11 Secrets from The Palace of Versailles

By Google Arts & Culture

In 1661, Louis XIV commissioned André Le Nôtre to design and layout the intricate grounds – a project that took forty years to complete. Just 20km from the centre of Paris, the Palace has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and for good reason – in 2017 alone, the Versailles received an incredible 7,700,000 visitors.

The Palace has a rich history: with several royal rulers calling it home over the centuries, a visit catapults history fans back to the opulent days of the 17th and 18th century palace life. Waiting to be uncovered is a whole host of incredible stories, bizarre facts, and fascinating quirks that build an even richer picture of the Palace. So sit back and discover 11 secrets that you may or may not know about this breathtaking dwelling...

View of the palace and gardens of Versailles, seen from the avenue de Paris in 1668 by Pierre PatelPalace of Versailles

1. The palace was originally a hunting lodge

The Palace of Versailles had fairly humble beginnings. Louis XIII (1601–1643) bought the land because he loved hunting and built a chateau as a lodge where he loved staying at night if he had no time to go back to Paris or Saint-Germain-en-Laye before dark. Louis eventually expanded the chateau and bought more land, which led the way for Louis XIV to turn Versailles into a palace during the 1660s and 1670s. He even moved the French government and its court there in 1682. At one point, over 5,000 people could be accommodated in Versailles’ large living space. 

Louis XIII, Jean Morin after Philippe de Champaigne, 1600/1650, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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2. The smell of the gardens was so strong, it made visitors ill
 

The gardens of Versailles are some of the largest and most spectacular in the world and contain 372 statues, 55 water features, 600 fountains, and over 20 miles of water pipes. Hundreds of thousands of plants and trees have been continually planted over the years.While this makes the gardens look amazing, in the 17th century the fragrance from these blooms in Trianon was so overpowering it made guests feel ill and drove them away. 

The Orangery, Estate of Versailles, Jules Hardoin-Mansard, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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3. To build the Hall Of Mirrors, the mirror makers were stolen from Venice

Construction first began of the Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in 1678 under the architect Jules Hardouin Mansart and it became one of the most remarkable features of the palace. There are 357 mirrors in the hall, which at the time were among the most expensive items to possess.Venice had the monopoly on making mirrors but France managed to entice Venetian mirror makers to come over to create some specially for the palace. Legend has it, in order to keep its monopoly and prevent the craftsmen from giving away their secrets; the Venetian government kept an eye on the craftsmen's movements and forbade them to leave the city under penalty of death.

4. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors

The Hall of Mirrors has played host to plenty of splendor over the years, with the room originally being lit by as many as 20,000 candles to transform it into a “corridor of light” during special occasions. But it has also been a witness to some of the most important moments in history, the most significant being the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.The Treaty was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to a close, ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, exactly 5 years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that directly led to the war beginning.

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919, Orpen, William (Sir) (RA), 1919, From the collection of: Imperial War Museums
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5. The king ate cold meals as the kitchen was so far away from his dining room

The palace was large, but a potential oversight from the architect was the distance between the kitchen and the dining rooms. With sometimes over 5,000 people to feed, hundreds of servants were needed to get all those mouths fed.Unfortunately for the king, the distance from his seat to the kitchen was so far away, his meals were often served cold. Eventually, in the 18th century, Louis XV had private kitchens built in his private apartments. 

Reception honouring J. F. Kennedy, President of the United States, Fonds de l’agence d’architecture de Versailles, 1961/1961, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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6. Marie Antoinette had a private romantic hideaway on the grounds

Marie Antoinette was the wife of Louis XVI and she had her own estate called “The Petit Trianon”. She used the residence as her own personal retreat and it included a theater and farm area that produced fresh vegetables and dairy products.Also on the site was a “temple of love”, consisting of a round colonnade centered with a statue of cupid. Near the temple, Marie-Antoinette had a private grotto built, which was a secluded cave-like area overgrown with vegetation. It supposedly had a moss bed and two entrances, which seems like the perfect escape for secret meeting – although its purpose has never been confirmed, wink wink.

Temple amour, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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7. Versailles has housed several Royal Menageries

It’s well known that Versailles played host to thousands of people at a time, but did you also know the palace once housed several menageries full of all kinds of wild animals and birds from all over the world?One of the original features of the palace was an elaborate menagerie built by architect Louis le Vau. It was the first place to divide animal species into separate and specially adapted enclosures which could be seen from the balcony of the central pavilion of La Ménagerie. This model and approach was soon adopted throughout Europe, and menageries of this kind were eventually called zoos.

View of the Menagerie, Editors Esnauts & Rapilly and Jean-François Daumont, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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8. The palace played a crucial role in scientific research

The palace was of course a place for extravagance and entertainment, but is also played an important role in scientific research. During the Enlightenment period, both Louis XV and Louis XVI were passionate about science and collected instruments that had been used during experiments in horology, astronomy, and cartography among other things.With the creation of the huge menagerie in the grounds of the palace, it allowed zoological studies to flourish. Doctors dissected many animals and the research activities conducted at Versailles later led to the creation of veterinary schools. Also with such huge gardens, there was progress in the fields of botany and agriculture. The garden once comprised 400 botanical species from around the world such as pineapples, vanilla, coffee, and more.

Experience of hot-air balloon by Mr Pilâtre du Rosier at Versailles June 23, 1784, Editor Esnauts & Rapilly, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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9. The royal gate was destroyed during the French Revolution

With all that luxury and opulence kept within the palace, it’s no surprise the people of France ultimately detested Versailles, with many people outside of the palace’s gate poor and starving. Marie-Antointette’s lavish lifestyle was especially loathed for its extravagance. During the French Revolution that began in 1789, the French revolutionary government ordered to dismantle the front gate, which was completely covered with gold. In 2008, the gate was recreated and decorated with 100,000 gold leaves.

10. Hot chocolate was the drink of choice

While there was a bounty of food and drink on constant offer at Versailles, the drink of choice for King Louis XV was hot chocolate. And so, the king’s favorite became everyone’s favorite. The cocoa drink was a delicacy back then and was thought of as an exotic choice for the royals.There was talk at the time about chocolate’s aphrodisiac effects, so of course the king gave many a cup to his visiting mistresses, even sometimes making a batch himself – for a king to do such a mundane task was unheard of at the time. Even Marie-Antoinette had a penchant for hot chocolate. In 1770 when she married Louis XVI, she brought her own chocolate maker to the court and his very niche job title was, “Chocolate maker to the Queen”.

Still life with the bust of America, J.-B. Oudry - Palace of Versailles, 1722/1722, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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11. The chamber pots were made of silver

Members of the royal family were lucky enough to have a cupboard in their rooms that housed a sort of a toilet chair, where a chamber pot would be placed under a seat with a hole and be changed by staff when they got round to it. While everyone else also had chamber pots, they didn’t always have the dignity of a separate room, with many pots simply being placed in the corners of rooms throughout the palace. Not wanting to avoid an opportunity to show off though, even the chamber pots at Versailles were cast in silver. It’s a fancy touch, yet the distinct lack of toilet facilities did mean that with a full house of guests and staff, it often got a little smelly. Eventually, under Louis XV facilities called “toilettes à l’anglaise” were installed in his private apartments. 

Louis XIV’s bedroom at the Palace of Versailles, Collection Malitte-Richard, 1870/1899, From the collection of: Palace of Versailles
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