Did you know that Versailles began as a modest estate that barely extended beyond the boundaries of today's 'Old Versailles' district? It centred around a humble castle located on the site of the current town library, and earned its income from trading goods in transit, heading for Paris.
But the estate's location, in the middle of forests teeming with game, attracted royal attention, resulting in today's extraordinary Palace, famous all over the world.
Louis XIII's Hunting Lodge
King Louis XIII, enamoured with this hunting ground, bought the estate, and, ignoring the old, unsightly castle, built a lodge on the neighbouring mound. Some years later, in 1631, the building was extended, with the addition of two wings, which were nevertheless still very modest. The famous Duke of Saint-Simon even described it as a 'house of cards'! Despite everything, the King was very fond of this place, and dreamt of retiring there when his son was old enough to succeed him. But he died at the age of 42, and the 'house of cards' was abandoned once more.
Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV
Only at the start of his personal reign (after the Fronde civil wars and the death of Mazarin) did Louis XIV begin to frequent Versailles, which he then considered merely as a place of leisure. Construction work began immediately, led by architect Louis Le Vau. Two symmetrical apartments were created for the King and Queen (Louis XIV had married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660) and several buildings were constructed around the house. The gardens were manicured and, in 1664, were the setting for lavish parties organised in Louise de La Vallière's honour, on the theme of 'Delights of the Enchanted Island'.
A second stage of development work began in 1668, which was evidently more ambitious. Louis XIII's old castle was covered with a stone 'envelope' which would then form the facade overlooking the gardens. Moving away from the style of the early 17th century (brick and stone facades, slate roofs), which had been used in Paris, in Place des Vosges and Place Dauphine, Le Vau adopted Italian designs with dressed stone facades, colonnades and flat roofs. Nevertheless, the facade looking towards the town maintained its original design, as if out of respect for Louis XIII, although Louis XIV had never been close to him as a child. However, it was raised and embellished with marble pillars, forged iron balconies and sculptures, while the lead rooftop ornamentation was gilded. This construction of a French-style facade on the courtyard side, with an Italian-style facade facing the gardens, was considered at that time to show a lack of taste.
Versailles, the home of Louis XIV and his Court
Yet, this construction work was nothing compared to the work that began in 1678, the year which marked a real turning point for the Kingdom: Louis XIV won the Franco-Dutch War, which resulted in the Peace Treaty of Nijmegen, and, from then on, he could be considered as the most powerful King in Europe. This period lasted for a decade, a true heyday for Versailles. The King then decided to move into the old hunting lodge, and called on the architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart. There were two guiding principles for the construction work: Versailles had to reflect the King's greatness and it also had to accommodate the Court.
To show the King's splendour, Mansart then produced his great masterpiece, the Hall of Mirrors, which linked the Apartments of the King and the Queen. The abundance of mirrors, supplied by Saint-Gobain, the recently appointed royal manufacturer, was a true display of France's ambitions, at a time when Venice still had a monopoly on this type of production. The King's Great and Small Stables (La Grande et la Petite Ecuries), theatrically placed between the town's three main avenues – the Grand Commun, placed right next to the Palace to house the royal caterers and the immense Orangery (L'Orangerie) – were built to accommodate the King at Versailles. He eventually arrived on 6 May 1682.
The South and North Wings (Les Ailes du Midi et du Nord) were constructed to house the Court: the South Wing, with finer apartments, was for 'Princes', while the North Wing was subdivided into a range of apartments for the courtiers, who were ready to accept the harshest living conditions for the chance to live near the King.
You may think the construction work would then come to an end, but they say that the courtiers, just like the royal family, lived perpetually among rubble and plaster. In 1699, work began on building the Royal Chapel, a long-term project completed in 1710, to become the extraordinary masterpiece that we know today. Mansart did not live to see its completion, as he died in 1708; Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard did not even see the work begin, for the same reason. A new generation of artists then took over, inspiring a change in taste, after decades dominated by the Classical style ...
The refurbishments of Louis XV and Louis XVI
After the death of the Sun King, Louis XV and Louis XVI did not have much more to add. They simply refurbished the Royal Apartments in the latest style, whilst still religiously preserving the lavish decor of their forefather. However, some projects to radically transform the Palace did emerge under Louis XV's reign, as witnessed by the Gabriel Wing, home to the grand staircase which now leads to the State Apartments. However, of most significance under this reign was the construction of the Royal Opera House, with its long-imagined, lavish concert hall. In fact, it was only completed in 1770 to host the wedding celebrations of the Dauphin and the Archduchess, Marie-Antoinette. Gabriel is the architect of this stunning masterpiece, the symbol of pride for the construction work which took place on the Palace of Versailles under the Ancien Régime.