example of the jardin à la française, or the French formal garden. They were originally designed to be viewed from the terrace on the west side of the palace, and to create a grand perspective that reached to the horizon, illustrating the king’s complete dominance over nature.
The Parterre d’Eau and the Parterre and Fountain of Latona
The features closest to the Palace are the two water parterres, large pools which reflect the facade of the palace. These are decorated with smaller works of sculpture, representing the rivers of France, which are placed so as not to interfere with the reflections in the water. Down a stairway from the Parterre d’Eau is the Latona Fountain, created in 1670, illustrating the story of Latona taken from the Metamorphoses of Ovid. According to the story, when the peasants of Lycia insulted Latona, the mother of Apollo and Diana, the god Jupiter transformed the peasants into frogs. The fountain was begun in 1670 by Le Nôtre, then enlarged and modified by Hardouin-Mansart, who placed the statue of Latona atop a marble pyramid.
Fountain of the Chariot of Apollo and the Grand Canal
The Grand Perspective of the palace continues from the Fountain of Latona south along a grassy lane, the Tapis Vert or green carpet, to the Basin of the Chariot of Apollo. Apollo, the sun god, was the emblem of Louis XIV, featured in much of the decoration of the palace. The chariot rising from the water symbolized the rising of the sun. It was designed by Le Brun and made by the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Tuby between 1668 and 1670, cast in iron and then gilded. Beyond the fountain, the Grand Canal extends 1800 meters to the south end of the park.
North Parterre, Dragon Basin, and Basin of Neptune
Another group of formal gardens is located on the north side of the water parterre. It includes two bosquets or groves: the grove of the Three Fountains, The Bosquet of the Arch of Triumph, and north of these, three major fountains, the Pyramid Fountain, Dragon Fountain, and the Neptune Fountain. The fountains in this area all have a maritime or aquatic theme; the Pyramid Fountain is decorated with Tritons, Sirens, dolphins and nymphs. The Dragon Fountain is one of the oldest at Versailles and has the highest jet of water, twenty-seven meters. It is not actually a dragon, but a python, a mythical serpent that was killed by Apollo. The Neptune Fountain was originally decorated only with a circle of large lead basins jetting water; Louis XV added statues of Neptune, Triton and other gods of the sea.
South Parterre and the Orangerie
The South Parterre is located beneath the windows of the queen’s apartments and on the roof of the Orangerie. It is decorated with box trees and flowers in arabesque patterns. The underground orangerie was designed to hold over a thousand citrus fruit, palms and oleanders, and other southern-climate trees during winter. They are taken out into the gardens from mid-May until mid-October.
The Fountains and the Shortage of Water
Supplying water for the fountains of Versailles was a major problem for the royal government. The 18th-century waterworks at Marly— the Machine de Marly that fed the fountains— was possibly the biggest mechanical system of its time. The water came in from afar on monumental stone aqueducts which have long ago fallen into disrepair or been torn down. Some aqueducts, such as the unfinished Canal de l’Eure, which passes through the gardens of the Château de Maintenon, were never completed for want of resources or due to the exigencies of war. Despite enormous investment in canals and machinery for hoisting water, Versailles never had a sufficient water supply for its hundreds of fountains. When the King promenaded in the gardens, fountains were turned on only when the King was approaching them, and turned off after he departed. Today, only a few fountains are supplied with water, and only operate on a very limited schedule.
The Bosquets or Groves
The largest part of the garden is divided into geometric bosquets, compartment-like groves; eight on the north side of the garden, and six to the south. The bosquets were created for Louis XIV between 1680 and 1690. They were bordered with high trees and carefully trimmed in cubic forms to resemble rooms with walls of greenery. Each bosquet had its own theme and fountains, statuary, grottoes, and other decoration. Some were highly formal, like Hardouin-Mansart’s Bosquet de la Colonnade, with a circle of columns alternating with fountains, while others imitated nature. They were often used for concerts or theatrical performances. Some of the early groves were altered beyond recognition by later monarchs, but the most famous bosquets, Le Nôtre’s Salle de Bal (literally, “ballroom”), also known as the Bosquet des Rocailles (c. 1685), and Hardouin-Mansart’s Bosquet de la Colonnade, have both been restored to the way they were under Louis XIV. Other notable groves include Les Dômes, the Bosquet d’Encelade (after Enceladus, c. 1675), the Théâtre d’Eau (Water Theater), and the Bains d’Apollon (Baths of Apollo). Some are now decorated with contemporary works of art.
The Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon
In 1668 Louis XIV decided to build a smaller palace some distance from the main palace, where he could spend quieter time away from the crowds and formality of his Court. He purchased a village called Trianon which adjoined the park, and constructed a pavilion covered with blue and white porcelain in the fashionable Chinese style; it was finished in 1670, and became known as the Porcelain Trianon. In 1687, he replaced it with the Grand Trianon, a larger and more classical pavilion designed by Mansart, with a terrace and walls faced with different colored slabs of marble. After the Revolution, the Trianon served as a residence for both Napoleon I and later for King Louis-Philippe when they visited Versailles. It is decorated today largely as it was under Napoleon and Louis-Philippe.
The Petit Trianon was created between 1763 and 1768 by Ange-Jacques Gabriel for Louis XV. The square shaped building, with each facade different, was a prototype of Neoclassicism in France. The most ornate facade, with Corinthian columns, faced the French landscape garden. Louis XVI gave the Petit Trianon as a gift to his bride, Marie-Antoinette. She asked the architect Richard Mique and painter Hubert Robert to design a new English-style landscape garden to replace the formal French garden. Not far from the Petit Trianon she had the Rock Pavilion constructed, and added the classical rotunda of the Temple of Love, built in 1777. In 1780, she built a small theater at the Petit Trianon. In her theater she played a part in one of the first performances of the play The Marriage of Figaro by Pierre Beaumarchais, which helped ensure its success. She was at the Petit Trianon in July 1789 when she first heard the news from Paris of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.
The Hamlet of Marie Antoinette
One of the most celebrated features of the park is the Hameau de la Reine, a small rustic hamlet near the Petit Trianon created for Queen Marie Antoinette between 1783 and 1785 by the royal architect Richard Mique with the help of the painter Hubert Robert. It replaced a botanical garden created by Louis XV, and consisted of twelve structures, ten of which still exist, in the style of villages in Normandy. It was designed for the Queen and her friends to amuse themselves by playing peasants, and included a farmhouse with a dairy, a mill, a boudoir, a pigeon loft, a tower in the form of a lighthouse from which one could fish in the pond, a belvedere, a cascade and grotto, and a luxuriously furnished cottage with a billiard room for the Queen.
Modern Political and ceremonial functions
The palace still serves political functions. Heads of state are regaled in the Hall of Mirrors; the bicameral French Parliament—consisting of the Senate (Sénat) and the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale)—meet in joint session (a congress of the French Parliament) in Versailles to revise or otherwise amend the French Constitution, a tradition that came into effect with the promulgation of the 1875 Constitution. For example, the Parliament met in joint session at Versailles to pass constitutional amendments in June 1999 (for domestic applicability of International Criminal Court decisions and for gender equality in candidate lists), in January 2000 (ratifying the Treaty of Amsterdam), and in March 2003 (specifying the “decentralized organization” of the French Republic).
In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed the global financial crisis before a congress in Versailles, the first time that this had been done since 1848, when Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte gave an address before the French Second Republic. Following the November 2015 Paris attacks, President François Hollande gave a speech before a rare joint session of parliament at the Palace of Versailles. This was the third time since 1848 that a French president addressed a joint session of the French Parliament at Versailles. The president of the National Assembly has an official apartment at the Palace of Versailles.
One of the most baffling aspects to the study of Versailles is the cost – how much Louis XIV and his successors spent on Versailles. Owing to the nature of the construction of Versailles and the evolution of the role of the palace, construction costs were essentially a private matter. Initially, Versailles was planned to be an occasional residence for Louis XIV and was referred to as the “king’s house”. Accordingly, much of the early funding for construction came from the king’s own purse, funded by revenues received from his appanage as well as revenues from the province of New France (Canada), which, while part of France, was a private possession of the king and therefore exempt from the control of the Parliaments.
One of the most costly elements in the furnishing of the grands appartements during the early years of the personal reign of Louis XIV was the silver furniture, which can be taken as a standard – with other criteria – for determining a plausible cost for Versailles. The Comptes meticulously list the expenditures on the silver furniture – disbursements to artists, final payments, delivery – as well as descriptions and weight of items purchased. Entries for 1681 and 1682 concerning the silver balustrade used in the salon de Mercure serve as an example.
Estimates of the amount spent to build Versailles are speculative. An estimate in 2000 placed the amount spent during the Ancien Régime as US$2 billion, this figure being, in all probability, an under-evaluation. France’s Fifth Republic expenditures alone, directed to restoration and maintenance at Versailles, undoubtedly surpass those of the Sun King.