Discover Versailles

© ATOUT FRANCE/PHOVOIR

Article 1History :In the visitor's mind’s eye, the name Versailles evokes the golden glitter and magical sparkle of the Hall of Mirrors... But not every visitor is aware that the city around the palace, with its lovely avenues lined with magnificent plane trees stretching out their arms in greeting, was designed at the same time, as a sumptuous setting for the famous palace... Versailles before the kings:Versailles once was a small medieval seigniory, whose name was recorded as early as the Eleventh Century. But recent archeological digs in the Old Versailles district have led to the finding of Merovingian tombs, which indicate a far longer past. At the time, the village was clustered round a small castle and the Saint-Julien parish church, to the south of the present palace. It lived from trade on the trading routes crossing it, such as the one between Paris and Normandy. During the Renaissance, the family of the lords of Versailles having died out, the land passed into the hands of a Huguenot. Confiscated during the Saint Bartholomew massacre, they were given to Albert de Gondi, a favorite of Catherine of Medici. It was he who received Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV, in his Versailles manor. Jean-François de Gondi, his son, the archbishop of Paris, turned the seigniory over to the royal domain when he sold it to Louis XIII in 1632. Under Louis XIII and Louis XIV:Louis XIII, who loved to hunt, had already had a hunting lodge built on the neighboring butte. For convenience during his stays, he had several outbuildings installed in the old village, but died soon afterward, and the estate sank once again into obscurity. Its star rose again in 1660, at the time of the marriage of the young Louis XIV. From then on, the king undertook to enlarge the hunting lodge for his pleasure visits, and had its surroundings beautified: laid out to include the Place d'Armes and the three major avenues facing the palace, a new city was created (Notre Dame district), the old village was transformed, etc. Clearly in love with his estate, Louis XIV settled there in 1682, with his entire court, leading to a need for new infrastructures, such as the Royal Stables or the new kitchen garden. This is when the overpopulated palace took on its ultimate dimensions, and acquired its finest embellishments: the Hall of Mirrors, French formal gardens…Versailles in the century of good living:The court left Versailles for some time after Louis XIV's death and only returned in 1722. Court life became even livelier under Louis XV, and the Saint Louis district, planned under his great-grandfather, began to take shape. In the old village, the current rue de l’Indépendance Américaine was gradually lined with prestigious buildings: Hôtel de la Guerre, Hôtel des Affaires Etrangères, Contrôle des Finances… creating a veritable administrative city near the palace. In the latter, little apartments replaced the Ambassadors' Staircase, a sign of private life's newfound dominance over pomp. And the cultivation of pleasures came back in force with the building of the Royal Opera.When Louis XVI became king, the city appeared to have attained its ultimate dimensions. In fact, however, it gained the village of Montreuil under his reign, incorporated into the royal city in 1787. Several significant buildings also came into being, such as the Montansier Theater, while the city facades were losing their red brick tones to acquire a more neoclassical aesthetic. But the most memorable episode of the period was definitely France's entry into the American War of Independence in 1780. The peace negotiations concluding it took place at Versailles and earned the city the lasting friendship of the United States.The Revolution:Versailles is full of memories of the Revolution because it was to the royal city that Louis XVI called together the Estates General in the spring of 1789. The sessions were held in The Hotel des Menus Plaisirs, up until the famous Tennis Court Oath, and the Court is still there. The National Assembly constituted at the time continued to meet at Versailles, which is where first the Abolition of Privileges, then the Declaration of the Rights of Man were voted on. The deputies then followed the royal family to Paris after the October Days of 1789.With the court’s departure, the city gradually emptied, but proudly maintained its recently acquired self-reliance: a municipality had been created in 1787, whose administrative offices were set up in the Conti Hotel, which became the city hall.Durant the Revolution, Versailles was able to preserve its remarkable heritage from destruction, while the buildings deserted by the court's administrators were gradually turned over to the army, whose presence shaped the face of the city in the Nineteenth Century.Versailles becomes the capital again:Shortly after the palace was opened to the Museum of the History of France as Louis-Philippe had wished (1837), Versailles once again glittered with the liveliness of the government's presence. During the war of 1870, the city was occupied and the King of Prussia installed himself in the new Hôtel de la Préfecture. This is when he had himself proclaimed emperor of Germany in the palace's Hall of Mirrors. After he left and the siege of Paris was lifted, the Revolt of the Commune broke out in the capital, leading the government authorities to flee to Versailles. Thus, the city went in a few days from 50,000 to 140,000 inhabitants, leading to a readily imaginable disorder… The Third Republic took its first steps there under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers and the Maréchal de Mac Mahon, and then of Jules Grévy. During the period ending in 1879 with the government's return to Paris, the Salle du Congrès was built in the palace's south wing, where presidential elections continued to take place until 1953. It is still used today for revisions to the Constitution.Versailles today:Abandoned by the government, Versailles successfully took up the challenge of modernity: surrounding the palace and the preserved sector, with its 246 hectares, quarters were built, punctuated with interesting examples of contemporary architecture. More than 4 million visitors come to Versailles every year to enjoy its outstanding hospitality, top-notch accommodations, restaurants and attractive businesses, thus making Versailles one of the four most visited spots in France. In the tradition of the royal