A Brief History of the Chateau of Versailles

The first mention of Versailles appeared in a charter of the Abbey of Saint-Pére de Chartres (1038).

After ownership by the Seigneur de Soisy, then by Martial de Loménie, who was the Secretary of Finances during the reign of Charles IX, the estate was bought by Albert de Gondi, who became Duke of Retz and Marshal of France. Gondi received at Versailles Henry III and his brother-in-law, the King of Navarre, the future Henry IV of France, who liked to hunt on his friend's well-stocked estate. This passion for the hunt, which was passed on to all his descendents, would help shape the destiny of Versailles. The king, in fact, was sometimes accompanied by the young daphin, and it is thus that the future Louis XIII took to this naturally wild place. As king he would often return in the company of friends to hunt.

In 1623, in order not to stay any longer at the local inn, he built on the summit of the hill, where a windmill formerly stood, a lodge constructed of brick and stone which he extended some years later.

During construction of the Lodge, Louis XIII acquired more land and bought the Estate of Versailles from Jean-François de Gondi, archbishop of Paris and Albert's heir.

During the first years of his reign, Louis XIV only rarely visited Versailles; however, once married, he often traveled there with the queen and the court. In 1661 began the construction work that would quickly transform the retreat into an amiable residence appropriate to receive the royal family.

Simultaneously, André Le Nôtre made the lay-out for the new gardens whilst Louis Le Vau built the Orangerie and the Ménagerie.

The Château, thus remodeled, became a place for festivities. Les Plaisirs de l'Ile Enchantée (The Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle) in May 1664 and the Grand Divertissement (The Grand Royal Entertainment) on July 18th, 1668 dazzled all who experienced them and made Versailles known throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, Louis XIV cherished thoughts of extending the Château which had already become too small; he therefore asked Le Vau to draw up plans. After some hesitation Louis XIV adopted a compromise solution: the existing Château would not be torn down but surrounded on three sides by a stone building of greater height and covered with a flat roof. No attempt was made to harmonize with the existing Louis XIII building. Hence the distinction between the old and the new castle; the differences in materials, scale and style between the two constructions suggest a temporary solution: obviously the king intended to replace the brick portion later on by a main building made of stone similar to the façade of the "envelope." First Le Vau, then Mansart, submitted several proposals but wars hindered Louis XIV in the realization of his "great design." The project became part of Louis XV inheritance, who put off completion of the plans for a long time and only decided to finish the building work at the end of his reign. The financial troubles which marked the reign of Louis XVI put an end to ambitious construction projects at the castle, proposed by Gabriel and his successors: the wing named after Gabriel and the pavillion, built during the reign of Louis XVIII by Dufour in order to provide architectural harmony, are witnesses to a dream never realized.

Versailles is therefore an unfinished Château, or rather, it is formed from two castles, one surrounding the other.

The considerable extension of the buildings tripled the surface area of the Château and required an enormous amount of terracing: thus the original small hill was widened into a spacious raised platform on top of which new constructions developed. It was at this time that Le Nôtre gave the gardens their final appearance: flower-beds were adapted to the scale of the immense palace; a new Orangerie had to replace the one built by Le Vau which had become too small; the perspectives were widened and extended by the Grand Canal and the piéce d'eau des Suisses (ornamental Swiss pool) which were both also deepened, the number of groves was increased as well as the number of fountains ­ this last requiring lengthy and costly construction of a water supply.

At the end of the Ancien Régime, the Château was without doubt the most sumptuous royal residence in Europe, and the works of art accumulated by the kings throughout more than a century transformed it into an incomparable museum.

During the Revolution, Versailles' paintings, antiques and precious stones were transferred to the "Museum" (the current Museum of the Louvre), its books and medals to the National Library, and the clocks and scientific instruments to the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. Apart from a few exceptions, the furniture was sold at auction.

With the proclamation of the Empire, the Château regained its status as the residence of the Crown. Napolean instigated its renovation and decided to spend the summer months each year at Versailles. However, he abdicated before his project could be completed. Likewise, the Restoration was too short to allow Louis XVIII and Charles X to set up residence again in their birthplace, the Château de Versailles.

In 1830, the Château was practically intact but threatened. To save it from possible destruction or dishonorable use, Louis-Philippe, concerned about national harmony, decided to transform the Château, at personal expense, into a museum dedicated to "The Glory of France."

Though he conserved the Chapel, the Opera, the Hall of Mirrors, and the essential decorations of the royal apartments, Louis-Philippe did not hesitate, in order to create spacious exhibition halls, to destroy most of the princes and courtesans' apartments; thus he removed masterpieces of decorative art from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Nowadays the Château shows it's two faces: on the one hand the remnants of the former royal residence, approximately one hundred and twenty rooms, and on the other, the Musée d'Histoire (Museum of History) which Louis-Philippe called "Les Galeries Historiques" (Historical Galleries), compromising one hundred and twenty halls.

(From a text by Pierre Lemoine in the "Guide to Versailles and to the Trianon, castles and gardens," Paris, 1991, edition RMN)