Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles (French: Château de Versailles) is a world-famous monumental complex, mostly built between the 17th century and the 18th century, situated on the outskirts of Paris in the town with the same name. The origins of the 11th-century toponym Versailles are uncertain, but it possibly comes from the Latin word versatum (turned earth) in the sense of a cultivated estate among forests and marshes.
Located 20 kilometers / 12.5 miles southwest of Paris, to which it is connected by the RER suburban rail, the Palace of Versailles estate comprises six Baroque, Renaissance revival, and Neoclassical style main buildings – the Royal Palace, the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, the Queen’s Theater and two large stables – and an immense park with gardens, pools, statues, fountains, grottoes, a Norman-style model village, an orangery, and various micro-architectures, cottages, and lodges. In English, and other languages, the term “palace” indicates both the Royal Palace and the estate of Versailles as a whole and is used interchangeably.
The Palace of Versailles is the second most visited cultural attraction in France after the Louvre Museum.
The visit to the palace is a great experience all year round. Yet, the gardens (which are as interesting as the palace, in our opinion) are at their best from April through July and from September through November. So, visit the complex in those months, if you can. Also, consider that the Paris region can be very hot in Summer and extremely cold on a windy winter day.
History of the complex
The history of the Royal estate began in the early 17th century when King Louis XIII built a small hunting lodge, amid a forest 20 kilometers southwest of Paris, he later transformed it first into a country residence and then into a complex consisting of two buildings.
Yet, the history of the Palace of Versailles is inextricably linked to Louis XIII’s son and successor, Louis XIV the “Sun King”.
In 1661 the then-young monarch, who had developed a passion for the place since he was a boy, began enlarging the complex to make it an imposing Royal Palace and the new seat of the French Court.
The idea of the king was that the new estate would be a symbol of his personal power, a great occasion to demonstrate the greatness of France to the world, and a way to develop a new, eminently French, architecture, art, and craft industry.
At the death of Louis XIV, in 1715, the Palace, though not fully completed, was the largest Baroque building complex in the world and the archetype of many other royal residences throughout Europe, including the Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy, the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and the Peterhof in Saint Petersburg.
The successor of the Sun King, Louis XV, did not reside at the palace continuously; yet, he commissioned many works, modifying the main palace and adding new buildings, such as the beautiful Petit Trianon he built for his chief mistress Madame de Pompadour.
The estate was also an occasional residence of Napoleon I; who though opted to reside not in the main palace but in the more “modest” Trianon, he judged more appropriate as the home of the “soldier” he liked to appear.
In the 20th century, the estate, after having been the place where World War One was officially ended by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, experienced a period of decadence before being restored after a donation by the American business magnate John D. Rockefeller.
With over 7 million visitors in 2017, the Palace of Versailles is today one of the most popular attractions in France, as well as a venue for special exhibitions, concerts, sports events, and site-specific art installations.
An engraving depicting the Palace of Versailles in the first half of the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIII. Image Archives de la Ville de Montréal. Cote du document; under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 CA license.
Adam Perelle, Veue du Chasteau de Versailles de côte du Parterre d’Eau (View of the Palace of Versailles from the Water Parterre side), the 1680s, etching. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York under Public Domain license.
Architecture and main buildings
Many architects alternated in the design of the Palace of Versailles, and it is believed that even Louis XIV and Louis XV contributed to it in some way, yet, three of them particularly stand out: Louis Le Vau, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and André Le Nôtre.
Le Vau, who was the chief architect of Versailles during the early reign of Louis XIV, designed most of the palace, though it died when only the central part of the building was completed.
Hardouin-Mansart directed the works after the death of Le Vau, modified the palace by creating new monumental rooms, such as the Hall of Mirrors, and designed the Trianon
Le Nôtre was the landscape architect who designed the gardens and the park.
Moreover, artist Charles Le Brun supervised the decorations of the estate on behalf of the Sun King.