spectacles of yore, the city continues to offer a full program of theatrical performances, concerts and other festivities, while the Académie du Spectacle Equestre has given new life to the Grande Ecurie du Roi, with creations combining tradition and modernity. Faithful to the refinement of the Eighteenth Century court, the Osmothèque--the International Perfume Conservatory--invites visitors to enjoy a fascinating range of olfactory discoveries. And in a world preoccupied by environmental concerns, the city's extraordinary green spaces provide an ideal setting to relax and contribute to the quality of life for which Versailles remains famous.Article 2History of Versailles PalaceBefore visiting Versailles Palace discover why and how it was built :•King Louis XIIIAfter having purchased the seigniory of Versailles (the present day Vieux-Versailles district), Louis XIII became the owner of the neighboring hunting ground, a game preserve on a butte surrounding several windmills. He had a hunting lodge built there in 1624, and expanded it shortly thereafter. However, it was labeled a "castle of cards" by his contemporaries, due to its unpretentiousness. The king died young and Versailles was soon forgotten again.•Louis XIV the Sun KingIt was not until the 1660's that the young Louis XIV began to grace Versailles with his presence, and to start building and holding parties there. The first building project, headed by the architect Louis Le Vau, led to the construction of the commons on the city side (the present day "old wing" and its former facing building, since replaced by the Gabriel wing) and to the start of André Le Nôtre's laying out of the gardens. After which, the famous "envelope" surrounding the old castle got underway, completely modifying the garden side part of the castle, to give it what was then a fashionable Italianate look. New buildings were built for the commons (the current ministers' wings), linking the prior ones to the palace and refurbishing them to suit the king's needs.But the most significant work started by the Sun King was undertaken in 1678, once he decided to make Versailles the seat of his government. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the king's lead architect, then oversaw construction of the sparkling hall of mirrors, with the decoration headed by Charles Le Brun. With the building of the south and north wings, the palace, designed to house the princes and courtesans, took on its definitive appearance at that time, while the "outside" was rising from the earth: royal stables around the parade ground, Grand Commun for services "of the Mouth," sumptuous Orangerie ... The court moved in on May 6, 1682, before the work was finished. The present day palace chapel was not built and decorated until 1699 to 1710, and was used more by Louis XV and Louis XVI than by the one who commissioned it.•The XVIII ° century : Louis XV, Louis XVI and Marie-AntoinetteSubsequently, the work undertaken under Louis XV and headed by Jacques-Ange Gabriel focused mainly on interior decoration, and led to the creation not only of the refined decor of the private apartments, but also the Hercules Salon, particularly the admirable Opera. In that period, the king also had the Petit Trianon built, not far from the Grand Trianon, for the respite the Sun King required from the pomp of court life. Louis XV had the same desire, plus a passionate interest in the sciences, leading to a renowned botanical garden, later replaced by Marie-Antoinette's English garden. This queen, who was, herself, passionate over this enchanting domain, had a delightful theater built a little later and a Norman village set up, thenceforth referred to as the Queen's Hamlet (architect: Richard Mique). The kingdom's finances were in poor shape, and King Louis XVI himself limited the work to the palace, which underwent few changes during his reign.•French RevolutionThe French Revolution might have significantly damaged the emblem of absolute monarchy Versailles had become. But the presence of a large staff, plus assignment of the palace to the department's Ecole Centrale, meant that the worst was avoided. The park was turned into farmland, the courtyards unpaved, the insignia of the monarchy felled, and the furnishings dispersed.•Napoleon 1st and Louis XVIIINapoleon 1st, for his part, was only interested in the Trianons: He refurnished the larger one and made it his spring house after his split with Joséphine (1809). Its refined layout, only slightly changed later on, on the occasion of the stays of Louis-Philippe and his family, can still be visited. The Petit Trianon was dedicated by the emperor to his sister Pauline Borghesi. But it was later refurbished, thanks to the Empress Eugenia, who devoted part of her activities to clearing the name of the unfortunate Marie-Antoinette.To restore the symmetry of the palace's facade on the town side, broken with the addition of the Gabriel wing under Louis XV, the Dufour pavilion was added to the palace, uninhabited after the Revolution, once Louis XVIII took the throne.•Museum of the History of France and modern HistoryBut it was Louis-Philippe, in particular, who set the palace on a new path by transforming it into the Museum of the History of France, opened in 1837 (architect: Frédéric Nepveu). Many of the Eighteenth Century interiors disappeared at the time, and in their place large numbers of paintings and sculptures were installed, illustrating the major periods of national history, from the Middle Ages to the most recent times. Some of these installations remain, such as the renowned gallery of battles, the halls of the crusades and the galleries of stone. The museum’s layout was momentarily disrupted at the end of the Nineteenth Century when Versailles once again became the seat of government, and the offices of the ministries and the Chambers occupied the palace. At this time the Salle du Congrès was built in the Midi wing, where presidential elections were held until 1953. This is where the National Assembly and the Senate continue to meet for changes to the French Constitution.In the contemporary period, the palace was also the theater of another major event : the signature, in the Hall of mirrors of the Versailles treaty which ended the First world war, on June 28th, 1919. Since these events, the palace has once again become a full-fledged museum, whose areas, including the gardens, have gradually been done over to receive the public, with some 4 million visitors per year.