Versailles

Versailles is a royal chateau on the outskirts of Paris, France. Once it has been the center of political power in France (1682-1789) and hence has become a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy. Today it is one of France’s main tourist attractions.

Louis XIII fell in love with the location during hunting trips. He ordered the construction of a lodge there in 1624. Eight years later he obtained all of the land and made enlargements to the chateau. These structures would become the core of the palace.

His successor, the Sun King Louis XIV, enlarged the structure in several building campaigns into one of the largest palaces in the world. The first campaign became necessary, when the king invited 600 guests to a party, which needed to be accommodated. The second campaign gave the palace some of the features that can still be seen today like the grand appartement du roi and the grand appartement de la reine. During the third campaign that added the Hall of Mirrors, the North and the South Wing as well as the Orangerie the court officially moved to Versailles on May 6, 1682. The fourth campaign focused almost exclusively on the construction of the royal chapel.

Later kings added rooms to the structure where necessary and had the gardens redone according to the latest fashion. Most significant additions after the reign of Louis XIV were the Opera and the Petit Trianon.

During the French Revolution all furniture that was not of particular artistic or intellectual value was auctioned off. The National Convention proposed to sell or rent out the palace too. Yet, in the end a decree was made public that placed Versailles under the care of the Republic for the public good and turned it into a museum. It didn’t stop the deterioration of the place nor did it prevent that museum items like mirrors and furniture were used to pay state debts or destructed for the sake of the precious metals used in their creation.

Napoleon turned the chateau back into an imperial palace though he didn’t choose to live there, just as the kings after him didn’t choose it as their homes. It was Louis-Philippe, who ordered that the chateau should undergo irreversible alterations in order to be finally and finitely be turned into a museum, which it still is today.

One of the most renowned features of Versailles is its center gallery, called the Hall of Mirrors. Its construction began in 1678. The room measures 73m x 10.5m x 12.3m and ends on either side in the salon de la guerre and the salon de la paix. It connects the King’s Quarters with the Queen’s Quarters.  It is flanked along the long side by 17 mirror-clad arches that reflect the 17 arcaded windows that overlook the gardens. The arches are framed by marble pilasters with bronze capitals, depicting the symbols of France including the fleur-de-lys and the Gallic rooster.

It wasn’t just the sheer size, opulence and the fact that people in the room felt like in a never ending universe that made this room so impressive. Mirrors at that time were among the most expensive items obtainable and the Venetian Republic held the monopoly on the manufacturing of mirrors. Colbert, who organized the building campaign, however had a philosophy of mercantilism, which required all good and services employed in the building process to be of French origin. So, he enticed a couple of Venetian workers to move to France, a move the Venetian Republic didn’t like. They sent agents to poison the workers.

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