Saturday, 22 March 2014

36. Wonder: The Palace Of Versailles

(For the Palace of Versailles preview, please click here.)

Versailles... is opulence.

For the sake of brevity in this review, I'm going to refer to the palace as just Versailles, although it is of course actually the name of the town. But say Versailles to most people and they think of the palace, not the town. The two are intrinsically intertwined: the city was an insignificant village until Louis XIV's desire to build himself a grand new home changed its fortunes. The palace is not a subtle presence in the town. A vast set of oblongs from which wide boulevards radiate and to which coachloads of tourists swarm. Behind the palace are gardens, though to describe them as gardens somewhat understate their size. These gardens contains other chateaus, forests, canals, a farm, and a faux-rustic hamlet; they are around the same size as the entire small city of 90,000 that is Versailles: they are big.

So, what is the Palace of Versailles? Well, it's a palace, as you might guess, but palaces take many forms and assume many sizes. Versailles takes the form of the largest and most ornate palace you're ever likely to see. Its construction - and various stages of destruction - encompasses centuries, spanning some of the most important chapters in French, and by proxy European, history. Unlike many great buildings it does not take a backseat role in that history - Versailles gets stuck right in. It was the home of the last three French kings of the Ancien Regime, and therefore the seat of power, before the French Revolution. The first two of these three kings died in their rooms in the palace; the third was taken from there, with his wife Marie Antoinette, by Revolutionaries storming it. The Germans enthroned their own emperor in the palace in 1871 following their defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian War, but the French got their own back after the Germans were defeated in World War 1: it was in the palace and upon Louis XV's desk that the Germans signed the punitive Treaty of Versailles. Which in turn began the build up to World War 2. Even today, in partial retirement, it makes guest appearances in world history: in 1982, the G7 Summit was held there, the first such meeting for the world's most influential nations.

So, historically, the palace belongs to many eras. Structurally, it does too. Packed full of apartments, galleries, corridors, and stairways, it has emerged and changed over the years. Its origins are as a small hunting lodge, built by Louis XIII in 1624. There was good stag hunting there and so Louis XIII bought up the area. It seems he was right about the stag hunting: between 1775 to 1791, Louis XVI is recorded as having killed 1274 stags. Louis XIII's son was Louis XIV, and it is Louis XIV that ushered in the Versailles we know today, and its most celebrated age.

Louis XIV was not exactly what you'd call a shrinking violet. Reigning for 72 years (he came to power aged 5), he flounced around in brightly-coloured satin and velvet gowns and brought wigs right into fashion - massive, flowing, powdered manes of hair, a little like a judge's wig on steroids. Regarded by courtiers as the "vainest man ever", he was megalomaniacal and egotistical. He was not going to ask you how your day had been: it was his day. But this isn't always a bad thing for a king with absolute power, and he wielded his power with absolute authority. He believed that great displays of royal magnificence would win back respect for a monarchy which has been through a troubled period: this meant glorious war victories, this meant Versailles. It was all about extravagance for Louis XIV. It was his entire persona, and this was reflected in the ornate palace he built for himself and his court. The art and architectural style of the day was Baroque, which is a very dressed-up, fancypants, over-the-top style, kind of like Roman architecture with a whole bunch of flourishes. Louis XIV was very Baroque. Versailles is very Baroque.

It took Louis XIV 25 years to convert the hunting lodge into a glorious palace, placing his bedroom on the first floor. The King's Bedchamber is right at the centre of Versailles, the hub of the building and the symbolic centre of his government and realm. It faces the rising sun, the rising sun being Louis XIV's emblem; indeed, he is often called The Sun King. The bed and the room is every bit as fancy as you'd expect. It's also rampacked full of tourists, even by Versailles' standards.

It's a quirk of Louis XIV's reign that, unlike many ancient monuments - think the tomb that is the Taj Mahal or the Inner Court of the Forbidden City - the seemingly private chambers of Versailles were not private at all. The hordes of tourists today aren't too far removed from how it was in the 17th Century. Louis XIV built Versailles as an open court, without much room for privacy, and anybody could enter. Louis XIV being Louis XIV, there was a dress code of course, which included all male visitors having to wear swords - don't worry, if you'd forgotten yours, you could simply borrow them from the concierge. In 1682, at Louis XIV's insistence, his first grandchild was born in the palace - under the full gaze of anybody who wanted to watch! It was an ancient custom to hold public births of royalty, to avoid suspicion of births being faked, and in all nineteen royal children were born in Versailles, with it being noted that the room would be especially crowded during this time. The celebrated Hall of Mirrors, the wildly ornate and spacious centrepiece of the palace, had cows traipsing through it daily to be milked.

