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Palace of Versailles History

Versailles was the royal residence of France for little more than a century (from 1682 until 1789) when the French Revolution began.

Louis XIII built a hunting lodge at the village of Versailles outside of Paris in 1624. The small structure became the base on which was constructed one of the most costly and extravagant buildings in the world. It became the palace of Louis XIV, the "Sun King", who boasted of himself, "L'Etat c'est moi" or "I am the state." Louis XV and Louis XVI also called Versailles home.

palace of versailles court

The court at Versailles

The men in charge of the project were Louis Le Vau, architect; Charles Le Brun, painter and decorator; and Andre Le Notre, landscape architect. About 37,000 acres of land were cleared to make room for tree-lined terraces, walkways, and thousands of flowering plants. There were 1,400 fountains and 400 pieces of sculpture.

In 1676 another architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, was put in charge of redesigning and enlarging the palace. Starting with Le Vau's plans, Hardouin-Mansart added a second story and built the magnificent Hall of Mirrors and the north and south wings.

There was much activity at Versailles between the years 1678 and 1684. Mansart directed a building campaign which included the transformation of the marble court, the construction of the Ministers' Wings, the Southern wing and the Hall of Mirrors which was decorated with an exquisite set of silver furnishings. The construction of the Palace of Versailles was finally completed near the end of Louis XIV's life. The chapel was built last and was finished after Mansart's death in 1708 by his son-in-law Robert de Cotte.

Louis XV moved the court back to Versailles (from Paris) in June of 1722, and attained his majority as King the following year. He married the daughter of the exiled King of Poland, Marie Leczinska, and after the birth of three daughters, Marie finally gave birth to the Dauphin, or Crown Prince, in 1729 at the Palace of Versailles.

Versailles from the garden.

Versailles from the garden.

Anges-Jacques Gabriel, whose father had been the King's First Architect, became the Official Architect for Louis XV in 1742. Gabriel supervised new additions of the Palace, including the Salon of Hercules, the Opera House and the Petit Trianon. In 1755 he redecorated the King's Council Chamber. Gabriel's designs signaled the break from heavy ornamented Rococo decoration to the lighter Neoclassical style, with pilasters, columns and the use of symmetry throughout.

Construction of the palace went on through the next century. More than 36,000 workers were involved in the project, and when the building was completed it could accommodate up to 5,000 people, including servants. About 14,000 soldiers and servants were quartered in annexes and in the nearby town. During the Seven Year's War France lost most of its overseas treasure and assets to Great Britain. The resulting economic damage almost destroyed the monarchy. Much of the damage was repaired by the 1760's by the policies of Finance Minister duc de Choiseul. However, Louis XV left his successor, his grandson Louis XVI, a debt of 4000 million livres when he died in 1774. The roots of the French Revolution can be traced back directly yo this "gift".

Despite the kingdom's shaky finances, Louis XVI immediately had the gardens replanted at Versailles upon his succession and had a new library built in his private apartments by Anges-Jacques Gabriel. His wife, Marie Antoinette constantly had her private apartments changed and rearranged at Versailles. She also made use of the workshop of the Menus Plaisirs, the shops at Versailles that created special interiors, sets, and even funeral monuments. They were constantly creating new portable party pavilions that the young Queen could use to entertain her group of friends.

In 1788 the French government went bankrupt. Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, a representative body of the government that had not met in 175 years. They met in the town of Versailles at the Jeu de Paume, a forerunner to a modern tennis court, which became the backdrop for the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette's bedroom at Versailles.

Marie Antoinette's bedroom as it stands today.

On the morning of October 6, 1789 a mob of angry Parisians, mostly women, marched to the Palace demanding bread. They stormed the Palace, ran up the Queen's Staircase and broke into the Guard's Room, then into the antechamber. Marie Antoinette ran from her bedchamber into her private apartments towards the King's Suite to find her husband and son. In an effort to quell public discontent the King moved his court to Paris. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's chambers remain as they were in the fall of 1789.

After the fall of the monarchy, the Palace of Versailles was put into the hands of the new government. In 1792 portions of the Royal furniture was sold and dispersed and many works of art from the Palace were taken to the Louvre in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte later took an interest in the Palace and commissioned restoration work, which was later continued by the reinstated monarchy in 1814 by Louis XVI's brother, Louis XVIII. In the 1830's Louis-Phillippe decided to make the Palace into a museum of French history, which was inaugurated in 1837. The Palace continued to place an important role in European history: in 1871 the Hall of Mirrors was the setting for the Proclamation of the German Empire and in 1919 the Hall was the site were the Treaty of Versailles was signed which ended World War I.

In 1962, a decree was issued ordering all of the objects belonging to the Palace and preserved in French Collections throughout France to be brought back to Versailles.

The restoration of the Palace is still ongoing today. In 1986 the apartments on the ground floor, once occupied by the Dauphin and Dauphine, or prince and princess, were opened to the public. Funded by two French government grants, more than 80 rooms were involved in the largest single restoration in Versailles history. Parts of the palace that had been damaged or rebuilt after the French Revolution were restored to their original design. Some of the original furniture was recovered, paintings were returned, and wall coverings were replaced.

Today, the Palace of Versailles is one of France's many national monuments. The building is so large that only a small portion of it is open to the public. Many of the rooms are government offices. Visitors may tour the sections of the north and south wings closest to the center as well as the central section itself.

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