View of the Palace of Versailles on the waterbed (1675) by UnnamedPalace of Versailles
An expedition to discover the art and architecture of this famous French palace.
About 16 km southwest of Paris, Château de Versailles was originally built by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge. In 1661, Louis XIV began transforming Versailles into an opulent palace, and during his reign it became the official seat of Royal power. Louis XV and Louis XVI reigned from here, and both also made changes to the palace. After the French Revolution brought an end to the monarchy, Versailles fell into disuse. Today, it serves as a museum.
The restrained garden facade—the palace’s “back”—exhibits characteristics of the classical architecture of the time, with very little decoration. The nearly flat face, the ordered ranks of windows, and the structure’s symmetry were meant to convey power and authority.
The 3-story palace features arched windows on the ground floor and first story. Regularly spaced bays extend out from the facade on the ground floor and bear 1st-floor columns. Above the attic story, an ironwork balustrade lines the flat roof.
The palace sits on a broad, deep terrace with water parterres on either side of a wide central walkway. Created by landscape architect André le Nôtré, these pools reflect sunlight onto the facade of the palace and into its rooms.
Below the garden facade terrace is the Leto Basin, a pool with a central fountain featuring the Titan goddess Leto. Connecting the Leto Basin and Grand Canal is the Tapis-Vert, or green carpet, a stretch of grass lined with statues.
Completed in 1686, the Hall of Mirrors—la Galerie des Glaces in French—is located in the central block of the palace on the back, or garden side. Originally an open gallery, it was enclosed by architect Hardouin-Mansart and decorated by Charles Le Brun. During the residencies of the 3 King Louis, the 73-meter-long hall was used primarily as a meeting place. In 1745, Marie-Antoinette danced here at a ball celebrating her wedding to the future Louis XVI.
Opposite each of the hall’s 17 arched windows is a mirror of the same shape and size, all reflecting light cast up at them from pools on the terrace outside. Each mirror is actually comprised of many mirrors—357 in total.
In homage to Louis XIV’s nickname, the Sun King, the Hall of Mirrors’ barrel-vaulted ceiling is hung with a series of crystal chandeliers that glitter with reflected light from the mirrors. The chandeliers originally bore candles, but are now electrified.
The Hall of Mirrors ceiling is covered by paintings framed by ornate, gold-leafed plaster moldings. The cartoons, or drawings, for the paintings were created by the palace’s chief decorator, Charles Le Brun, and celebrate the early accomplishments of Louis XIV.
Adjoining the Hall of Mirrors is a sitting room, The War Salon (Salon de la Guerre). Its marble walls are decorated with gilded bronze carvings showing emblems of the king, trophies, shields, and thunderbolts.
In Louis XIII’s time, the room that eventually became the King’s Chamber, or bedroom, was a reception room. Where the bed stands now, windows provided a view of the gardens. Louis XIV had the room closed off to serve as his bedchamber. Each morning, a crowd of courtiers would watch as he was washed, shaved, and dressed in a ceremony known as the First Levee. At night, the king’s retirement to bed—the Coucher—was also witnessed.
At Versailles, the Royal Family lived on public view, and the king essentially slept on a stage behind a gilded railing. Favored courtiers attended the king morning and night in his bedchamber—a coveted sign of high status.
Sumptuous fabrics served as status symbols in 17th-century France and you’ll see a rich, colorful brocade used throughout the chamber. Louis XIV employed his own textile weavers, but the fabric you see today is a 1980 copy of the original.
Projecting from the wall above the bed is a relief carving by the sculptor Nicolas Coustou called France Watching Over the King’s Sleep. It depicts the nation of France as a woman with scepter and shield.
If you look toward the ceiling, you’ll see a narrow “shelf” or cornice that runs all the way around the room. Above the cornice on 2 facing walls are 6 paintings, all showing the influence of the Italian painter Caravaggio.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for the very rich in France and other European countries to have orange trees, other fruit trees, and exotic shrubs native to warmer climates. The trees and shrubs were grown in boxes, which could be brought inside during the cold months. “Inside” was an orangery. These were covered, heated buildings, unlike later glass greenhouses and conservatories. The orangery at Versailles is among the world’s most famous.
Architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart designed and built Versailles’ orangery from 1884 to 1886. Entry is not permitted, but inside is a vast, empty space beneath a high, barrel-vaulted (arched) ceiling. This unheated orangery’s walls are thick enough to keep out frost.
A parterre is simply a level area in a garden. Designed by André Le Nôtre in symmetrical fashion, the orangery parterre has a round pool surrounded by 6 beds, each planted with grass—not flowers—in an ornamental pattern.
The Baroque-style Parterre du Midi, or Flower Parterre is a parterre de broderie: the flower beds lined with closely trimmed hedges and the paths that cut through them form a complicated pattern resembling an embroidery pattern.
Dotted amidst the grounds and gardens of Versailles are 15 groves, or open-air lounges, designed by the château’s master gardener André Le Nôtre. These are green spaces where the king and members of his court gathered to dance or be entertained, or just to relax. The Ballroom Grove was also known as the Rocaille Grove. The French rocaille means rubble or loose stones. In garden design, a rocaille, or rockery, is a structure made of loose stones.
The Ballroom Grove’s rockery is actually a formal stone fountain, where water cascades down 8 levels and jets into the sky at the base. It was fed by water pumped from the River Seine at Marly-le-Roi about 9 km away.
At the base of the fountain is the “island,” a circular, open space used as a dance floor. Dances in the time of Louis XIV were highly choreographed and included the minuet, the gavotte, and the bourée.
Surrounding the island is the amphitheater, made up of circular tiers of seats planted with grass for comfort. Though aristocrats wore extravagant clothing made from silk, satin, velvet and lace, they nevertheless sat on the grass seats.
The Hercules Salon in the King’s Grand Apartment is 1 in a set of 7 interconnected rooms (or enfilade), where each room follows 1 after another, their connecting doors exactly aligned. The king and select courtiers paraded through these rooms en route to the palace’s chapel. Louis XIV intended the Hercules Salon to be a showcase for the Feast of the House of Simon, a gift from the Republic of Venice in 1664. Louis XV used it as a ballroom.
The Hercules Salon is adorned with 3 important paintings. Above the fireplace, a work by Veronese depicts the Bible story of Rebecca at the Well. Italian painter Paolo Veronese was a dominant force in the development of the Renaissance style.
A 2nd Veronese painting, the Feast in the House of Simon, hangs on the wall opposite the fireplace. The 1572 masterpiece depicts the Bible story in which Jesus bestows forgiveness on a sinful woman, demonstrating charity and goodness.
The room’s namesake masterwork, François Le Moyne’s Apotheosis of Hercules, covers the entire ceiling vault and was finished in 1736 after 3 years of work. A restoration of the painting, completed in 2001, took 13 restorers 2 years of work.