When the château was built, Versailles was a country village; today, however, it is a wealthy suburb of Paris, some 20 kilometres southwest of the French capital. The court of Versailles was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime.
The earliest mention of the name of Versailles is in a document dated 1038, relating to the village of Versailles. In 1575, the seigneury of Versailles was bought by Albert de Gondi, a naturalized Florentine, who invited Louis XIII on several hunting trips in the forests surrounding Versailles. Pleased with the location, Louis ordered the construction of a hunting lodge in 1624. Eight years later, Louis obtained the seigneury of Versailles from the Gondi family and began to make enlargements to the château. This structure would become the core of the new palace. Louis XIII's successor, Louis XIV, had it expanded into one of the largest palaces in the world. Following the Treaties of Nijmegen in 1678, he began to gradually move the court to Versailles. The court was officially established there on 6 May 1682.
After the disgrace of Nicolas Fouquet in 1661, Louis confiscated Fouquet’s estate and employed the talents of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun, who all had worked on Fouquet’s grand château Vaux-le-Vicomte, for his building campaigns at Versailles and elsewhere. For Versailles, there were four distinct building campaigns.
The four building campaigns (1664–1710)
The first building campaign (1664–1668) commenced with the Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée (Pleasures of the Enchanted Island) of 1664, a fête that was held between 7 and 13 May 1664. The first building campaign (1664–1668) involved alterations in the château and gardens to accommodate the 600 guests invited to the party. (Nolhac, 1899, 1901; Marie, 1968; Verlet, 1985)
The second building campaign (1669–1672) was inaugurated with the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Devolution. During this campaign, the château began to assume some of the appearance that it has today. The most important modification of the château was Le Vau’s envelope of Louis XIII’s hunting lodge. (Nolhac, 1901; Marie, 1972; Verlet, 1985) Significant to the design and construction of the grands appartements is that the rooms of both apartments are of the same configuration and dimensions – a hitherto unprecedented feature in French palace design. Both the grand appartement du roi and the grand appartement de la reine formed a suite of seven enfilade rooms. The decoration of the rooms, which was conducted under Le Brun's direction, depicted the "heroic actions of the king" and were represented in allegorical form by the actions of historical figures from the antique past (Alexander the Great, Augustus, Cyrus, etc.). (Berger, 1986; Félibien, 1674; Verlet, 1985)
With the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678, which ended the Dutch War, the third building campaign at Versailles began (1678–1684). Under the direction of the architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the Palace of Versailles acquired much of the look that it has today. In addition to the Hall of Mirrors, Hardouin-Mansart designed the north and south wings and the Orangerie. Le Brun was occupied not only with the interior decoration of the new additions of the palace, but also collaborated with Le Nôtre's in landscaping the palace gardens (Berger, 1985; Thompson, 2006; Verlet, 1985).
Soon after the defeat of the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–1697), Louis XIV undertook his last building campaign at Versailles. The fourth building campaign (1699–1710) concentrated almost exclusively on construction of the royal chapel designed by Hardouin-Mansart and finished by Robert de Cotte. There were also some modifications in the appartement du roi, namely the construction of the Salon de l’Œil de Bœuf and the King’s Bedchamber. With the completion of the chapel in 1710, virtually all construction at Versailles ceased; building would not be resumed at Versailles until some twenty one years later during the reign of Louis XV (Nolhac, 1911; Marie, 1976, 1984; Verlet, 1985).
Louis XV – Louis XVI (1722–1788)
During the reign of Louis XV, Versailles underwent transformation, but not on the scale that had been seen during the reign of Louis XIV. The first project in 1722 was the completion of the Salon d'Hercule. Significant among Louis XV’s contributions to Versailles were the petit appartement du roi; the appartements de Mesdames, the appartement du dauphin, and the appartement de la dauphine on the ground floor; and the two private apartments of Louis XV – petit appartement du roi au deuxième étage (later transformed into the appartement de Madame du Barry) and the petit appartement du roi au troisième étage – on the second and third floors of the palace. The crowning achievements of Louis XV’s reign were the construction of the Opéra and the Petit Trianon (Verlet, 1985). Equally significant was the destruction of the Escalier des Ambassadeurs (Ambassadors' Stair), the only fitting approach to the State Apartments, which Louis XV undertook to make way for apartments for his daughters.
The gardens remained largely unchanged from the time of Louis XIV; the completion of the Bassin de Neptune between 1738 and 1741 was the only important legacy Louis XV made to the gardens (Marie 1984; Thompson, 2006; Verlet 1985). Towards the end of his reign, Louis XV, under the advice of Ange-Jacques Gabriel, began to remodel the courtyard facades of the palace. With the objective revetting the entrance of the palace with classical facades, Louis XV began a project that was continued during the reign of Louis XVI, but which did not see completion until the 20th century (Verlet, 1985).
Much of Louis XVI’s contributions to Versailles were largely dictated by the unfinished projects left to him by his grandfather. Shortly after his ascension, Louis XVI ordered a complete replanting of the gardens with the intention of transforming the jardins français to an English-style garden, which had become popular during the late 18th century (Verlet, 1985). In the palace, the library and the salon des jeux in the petit appartement du roi and the decoration of the petit appartement de la reine for Marie-Antoinette are among the finest examples of the style Louis XVI (Verlet, 1945; 1985)