It is perhaps understandable that Louis XIV's successor, his great-grandson (both his son and grandson had died before him), Louis XV, wanted a little more privacy. He'd become king aged five and had grown up in the peace of the countryside. He was shy and not used to public life, and hated the openness of Versailles. Louis XIV had built a vast public palace - Louis XV wanted to make it a little more intimate. So he began a conversion program, turning large rooms and a grand stairways into smaller, more intimate, and more easily heated private quarters.

Don't think these were too humble or understated, however. These days, Louis XV's private quarters can be visited by the public, but only as part a guided tour (the rest of the building is still open to all-comers). It was this tour that Danielle and I took for the first of our two visits to Versailles. It's a nice way to begin the process of visiting the sprawling palace, with a guide giving the sweeping history of the building as well as the modern efforts to maintain it and restore - or restitute - its missing furnishings. Our guide was a knowledgeable lady who I believe was involved in the restitution process. The palace epitomised the excesses of the royal family, so during the French Revolution most of the furnishings were stolen and sold at auction. Fortunately for the palace, after the looting the doors were just locked and the palace effectively left - there was no wanton destruction. Versailles was emptied, but never ruined. These days, it's an ongoing mission to recover the stolen or sold items. As you can imagine, this is no easy task. Many of the items have been destroyed, many others are languishing in museums outside of France. And many have found their way into the hands of private collectors. Some of these collectors very generously donate the items back to Versailles, but some have to be bought. Exquisite 18th Century French furniture does not come cheap. Our guide explained that one desk cost 10 million to buy back. Another big blue bowl cost 1 million. It's just one of ten recovered from a set that once totalled 1750 pieces - could be an expensive business recovering all these...

Our guide's enthusiasm at this acquisition process, if not the prices, was obvious. The hunt never ends: she told us with some pleasure of some other piece of furniture due to arrive the following week, by donation. When some of the tour group seemed to even nudge themselves towards the curtains, long and draping on the floor, she flew into a controlled panic and made sure we all stood clear. Each room she showed us was gorgeously decorated, some quite full of furniture, others empty. Most had multiple functions; each had their own story.

Of particular note was the Louis V's desk room, complete with the original "secret" desk, his Bureau du Roi, one of the few items not to be sold after the Revolution. It took ten years to build and had a clever mechanism which unlocked its innumerable compartments, which our guide told us still worked, although now taking multiple turns rather that the dainty half-turn once required. At something like 500 kilograms, you can see why no-one was in a great hurry to remove it.

The creation of the private apartments changed the nature of Versailles. Under Louis XIV, anyone who was anyone had to be there. It was his court and he was always in attendance, and he created a tightly-bound court ruled by hierarchy and etiquette. The court lived within the sprawling palace - to describe it as an elaborate block of flats isn't too far off the mark. But with Louis XV, the palace changed from an open court to just an occasional court, and so when the king was holding court, the place could be pretty empty. Most of the nobility far preferred the life and bustle of Paris to the confines of the "gilded cage" of Versailles.

After our guided tour, we explored the public rooms and galleries of the palace, and did so again more thoroughly the next day too. We were not the only ones. Versailles is a very popular place for tour groups, mostly either French schoolkids or far-east Asian. Plenty of independent tourists fill the rooms too, but it's the marauding tour groups you notice most. Depending on what time of day you go, the numbers can get quite overwhelming. Gridlock ensues.

Nonetheless, despite the crowds, there is no doubt: the interior of the Palace of Versailles is splendid. Golden, lavish, packed with outrageously over-the-top artwork and grandiose statements, it is a spectacle to behold. The Hall of Mirrors is doubtlessly the highlight, a 73-metre long room filled with mirrors and a ceiling celebrating the glory of Louis XIV. Dressed as a Roman and with Roman gods around him, it is suitably pompous and an unsubtle statement of his divine right to rule. Louis XV, in the adjoining Peace Room, doesn't do much to tone down the pomposity - in one grand painting, looking very regal he offers an olive branch to Europe, depicted as a grateful woman.

