A portal to the Ancien Régime
What draws people to the Palace of Versailles like bugs to a golden light? Is it admiration for French royal history and 17th-century French art? Is it to satisfy a daydream of living in fantastical and exalted opulence? Or is there a darker, sardonic element to it? A macabre recognition that all these fineries could not save the king and queen from the blade during the French Revolution? I must admit, I felt a weird mix of all three when I entered the former residence of the House of Bourbon.
I visited the Château de Versailles on a crisp winter’s day. Getting there from Paris was almost too easy. The city of Versailles is located less than twenty kilometres south-west from Paris by RER and the palace is only a short walk from the train station.
Given its close proximity to the capital and global fame, the Palace of Versailles is obviously wildly popular all year around. As such, the First Rule of Popular Day Trips applies in full force: Drag yourself out of bed and get there as early as you can to beat the crowds. Trust me, it’s always worth it.
A quick history rundown: The Palace of Versailles can be condensed into the story of three monarchs with the name Louis. Sort of.
Originally, the royal palace was merely a hunting lodge for King Louis XIII in the early 17th-century. His son, King Louis XIV (also famously known as the Sun King) took a great liking to the site and began to significantly expand it, eventually making it his Court in 1683. It then remained this way up until the doomed reign of King Louis XVI—the last monarch to live in Versailles and the last King of France prior to the French Revolution of 1789-99.
Inside the royal residence
The palace, simply put, is astonishing. There are 2,300 rooms spread over 63,000 square metres, and almost every single room that is accessible to the visitors is a testament to the luxuries of the time. This is perhaps best exemplified in the gilded elegance of the King’s Apartment and Marie Antoinette’s Private Chambers.
It’s worth noting that the palace continued to be developed, even after the wane of the Bourbon dynasty. For instance, there’s the Coronation Room with its immense painting depicting the consecration of Napoleon Bonaparte and the coronation of his wife, Empress Josephine. There’s also the 1792 Room, another post-French Revolution room, filled with paintings highlighting key battles and figures from the French Revolutionary Wars.
But the highlight of Versailles is, without a glint of doubt, the dazzling Hall of Mirrors. The gallery showcases French economic, political and cultural prowess from that time period, and is named after its large mirror-panelled arches (mirrors were a highly expensive rarity in the 1600s).
The Hall of Mirrors also played a role in 20th-century history as well. The Treaty of Versailles was signed here in June of 1919, concluding the First World War. It also arguably, with its brutal treatment of Germany, helped lay the foundations for the rise of Nazism and the lead up to the Second World War.
Connected to the Hall of Mirrors are the War Room and the Peace Room. The War Room commemorates the military victories of France with its marble panels, trophies and gilded weapons. In contrast, the decor in the Peace Room praises the benefits of peace brought upon the continent of Europe by France.
The State Apartments are another impressive part of the palace. They have lofty names such as the “Venus Salon”, the “Mercury Salon”, and the “Mars Salon” and were used to hold official acts of the state.
For what my words are worth, I believe the most arresting of these rooms is the Hercules Salon. The French artist François Lemoyne painted its entire ceiling, which depicts a gathering of Greek gods and goddesses. The ceiling took Lemoyne four years to complete and, according to rumours, the project was so exhausting it drove him mad and he committed suicide in 1737 by stabbing himself repeatedly with a sword. Yikes.
The Royal Chapel is yet another splendour of Versailles, with its airy Gothic-inspired architecture. It was in this chapel, in 1770, that Marie Antoinette, at age fourteen, married Louis XVI.
The Palace Gardens
Once you’re done with the inside of the palace, there are still the immense palace gardens to explore. Work on the gardens began around the same time as the development of the palace itself and they too approximately four decades to complete. They’re hard to cover all at once, particularly in wintertime with the icy air nuzzling down your neck…
There are buildings that are definitely worth exploring as well—and best of all, they have fewer crowds to navigate through. There’s the Grand Trianon with its pink marble colonnade, state apartments, and private chambers. The Petit Trianon is the Grand Trianon’s smaller counterpart, but no less charming with its elegant rooms.
Lastly, tucked away in a corner of the giant royal estate is the Hameau de la Reine or Queen’s Hamlet. This was Marie Antoinette’s private leisure retreat. It resembles an idyllic fantasy version of a French peasant farm and enabled her to live out a rustic peasant lifestyle, milking cows and what not.
As charming the hamlet is, it’s important to remember what it represented to the angry and impoverished French peasantry: Further proof that the royal family was decadent, contemptuous, and out-of-touch with the common people.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
It all fell apart in the end for the monarchy. In October of 1789, a crowd of thousands of Parisians, enraged with chronic food shortages, managed to besiege the palace. They ultimately forced the royal family out of Versailles and back to Paris with them. I’m sure you know what occurred next. The French Revolution consumed the nation. The guillotine reigned supreme. And King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads.
Once I weigh the palace’s beautiful sights against the force of history, I become ambivalent about what to make of Versailles’ overflowing sumptuousness. What should we feel when we gawk down its aureate halls? The extravagance that draws countless visitors to the palace each year is the same extravagance that enraged a nation and condemned its occupants to death.
In mulling over these thoughts, I’m reminded of a poem by the American poet Marianne Moore:
No Swan so Fine
"No water so still as the
dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind looks askance
and ambidextrous legs, so fine
as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and tooth gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.
Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins and everlastings,
it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers—at ease and tall. The king is dead.
The king is dead. The foundations are dead. Everything in the Palace of Versailles is beautiful and exquisitely ornate, yes, but it is also ossified. Suspended and lifeless. Locked in a fanciful cage of impotence.
If this idea upsets you, then I recommend that on your visit to Versailles, you also make a brief trip to the Royal Tennis Court, only a few blocks away from the palace, to see a different side of this time period.
It was here, in the middle of 1789, that the non-privileged members of the National Assembly committed an act of defiance against the monarch. Fearing the king was forcing them to dissolve, they gathered inside a tennis court and took an oath to remain unified until France had a written constitution. This Tennis Court Oath was one of the first great sparks of opposition that ultimately culminated in the French Revolution itself.
It is true that the French Revolution was an upheaval of unprecedented proportions. The revolution led to wild radicalism and the infamous Reign of Terror. It opened the gates to all manner of political chaos and instability in France. Simply put, history can be a fickle and merciless journey.
But the revolution also seeded noble ideas: Ideas of liberty and democracy, ideas of secularism and civil rights, ideas of emancipation and equality. Versailles’ fall from power ultimately meant that something truly epic, truly transformative could burst forth and change the rest of the world forever.
At the very least, it now means that simple, ignoble commoners like you and I can stroll around the palace unhindered. Everyone can now peer at all its wonders that were once only meant for a single man, the king.