“Plan de Versailles, du petit parc, et de ses dependances où sont marqués les emplacemens de chaque maison de cette ville, les plans du Château, et des hôtels, et les distributions des jardins et bosquets” (Plan of Versailles, of its park and addictions, on which all buildings, the floor plans of the Palace and its secondary buildings, and the layout of the gardens and groves are marked. Engraving by Jean Delagrive, 1746. Right to left: the Royal Palace, the Gardens, and the Park.
Image source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France under Open Licence.
The Royal Palace is a monumental building with a floor area of over 63,000 square meters / 678,000 square feet and 2,300 rooms; it consists of a central building – built around a rectangular courtyard, the Cour Royale – and two side wings, known as South Wing and North Wing.
The palace contains the most representative spaces of the complex, including the Royal Apartments, the Royal Opera House, the 120-meter-long Gallery of Great Battles, the Royal Chapel, and the monumental 73-meter-long Hall of Mirrors, possibly the most famous space of the entire complex.
The palace is richly adorned and features an impressive Baroque-style decorative apparatus including wall paintings, sculptures, gold-leaf-coated frames, hundreds of monumental mirrors, glass chandeliers, luxurious tapestries, wood, and stone inlaid paneling, and much more.
Created to demonstrate the ability of French artists and craftsmen to the world, such decorations, though technically magnificent, are so rich and lavish that their visual effect is almost disturbing; King Louis XV himself considered the most pompous rooms of the palace excessive and impractical and didn’t like to stay there for long times; therefore, he commissioned Hardouin-Mansart a less decorated private apartment, known as Appartement Intérieur du Roi, he could live in more comfortably than in his official apartment.
View of the east facade of the Palace of Versailles from the Royal Court. Photo Gilbert Sopakuwa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Palace of Versailles, ground floor plan. Unknown artist.
View of the North Wing of the Place from the gardens. Photo Manuel
Palace of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors, the Princes’ Stairway, and the Gallery of Great Battles; photos Gilbert Sopakuwa.
The Grand Trianon
The design of the Grand Trianon, also known as Marble Trianon or simply Trianon, was commissioned by Louis XIV to Hardouin-Mansart in 1670 because the king wanted a private residence, within the estate but a bit out of the way, to retreat into (often together with his favorite mistress, Madame de Montespan) to escape from the fatiguing court life and the over-imposing architecture of the main palace.
The Trianon is a beautiful single-story building with a pink marble colonnade overlooking Versailles’ Grand Canal. The, relatively simple and unpretentious, design of the Trianon is clearly inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture, particularly that of the Palazzo Te in Mantua by Giulio Romano. The Trianon Palace is also renowned for its beautiful geometric garden filled with orange trees, flower beds, and lavender hedges.
The marble colonnade of the Grand Trianon, exterior, and interior views. Photos by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, and Joe deSousa.
The Petit Trianon
Completed in 1768 after a design by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the Petit Trianon is a two-story Neoclassic building built by Louis XV as a secondary residence for him and his family not far from the Grand Trianon.
A simple and relatively unadorned small palace, the Petit Trianon was also the favorite residence of the unfortunate queen Marie-Antoinette.
The Petit Trianon. Photo Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.
It’s no secret that the Gardens of Versailles are regarded as important as the Royal Palace, or even more important, from both an artistic and a historical point of view; reportedly, this was also the opinion of the Sun King.
“En 1661, Louis XIV charge André Le Nôtre de la création et de l’aménagement des jardins de Versailles qui, à ses yeux, sont aussi importants que le Château.”
(In 1661, Louis XIV commissioned André Le Nôtre the creation and renovation of the gardens of Versailles which, in his opinion, were as important as the Palace).
From the official website of the Palace of Versailles.
The Versailles gardens are the archetype of the French formal garden, a style created as an evolution of the Italian Renaissance garden and which dominated European landscape design from the late-17th century to the mid-18th century.
