The Palace of Versailles is known for its opulent rooms, extravagant gardens, and the integral role it played in the French Revolution. Every year, more than three million visitors tour the Palace that was built for the Sun King, Louis XIV, in 1623 CE. A few of the biggest draws at the Palace are the Hall of Mirrors, the Chappelle Royale, and the Salon de Venus. On the grounds are priceless works of art as well as period furniture and statues. And for outdoor lovers, there are numerous plants, flowers, fountains, and statues to view while perusing the lush gardens on the property. Like other opulent and historically significant structures (like the Taj Majal, for example), Versailles's architectural history is filled with interesting anecdotes, like the time all of its mirror makers were killed for doing their job too well.
There are many stories about the building of Versailles and the amount of money and work it took to create such an elaborate structure, which dates back to the 17th century and is located about 12 miles from Paris. You can imagine how much time and effort it took to create the massive Palace, which would become the envy of many foreign visitors from the 1600s up until today. In fact, the Palace became such a symbol of wealth and excess - though hygiene left something to be desired - that the people of France were disgusted by everything it represented, leading them to revolt. The excesses of Versailles, in part, drove the French Revolution.
After accounting for inflation, experts believe the Palace of Versailles cost between $200 and $300 billion to build in contemporary money – an almost unthinkable sum for the construction of a single (even palatial) residence. King Louis XIV spent about one third of the entire building budget just on fountains for the garden. Over 35,000 workers helped build the Palace in the Île-de-France region of France on the outskirts of Paris. The Palace has 700 rooms, 67 staircases, and 1,200 fireplaces, and it's spread out over 2,014 acres.
Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, built her own estate on the property called "The Petit Trianon," which she used as a personal retreat. It included a theater and a farm area that produced fresh vegetables. She also built a “temple of love” consisting of a dozen columns and a statue of cupid. But more interesting is that she had a private grotto, a secluded cave-like area overgrown with vegetation. It reportedly included a moss bed and two entrances. It’s unclear what she used the grotto for, but you can make your own educated guess.
On the west side of the gardens at Versailles, there's a Grand Canal, which is about one mile long and 203 feet wide. The body of water is so large, it was often used for naval demonstrations, and Louis XIV sailed boats, including gondolas, in it. The Grand Canal is the largest body of water on the grounds of Versailles. It and the two rectangular pools nearby contain more than 15 decorative water features.
The Gardens of Versailles are some of the largest in the world and include 372 statues, 55 water features, 600 fountains, and over 20 miles of canals. Each year, 210,000 flowers and 200,000 trees are planted there for visitors to roam through and admire. Apparently, the smell of the gardens was very strong in the 17th century, and it overpowered guests at the Palace. Madame de Maintenon wrote in a letter dated Aug. 8, 1689: “The tuberoses drive us away from Trianon every evening. The excess of fragrance causes men and women to feel ill.”
There are 357 mirrors in the Hall of Mirrors. When it was built, Venice had a monopoly on making mirrors, but France was not deterred by this fact and enticed Venetian mirror makers to make some specially for the Palace. The craftsmen were later assassinated by the Italians for giving away their secrets. The room was originally lit with as many 20,000 candles, transforming it into a “corridor of light.” During World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall in 1919. It ended the war between Germany and the Allied Powers.
Louis XIII (1601-1643) originally bought the land where the Palace stands today because he loved hunting. Initially, he built a chateau there for an escape from the city – drawn by the area's richness in wild animals. Louis expanded the chateau and bought more land before his death. In the 1660s and 1670s, Louis XIV turned Versailles into a palace. He even moved the French government and its court there in 1682. When Versailles was completed, over 5,000 people, including servants, could be accommodated in its large living space.
The Gardens' water fountains were pressurized and jetted water high into the air, causing quite a spectacle for guests. However, due to issues with water supply, they were only turned on during special occasions, according to Tony Spawforth, author of Versailles: A Biography of the Palace. The Gardens included over 50 spectacular fountains with 620 jets. Today, many of the fountains (of which there were originally 1,400) include the same hydraulic systems from over 300 years ago.
The Palace could accommodate over 5,000 people between its walls – that's a lot of mouths to feed. In order to serve meals to so many people, the kitchens at the Palace were enormous. They – alone – were attended to by hundreds of servants. However, the kitchens were located quite a distance from the King’s dining room. As a result, his meals were often served cold. The architect didn't think ahead with that not-so-minor detail.
In 1768, Louis XV built the Royal Opera with a really neat feature. It included a mechanism that allowed the orchestra level to be raised flush with the stage. This area was used for banquets and dancing and was able to accommodate 1,200 people. Thousands of candles were burned to launch the opera, making it expensive to operate. In addition, it had great acoustics because it was built almost entirely out of wood and painted to resemble marble. If you visit Versailles today, you can watch concerts and shows at the Royal Opera THouse.
The people of France detested Versailles and viewed both it and Marie Antoinette's lifestyle as extravagant and exorbitant. At that time, the commoners were poor and often starving while the royal family lived in luxury. During the French Revolution, the people of France destroyed the gate of the Palace, which was made completely out of gold. In 2008, the gate was restored and decorated with 100,000 gold leaves. It cost $8 million to rebuild.
"The Grand Apartment of the King" and "The Grand Apartment of the Queen" were called "The State Apartments." The apartment of King Louis XIV was originally known as the Apartment of the Planets. Each room in the apartment was devoted to each of the then-known seven planets and the Roman deity connected to it. The apartment used by Queen Marie-Antoinette included a hidden door in the bedchamber, which she used to escape a mob during the Revolution.
Notably, Louis XVI used one of Benjamin Franklin’s inventions in the Palace. The “Franklin chimney” produced much less smoke than a regular fireplace, so it was a natural fit in Versailles. And, following World War I, billionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. visited France and was greatly affected by the damage sustained to the Palace due to neglect. He offered to finance some of Versailles’s restorations. Among other things, he paid to repair its expensive roof.
There were approximately 350 living spaces in the Palace, and they varied in size due to a person’s station or standing with the King. For example, the crown prince, AKA the dauphin, lived in a large apartment on the ground floor, while a servant may have only had a small space in the attic or a bed behind a staircase. Louis XIV's bedroom was considered the most important room in the Palace. Two very important events took place there each day: he would wake up and go to sleep surrounded by courtiers. There were also special ceremonies for putting on and removing his boots.
According to scholar Godfrey Fox Bradby in his book The Great Days of Versailles: Studies from Court Life in the Later Years of Louis XIV, while the immense amount of marble the Palace was constructed of might've been pleasing to the eye, it did little in the way of creature comforts. In fact, it actively made life in Versailles downright uncomfortable in the winter months. Despite having them in many of the rooms, the large fireplaces "shot out a little warmth into the space immediately around them; but they were powerless to affect the broad and chilly surfaces of marble and metal in those large and lofty rooms." The fireplaces did so little by way of keeping rooms warm that, in March of 1695, wine is reported to have frozen in glasses on the King's table.
Everything about Versailles is on the scale of the extreme – even poor living conditions. According to scholars, living arrangements in Versailles spoke volumes about where an individual stood socially, which, naturally, meant the King had the most space as his chambers. However, for some lower-status nobles (and naturally service staff), living in Versailles could be akin to urban tenement and apartment living. There were two wings of apartments at Versailles that ran north and south from the central block of buildings. Each of these wings was three stories high and filled with apartments. While the apartments on the ground floor were spacious, the others were tiny and quickly grew stuffy, crowded, and filthy. It was in these claustrophobic cloisters that many of the lesser residents of Versailles were housed.