The Palace of Versailles is one of the largest, grandest, and most opulent palaces ever built. Built for France’s “Sun King,” Louis XIV, the vast scale of the building, the grand style of its architecture, the heroic Classical imagery used in its paintings and sculptures, and its extensive gardens were a flagrant display of the wealth and absolute power of the monarchy.
The site was originally a hunting lodge built in what was then a village in 1624 by Louis XIII. His successor, Louis XIV, expanded the lodge from 1660 Dnward in an effort to escape the pace of central Paris, and he went on to establish his royal court with its attendant town at Versailles in 1682. Perhaps the best known of the thousands of rooms at the palace is the Gaierie des Giaces, or Hall of Mirrors, begun in 1678, a magnificent confection of elegant mirrors lit by superb chandeliers, reflecting a gallery of tall windows and the gardens outside. The king’s move to a location outside Paris was no mere self-indulgence. By setting up the royal court at Versailles, he gained greater control as monarch, with thousands of government officials living at the palace ready to do his bidding. More important, the greatest of the French nobility were obliged to spend time at the palace, enabling the king to keep a watchful eye on them and ensure they paid homage by observing the deliberately restrictive and often absurd rules of court etiquette. His centralization of rule spoke of his drive for absolute authority and his efforts to prevent the spawning of rival centers of power in the provinces.
The king’s successors, Louis XVand Louis XVI, both inhabited the palace. The huge complex fell into disuse after the French Revolution (1789-99). Symbolizing the rule of the toppled monarchy, it was stripped of its priceless contents and left as a hollow shell when political power returned to Paris.