The Palace of Versailles

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The Renaissance was a time of learning and cultural advancement throughout Europe. In Italy, cultures blossomed to an extent not yet seen in the western world. Italy was only the center of the Renaissance, not the whole. In a small town called Versailles, located in France just outside of Paris began the road to one of the architectural wonders of the world in 164. King Louis XIII built a hunting lodge near Versailles, a place where he could escape the hustle and bustle of the state and Paris. Versailles would not become very important until after the death of Louis XIII in 164. Louis XIII’s son Louis XIV, self-proclaimed absolute monarch, the Sun King, succeeded the throne. Louis XIV apparently saw great potential in the small hunting lodge. Almost immediately after his succession to the throne, Louis XIV had his chief architect Louis Le Vau begin expanding the small hunting lodge into an elegant palace. From the copious amount of time and money that went into the project emerged the beautiful building that would serve as the French state capital and the focal point of the French Revolution. Louis XIV’s desire for extravagance and disregard for cost practically bankrupted France and helped fuel the French Revolution.

Originally the land in the area of Versailles was largely swampland and forest. Louis Le Vau had to devise a way to drain the swamps and level the ground. His methods were not exactly innovative, but they proved effective. He employed brute force and manpower to solve the problem of the swamps. Thousands of workers died while performing the task because of fever and pneumonia brought on by the swampy conditions. Le Vau then designed the first enlargement of the hunting lodge and the palace began to take form. Le Vau is also responsible for the addition of the Galerie des Glaces (The Hall of Mirrors) and the Salons of War and Peace. Another esteemed architect came onto the scene in 167; his name was Jules Hardouin-Mansart. At the time Le Vau was finishing the Galerie des Glaces and the Salons, Mansart was finishing the south wing of the palace. The year was now 168 and Versailles was still under constant construction. The Palace was one of the most extravagant architectural projects ever undertaken. When finished, the palace had more than ,000 windows, 700 rooms, 150 fireplaces, 67 staircases and more than 1,800 acres of park. The palace has had its critics from the time it was built to present day. Some see the defects of the palace but also the beauty of it. When you arrive at Versailles, from the courtyard side you see a wretched, top-heavy building, with a facade seven windows long, surrounded with everything which the imagination could conceive in the way of bad taste. When you see it from the garden side, you see an immense palace whose defects are more than compensated by beauties. (Voltaire Chateau de Versailles).

The palace is a sort of hodgepodge of many different types of art and architecture. Much of the palace is a fine example of high style Baroque art. The fountains in the gardens were a symbol of bringing order to nature and a way of showing Louis XIV’s supremacy over all things. All the hedges were perfectly trimmed, and the garden is completely symmetrical. The flowers in the gardens were changed twice every day to make sure there were no imperfections. Parts of the palace show classical Greek art and the sculptures were largely influenced by Greek ideas. The perfect symmetry of the gardens shows man’s dominance over nature, or more precisely Louis XIV’s dominance over nature (Enlightenment/Palace of Versailles). The interior artwork of the palace is a bit of each style. However, all the art has one thing in common; from the statues to the frescoes practically all of the artwork glorifies King Louis XIV. The entire palace grounds were designed so that they radiated outward from Louis’s bedroom.

Not only was the palace building itself a major undertaking, the gardens of the palace were like nothing ever seen before except, perhaps, for the hanging garden of Babylon. Andre Le Notre was responsible for the approximate 1,800 acres of land that were turned into the perfectly symmetrical gardens of the palace. “The park of the palace of Versailles reaches out from the chateau as far as the eye can see” (Loring, John The Gardens of Versailles). There were 1400 fountains in the gardens. Mark Twain described the fountains of Versailles as ... vast ... whose great bronze effigies discharged rivers of sparkling water into the air and mingled a hundred curving jets together in forms of matchless beauty... ( In order to provide water to the palace and the many fountains on the grounds a nearby river was diverted. An inventor by the name of Marly-Le-Roi designed a huge hydraulic machine to pump the water to the fountains. The many fountains required so much water that they were only turned on when the king walked past.

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On May 6, 168, Louis XIV transferred the royal court and the French government to Versailles. Versailles remained the capital of France until the French Revolution. When the capital was moved into Versailles the hustle and bustle that Louis XIII sought to escape followed. The Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon and the summerhouse were all built so the royal family could escape the busy palace. Life at the palace was not as decent as one might expect. Nobles were expected to attend the court almost every day; the days were often as long as twelve hours of extremely strict court etiquette. Not only were the court rules very strict, but the conditions were not very good either. Courtiers wore rented swords and used chamber pots behind statues. Dressmakers invented the color, Puce or flea, to hide the insects that crawled all over the noble women. King Louis XIV was very good at manipulating court life. He kept the noble families at the palace most of the time so they spent all their time trying to please him instead of plotting against him.

Versailles was constantly being expanded upon or renovated. The amount of money used for the palace and its needs was enormous. An estimated half of France’s total national income went into the palace. The total amount is unknown because Louis XIV burned all accounts concerning Versailles. Not only did Louis XIV drain money into Versailles he also undertook a series of wars that only resulted in France’s losing more money. His frivolousness paved the way for the French Revolution. When King Louis XIV died in 1715 the palace had just reached its finish. Louis XIV’s son, Louis XV, took his father’s place as the absolute monarch of France. He continued the fine tradition of wasting money on Versailles; he contributed little else.

Although finances were stretched paper-thin by the time King Louis XVI became king, he promptly replanted the immense gardens of Versailles upon moving in. Louis XVI’s wife was perhaps one of the most famous queens ever, Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI spent enormous amounts of money to keep his wife in her own isolated utopia. After years of heavy spending by the French monarchs, the country went bankrupt. Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting of the estates-general, a representative body of the government. They decided that in order to come out of debt they must tax the nobles and the clergy, who until that time were exempt from paying taxes. The taxes that peasants were already required to pay were raised. Early in the morning on October 6, 178 a mob stormed the Palace and captured the royal family. They were taken to a prison in Paris where they were executed. The government was put into the hands of the republic and Napoleon Bonaparte was soon to come on the scene. Most of the furniture and ornamentation was taken from the palace during the revolution. Some of the furniture went to museums and some is still in the process of being recovered today.

The Palace of Versailles was a symbol of power and culture, a symbol that made lesser, poorer nations burn with envy. The sheer size of the building is a tribute to its creators. As a result of the building of the palace the center of the Northern European Renaissance shifted to France. France gained influence while losing vast amounts of money, a trade off of sorts. By the time the revolution rolled around France was very deeply in debt. In all of history there are very few buildings on Earth to equal the palace of Versailles in size and in beauty. Versailles stands as a monument of beauty and power and also as a reminder to anyone undertaking a project such as Versailles of the many problems encountered.

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