There are many more rooms too, all grand, all designed to impress, none terribly practical. It's sheer ostentatious glory in the form of furnishings. Here's a couple more, with lots of tourists in the foreground.

My personal favourite was the beautifully-named "Abundance Salon", boldly decorated in a rich green and black.

The Palace of Versailles is a big place and there is a lot to see. How long you spend there depends entirely on how much attention you want to pay, and perhaps how many tour groups you can bear. There is an astonishing, almost relentless, level of detail. And the palace is only really just the core of what the larger estate of Versailles has to offer. The gardens, as I've said, are vast. Our late-March visit was only seeing springtime peaking its head into the year and so the trees were still quite sparse, the flowers yet to blossom, the fountains yet to kick into life, but there was enough for Danielle and I to agree: we need to see this in summer. Further into the grounds are the small complexes called the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon. The Grand Trianon was originally Louis XIV's getaway for court, and for more intimate gatherings: it's still massive. Later, it became a kind of holiday home for privileged guests. The Petit Trianon was built during Louix XV's reign for his chief mistress, Madame Pompadour, and Louis XIV gave it to his queen, Marie-Antoinette. Within the grounds of the Grand Trianon is the truly weird "Queen's Hamlet", a faux-rustic Disneyland-style collection of quaint buildings, constructed in 1783 at Marie-Antoinette's orders, for her and her mates to escape to a pretend countryside retreat. Nobody really seems to mention this strange little hamlet when they talk about Versailles, and it's somewhat out of keeping with the grandeur of the rest of it, but it's quite fun to see.

These days, as with many grand old buildings, Versailles has become somewhat of a museum to itself. It manages quite successfully to step out of this role sometimes, hosting extravagant wedding receptions and the occasional state visitor, but it's mostly a museum. This is not a new development, the process started way back in 1833, when King Louis-Philippe (of a fairly short-lasting re-established French monarchy) decided to turn it into a patriotic museum to French military victories, something which involved ripping out a load of rooms and converting them into a vast hall of big paintings. The Battles Gallery is very grand, although the glass ceiling gives it something of a train station feel.

In 1892, a curator called Pierre de Nolhac began the long process of restoring the palace from a military museum back to a royal palace, a long and expensive task, but one which caught the public imagination and saw them visit in increasingly large numbers. Essentially, this is a process than continues today, with ongoing maintenance and recovery of old furnishings.

As you'll have noticed, most of my descriptions of Versailles have focussed on the interior decor. No doubt about it, Versailles is about the interior a lot more than the exterior. The outside is boxy and, to be honest, not all that remarkable. Sure, it's very big and long, and suitably grand and pompous, but it's not all that special. Perhaps this is why, alone in France so far, I could not get a single model of it. France loves its tacky souvenir models - I was even able to get one of the war memorial at Thiepval! - but Versailles was noticeable by its absence. The nearby souvenir shops had all the usual Paris ones, but none of the palace. Ok, I tell a small lie, there was a cut-out-and-glue one from a book, but it was ridiculously large and would have dominated any room it was placed in, much in the way the real thing dominates the town it's in. I think this lack of souvenirs is very telling - it says that the Palace of Versailles isn't anything too special to look at from the outside. It's not a unique piece of construction. When you think of Versailles, you don't think of the blocky frontage, you think of the gold, the art, the pomposity, the ostentation, the splendour, the bling, the Baroque. You think of the inside.

I don't mean to slam the exterior - it's a very handsome structure. The core of the facade, where the old hunting lodge used to be, is gilded and looks especially pretty gleaming in the sun. The main gate, torn down during the Revolution but replaced in 2008, looks wonderful. From the reverse, a statue of Neptune in front of a pool makes for a popular postcard view.

But at the same time, compare the palace to some of the other places on my list. Anywhere near the top of my current list - the Taj Mahal, the Millau Viaduct, St Paul's Cathedral - they are exciting to look at. They are visually striking. As a more direct comparison, the Louvre Palace in Paris is a far more attractive building from the outside. The Palace of Versailles is big and Baroque, but it is not such a compelling sight: the plain little sister of the Louvre.

