Today, I'll be driving home from Williamsburg, Virginia. I love living in Virginia because it's chock full of American history. In Williamsburg, much of that history is pre-Colonial and also runs into the post-Colonia period after 1776 when Americans chose to revolt against British rule. Yesterday, the year chosen for the actors and actresses in Williamsburg was 1776.
Americans found worthy opponents in the British, but they also found allies in the French, whose own monarchy would soon be crumbling. So it's ironic that today's guest blogger is writing on the heady, glamorous Palace of Versailles, built by Louis XIV. I invite you to read on as Cathie Dunn shares more with us on this sumptuous European seat of power.
The Sumptuous Rooms and Gardens at Versailles
by Cathie Dunn
Thank you for inviting me to your fabulous blog, Brook. I’m so thrilled to be here as part of my blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.
Part of the action in my latest novel, The Shadows of Versailles, takes place at the palace of Versailles, and I’d love to show you the luxury and style in which the king and his courtiers surrounded themselves.
But first, a bit about the palace itself. How did it come into being?
In the early years of his reign, King Louis XIV resided at the Louvre, like his father had done, but he had no great love for the city of Paris. He found it dirty, the air foul, and the streets full of crime. In addition, as his court grew, he soon ran out of space.
Back in the 1620s, his father, King Louis XIII, had a comfortable hunting lodge built outside Paris, as a retreat and to go hunting. He also conducted some business of state there. The king was often found at the lodge, although neither his queen nor his mother ever resided there. Therefore, the old, three-storey building held no accommodation for the ladies. The then marshal of France called the hunting lodge ‘le chétif château’ – ‘the puny castle’! One wonders what he’d have said to the final version, completed by the 1680s…
Louis XIII had the ‘puny castle’ grounds extended in the 1630s, when he bought the fields surrounding it. At that time, the gardens began to be created.
When his son, Louis XIV, eventually ordered the lodge to be enlarged – with special wings added to house comfortable apartments for himself, for Queen Maria Theresa, and for his closest courtiers, his mistresses, and his ministers – little did anyone know how expansive, and expensive (!), a project Versailles would turn out to be.
Apart from some minor changes in the early 1660s, the first part of the major changes took place between 1664 and 1668. With much of the court entertainment already taking place in the gardens of Versailles, room was needed to accommodate the growing numbers of courtiers. Building works continued throughout the 1670s until the mid 1680s.
Although much of the court already resided at Versailles in the 1670s, the official move only took place in 1682. The famous Hall of Mirrors was finished in 1684 (that’s why this very special room was not mentioned in The Shadows of Versailles, which takes place in the second half of the 1670s), a room so glittering to impress courtiers, visitors and foreign dignitaries alike.
The Château de Versailles website has a brilliant summary on the external works by building phase on their YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/X235vpOToVU They’re well worth following, by the way, if you’re interested.
Louis XV, the Sun King’s great-grandson, abandoned Versailles for many years, but later had works on the Royal Opera House completed, which opened with the lavish wedding of the Dauphin to the Habsburg Archduchess Marie Antoinette in 1770.
It was too late for a young Mozart who had performed for the royal princesses in 1763, in their private salon, and on New Year’s Eve 1763/4 in the Grand Couvert (the royal dining room) on his tour of Europe at mere seven years old. The composer’s operas, however, would later be played many times in the Royal Opera House at Versailles.
Louis XVI, in turn his successor and grandson, and Queen Marie Antoinette, spent much time at Versailles. From there, the king continued his influence in the American War of Independence, but at the detriment of public opinion in France, which had turned against him. The court withdrew to Paris, and the people no longer accepted the blatant luxury the royal couple was so accustomed to. On that fateful day in October 1789, when the palace was stormed by revolutionaries, the king and his family taken to the Tuileries, to live as a Parisian ‘citizen’. In January 1793, Louis XVI was tried, then executed; Marie Antoinette’s execution followed in October of that year.
Sadly, during the revolution, much of the furniture in the palace of Versailles was sold off. During the Napoleonic era, the palace was neglected, and only later set up as a Museum of France. In the early 20th century, following WWI, after it had fallen into disrepair, the palace got a new lease of life, and it was authentically renovated and filled with sumptuous (if in places haphazardly thrown together) furniture once again.
These days (pre- and hopefully post-Covid), Versailles attracts millions of visitors each year. I visited it in August 2019, and it was so packed, I could barely take any photos without someone in it. I also didn’t even see it all, as it’s so vast. But my visit gave me a true sense of what Versailles was always about: a status symbol of absolutist power, of a life of entitlement of one anointed by God, and of luxury beyond all ordinary citizens’ dreams.
Now, I want to share with you a few images from my visit. I hope to visit the palace later this year, or next, again (and out of season!), if only to take better photos!
The bedroom of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. Furnishing changed, of course, as one could not be expected to live in the outdated style of his predecessor…
I loved this room. It felt so cosy. Minus the crowds, obviously. The little desk in the photo was made in 1760 for the princesses. This looks like the perfect place to lounge and read, of course.
The rooms were lavishly decorated with printed wallpaper, drapes and painted ceilings. You can just stand in awe, staring at it all, but the crowds will push you onwards. In the Hall of Mirrors, the court gathered for their indoor entertainment. Finished in 1684, it is a vast, and most impressive room. It draws the crowds! Sadly, it was also packed when I was there.
Also, the walls in all the rooms were covered in paintings of royal ladies from queens, to princesses, to mistresses of the three kings who lived in Versailles. Sadly, most were too far away to identify, and the info sheets were mobbed.
The grounds were sculpted early on and expanded as Louis XIV bought more land. Many of the entertainment took place out of doors, like theatre plays held in the Orangerie, pageants, and dancing. The Grand Canal at the far end (not to be confused with the Venetian Canale Grande) was added late in his reign. During the days of Louis XIV, the grounds covered a much vaster area than now.
Across the elaborate gardens you’ll find fountains, sculptures, and a huge array of statues, many with Greek influences and some rather cheeky.
These are just a few impressions, but I hope your readers will enjoy them, Brook.
Thank you so much for hosting me today. It’s been a pleasure to dig out the photos from my visit to Versailles. Now I just want to go back!
Cathie Dunn Bio
Cathie Dunn is an award-winning author of historical fiction, mystery, dual-timeline, and romance set in Scotland, England, and France. She has been praised for her authentic depiction of the past.
The Shadows of Versailles is her fifth published novel, and she is currently working on the sequel, The Alchemist’s Daughter, and a dual-timeline story set in 9th-century Normandy.
After many years in Scotland, Cathie now lives in the south of France. She loves to hear from her readers.
Connect With Cathie
Amazon author page: author.to/CathieDunn
Podcasts about the Affair of the Poisons: https://anchor.fm/cathie-dunn
Buy the Book!
Amazon international buy link: mybook.to/ShadowsVersailles