The Hall of Mirrors
Grand Portraits
The Royal Chapel
Antechamber of the Grand Couvert
Council Study
Gardens
Palace of Versailles
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The passion of one iconic French monarch created an enduring legacy and one of the greatest achievements in art and architecture

Situated just outside of Paris, The Chateau de Versailles is a palace that is unparalleled in its scale and grandeur.

A UNESCO World Heritage site and renowned as one of the greatest achievements in French art and architecture, the palace is not only a museum to the history of France; it is also a testimony to the passion and vision of King Louis XIV.

Louis XIV became heir to the French throne when he was only four. Despite his young age when he came to power, he was self-confident, believing himself, like many monarchs of his day, to be ordained by God. He ruled as an absolute monarch.

His long seventy-plus year reign and his vision for building the magnificent royal palace and gardens at Versailles confirm him as one of France’s most iconic monarchs.

The site of the palace began as a simple hunting lodge built by King Louis XIII in 1629, close to the small town of Versailles. After Louis XIV inherited the lodge, he found himself spending much of his time there, so much so, that he started to govern from Versailles and decided to build a palace to make it his permanent home and the official royal residence.

He set out to build up his power base outside of Paris and decided Versailles would be the place where the monarchy would govern. He insisted that all the leading nobles, his court and his ministers should live there too. To accommodate this huge population, he started a major transformation and building works. 

Louis XIV hired the greatest architect of the time to transform the site into the largest palace complex in Europe. The old hunting lodge was retained but was enveloped by massive new buildings that enclosed it on three sides. The palace had to be large enough to provide apartments for government ministers, as well as to accommodate the royal family, the nobility, the court and all the government departments.

The sheer scale of the project was monumental. The palace and its furnishings were made with the best craftsmanship and the best materials. The expansion and building works took over fifty years and cost billions of dollars. The project stretched the treasury and required the labour of thousands to build it.

He envisioned the palace and gardens of Versailles as a showcase of the prestige of France and himself especially as the leader and arbiter of art and culture in Europe. Louis XIV wanted a sensational and awe-inspiring symbol of his pre-eminence, and he succeeded. Today, French Baroque or Louis XIV furniture is synonymous with the era of the Sun King and The Chateau de Versailles. The distinctive style is characterized by elaborate decorations, brilliant colours, the use of quality and fine materials such as marble, granite, gold leaf, gilt ornaments, and fine upholstery. The overall effect is grand and extravagant.

Louis XIV commissioned hundreds of portrait paintings and sculptures of himself. He recruited the best artisans and painters to glorify his image and had them depict him as a grand conquering hero analogous to those in ancient mythology, such as Jupiter and Apollo, as well as other powerful men of the past.

These visual associations were a strategy to elevate him to the status as the most revered and important king of the time – the Sun King. To maintain that aura of greatness, he held sumptuous and hugely elaborate parties with hundreds of entertainers and guests. Though extravagant, his display of wealth and grandeur turned the palace into the most fashionable and important seat of power and society in Europe. 

One of the most famous rooms in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors, which took six years to create. The mirrors were made of Venetian glass, the finest glass available at the time. Fabulous chandeliers made of crystal hang from the vaulted and painted ceilings. The effect of the reflected light off the mirrored walls and of thousands of crystal pieces dangling from the ceiling creates a dreamy and dazzling display. At the time there was nothing else comparable in the world. The Hall of Mirrors became the court’s main ceremonial reception area. It was the pride of Louis XIV, and this ostentatious and extravagant room confirmed his royal power to his court and visiting dignitaries.

Louis XIV lavished his attention and wealth also on the creation of the gardens and parks of Versailles. He hired a celebrated landscape designer to create an earthly paradise. Gardens were commissioned and ornamental lakes were made. He had fully mature trees transported from other parts of France and replanted on-site so he didn’t have to wait for the trees to grow from saplings.

The landscaped grounds are a key part of the royal residence and surround the palace on three sides. There are hundreds of acres of formal lawns enhanced by paths, thousands of fountains and water features. Arranged according to a grid, each unit is treated as a unique space where sculptures and architectural details, as well as foliage, were used to decorate each section.

Louis XIV had a love affair with his palace. He spent seventy-two years on the throne, and throughout his reign, he sought to bring glory to himself and his country. His life-long devotion, expressed in the creation and building of Versailles, made him the embodiment of the greatness of France at that time.

In his decline, before the end of his life, the Sun King’s glitter faded. His fortune waned, and some of the palace’s treasures were sold to finance France’s costly war with other European powers. By the time of his death in 1715, he left France deeply in debt.

The French monarchy was succeeded by two other Kings who had little success in expanding and rejuvenating The Chateau de Versailles to the glory it was during the reign of Louis XIV. 

In 1789, the French Revolution forced the royal family to leave the palace at Versailles. After the revolution, the palace lost its prominence. Its painting collection was removed and taken to the Louvre Museum, and the furniture was auctioned off and dispersed.

The palace was preserved, and in 1832 it was transformed into a historical museum. A large gallery of paintings was created, and slowly many of the key features of the palace were restored, including the fabulous Hall of Mirrors.

Now, the former royal palace at Versailles is a mega tourist destination and also the host to festivals and shows.

Text & photos Cammy Yiu