Of course, a Wonder isn't just about how it looks from the outside. The interior, the history, the meaning of a structure all come into play. These are what make Versailles great, these are at the core of this candidate Wonder. Without them, there is no way that the Palace of Versailles would be talked of as among the greatest buildings in the world. Which is telling. The world celebrates Versailles for all sorts of reasons, but these don't really include the actual physical look of the building. And however wonderful the palace is in terms of its ornate interior and fascinating history - and truly these are great - I feel it needs that little extra spark of originality and visual flare to be considered one of the world's very best.

Some criteria then.

Size: It's big, although in width - perhaps around 400 metres - rather than height. From outside, it's suitably imposing, but it's the huge public rooms - not least the Hall of Mirrors - that makes the impression. Add to that the colossal city-sized gardens, and you have a pretty vast Wonder.
Engineering: The palace was built as a series of extensions, and although an impressive effort, it was not a superhuman feat. In fact, the gardens proved a much sterner task, converting marshes into luscious gardens, and providing water for the fountains was a technical feat never able to be fully realised.
Artistry: The interior is exquisite, with a wealth of art and detail almost unparalleled in the world. The exterior is grand and imposing, but a little more routine.
Age: In a recognisable form, now almost 350 years old, putting it in the same age bracket as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. Older than you thought?
Fame/Iconicity: I think Versailles as the concept is more famous than Versailles the building. Show a hundred people a picture of the palace and I don't think that many would recognise it. But many more would know the name, know its connection with French royalty and ostentatious wealth.
Context: It faces the town it gave rise to, and has vast palace gardens behind it. Clearly, it occupies a very prominent position in the town, although not being on very raised ground, it's not as visible as it might be. Also, being so wide, many more recent buildings obscure the view of the front - although that's not a problem when viewed from the gardens.
Back Story: It's the story of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, the French Revolution, and continues appearing in French and even world history right up until the present day. It's a very, very important building.
Originality: It's not a terribly original structure except in terms of scale. This goes for both the outside and glorious inside.
Wow Factor: It's impressive from the outside, but the real wows are saved for wandering about inside, gazing at the fabulous decor.

The Palace of Versailles is a bit like the Forbidden City - vast and imposing and hugely significant to its national history. Both were built to impress. But unlike the Forbidden City, which in its current form I found a little boring, Versailles is packed full of interesting details and is a joy to walk around. It is somewhat overwhelming at times. For this reason, I would rate Versailles a lot higher. But my ratings truly reflect the wealth of the history and the furnishings inside; without them, Versailles is not so special. Indeed, as a simple exterior spectacle, the Forbidden City has the edge. But, significantly, Versailles has the history and the gorgeous interior, and these make it great. How great? It's not a Wonder, but it's firmly in the category of world-class, wedged between the iconic all-seeing Cristo Redentor of Rio, and the medieval wonderland of Carcassonne.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. The Eiffel Tower
6. The Millau Viaduct
7. Angkor Wat

Other Wonders
Sydney Opera House


The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Cristo Redentor

The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Nazca Lines
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. I pretty much agree with all of what you have written. It seems to me as if the exterior lacks some kind of single defining architectural feature, something that acts as the focus of attention; the sort of thing that domes, spires, towers and turrets etc do for other buildings.

    Also it has to be said that that style of architecture isn't that rare in Europe (although ironically Versailles in part played a role in popularising it I believe).

    I think one of the things that people find the most fascinating about Versailles is the political and personal intrigue that went on within its walls and its grounds. Yes the art and the gardens are impressive, but knowing that it is where kings wooed their mistresses, Marie-Antoinette held her decadent parties, courtiers plotted how to gain the king's favour while conducting their petty rivalries, and revolutionaries stormed up and down its corridors is one of the things that fires up visitors imaginations. However that does not translate into visual impressiveness.

    1. Yup, it definitely fires up the imagination. I put pictures of each Wonder-plus-me on Facebook every time I write a review: Versailles got one of the best responses. That's not because of the photo or the buildings, it's because of the name "Versailles" and all that it associates.

      When I visit Chambord eventually, I suspect I'll make the observation that it's an inverse of Versailles: all fancy on the outside and boring on the inside.


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