Originally designed by landscape architect André Le Nôtre in the second half of the 17th century, the gardens are an ensemble of terraces, parterres, botanical gardens, groves, pools, canals, fountains, statues, and small buildings adjacent to the north side of the Royal Palace.
The gardens can be ideally divided into two main parts: the Parterres, and the Groves.
Located immediately outside the palace, three parterres – the Water Parterre, the South Parterre, and the North Parterre – constitute the “head” of the gardens.
The parterres are aligned along an east-west axis which also includes the Orangery and a 30-acre artificial lake, the Swiss Guard Lake, at its western end, and two groves (the Triumphal Arch Grove and the Grove of the Three Fountains) and a pool, the Basin of Neptune, at its eastern one. The famous Water Parterre includes two large pools each framed by four gilded bronze statues symbolizing the most important French rivers.
A fourth parterre, the Parterre of Latona, is located along a north-south axis which is the “geometrical spine” of the entire Park of Versailles.
The parterres are almost treeless, while they are characterized by geometric planting beds, broderie, panoramic terraces, mythology-themed statues, monumental fountains, and water mirrors carefully positioned to reflect the architecture of the Palace.
Located immediately after the Parterres, the Groves is an array of twelve rectangular green spaces, each characterized by a theme. “Grove” is a rather belittling term for those gardens; they are indeed actually complex creations comprising – along with local and exotic trees, lawns, hedges, and flower beds – open-air theaters, grottoes, mazes, obelisks, colonnades, balustrades, pools, fountains, and 221 sculptures made of marble, lead or gilded bronze.
View of the Palace and gardens of Versailles from the Apollon Pond. Photo Gilbert Sopakuwa.
The South Parterre. Photo Francois Pouzet.
The fountain in the Parterre of Latona. Photo Carlos Reusser Monsalvez
The Colonnade Grove with the sculpture “The rape of Persephone by Hades” by Francois Girardon, 1699. Photo Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.
The gardens are located at the eastern end of an immense park; an elliptical pool, the Apollon Pond, adorned with a famous lead sculpture depicting Apollo driving a four-horse chariot emerging from the water, marks the end of the gardens and the beginning of the park.
Enclosed by a fence, the 800-hectare / 1,977-acre Park of Versailles includes woods, lawns, agricultural fields, and tree-lined alleys. The park was designed by Le Nôtre around a Greek-cross-shaped artificial lake, called the Grand Canal, stretching 1,670 meters / 1 mile from east to west in the middle of the estate.
At the time of Louis XIV, the Grand Canal was regularly sailed by boats, there was even a small village, known as La Petite Venise and now lost, built to accommodate four gondoliers sent, together with two gondolas, by the Republic of Venice as an homage to the Sun King in 1674.
Freely accessible all year round, the park is one of the most popular weekend destinations for the people of Paris.
The Apollon Pond with the gilded lead sculpture of the Sun God Apollo’s chariot emerging from the water by Jean-Baptiste Tuby, 1668-1670. Photo by Slices of Light
The Temple of Love near the Petit Trianon. Photo Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.
A tree-lined alley of the Park of Versailles in late fall. Photo © Riccardo Bianchini / Inexhibit
Museum, permanent collection, and exhibitions
The Palace of Versailles also accommodates a museum, founded by King Louis Philippe in 1837 to present the history of France from the Middle Ages onward by the means of artworks and objects of applied arts.
The museum’s collection comprises about 60,000 works – paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, pieces of furniture, ceramics, clocks, musical instruments, and scientific instruments – exhibited in various locations within the estate.
The complex is also a venue for special exhibitions of art and history, musical shows, and cultural events.
Since 2008, the Palace of Versailles presents each year a site-specific art installation/exhibition by renowned contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Xavier Veilhan, Takashi Murakami, Joana Vasconcelos, Giuseppe Penone, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Jean-Louis David, Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine at Notre Dame,1804, Coronation Hall, Palace of Versailles. Photo Gilbert Sopakuwa.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Surface of Revolution, 2018, Petit Trianon Palace. Image courtesy of the artist.
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