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The Mysteries and Magnificence of Louis XIV’s Masterpiece

Posted on 28 Jul 2017

A unique portrait of the Château of Versailles, including 250 previously unseen images from the archives of the palace's four official photographers.

On the Royal Gate, Louis XIV's chosen emblem: the sun, the crossed sceptre and the hand of justice [Credit: Thomas Garnier]

‘Versailles, c’est moi!’ declared Louis XIV, the mastermind behind France’s fabulous showpiece palace, and if we are to take him at his word, he must have been a very remarkable man indeed. Situated a dozen miles south-west of Paris, Versailles has become emblematic of the history of French royalty, culture and imperial power, and is recognised as one of the world’s most extraordinary monuments. It’s adorned with countless masterpieces of painting, sculpture and architecture, and surrounded by feats of landscaping and horticultural innovation.

Many textures of revealing light are thrown on its countless wonders in Versailles: The Great and Hidden Splendours of the Sun King’s Palace, a spectacular collection of photographs (almost all of them previously unpublished) by the Château de Versailles’s quartet of photographers – Christian Milet, Didier Saulnier, Christophe Fouin and Thomas Garnier – who have dedicated themselves to documenting its mysteries, treasures and pleasures. ‘There is an infinite number of possible viewpoints and they are never the same, depending on the time of day, the weather or the season,’ as Garnier puts it.

The palace’s grounds and buildings cover more than 2,000 acres, making it ‘the world’s largest royal domain’, and in our own age when the world appears increasingly small and overcrowded, the scale of Versailles seems scarcely credible. Work on Louis’s grand projet began in 1661, when the king assembled the architect Louis Le Vau, landscaper André Le Nôtre and decorator Charles Lebrun to start work on developing and upgrading the existing royal hunting lodge. This had been built by Louis’s father, Louis XIII, and he had fond memories of the time he’d spent there as a boy. The marshy, insect-infested terrain was by no means an ideal site for the projected palace and seat of royal governance, but such was the king’s vision and determination that it was as if he was on a mission to prove that his royal will was more than a match for mother Nature.

A view from east to west, showing the Marble Courtyard, Louis XIII's former pavilion, the Latona Fountain and the Grand Canal [Credit: Thomas Garnier in collaboration with Skydrone]

In a series of bursts of building activity lasting until 1710, when the royal chapel was completed, Louis XIV was able to bring Versailles somewhere near to his great conception, though it would be Louis XV who made the significant additions of the Opéra and Le Petit Trianon. Versailles stands now as a self-contained realm from an age which would otherwise be impossible to imagine. As well as its chapel and opera house, there’s the ornamental lake – La Pièce d’Eau des Suisses – adjoining the intricately-detailed Orangerie gardens, the resplendent Grand Canal (which was used for naval demonstrations and was traversed by Venetian gondolas), and a remarkable array of waterfalls and fountains, which deployed an innovative network of pumps, pipes and aqueducts to bring water from the River Seine.

‘Le domaine de Marie-Antoinette’ is a kingdom within a kingdom, comprising the satellite palaces Le Grand Trianon – which Louis XIV and his family used when they needed a breather from the full-scale Château de Versailles – and Le Petit Trianon (a neo-classical beauty from the 1760s). Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, was especially fond of Le Petit Trianon, and around it she oversaw the creation of idyllic landscaped gardens and the Queen’s Hamlet, a replica of a rustic Normandy village featuring dairies and a working farm. The story that the Queen enjoyed dressing up as a milkmaid seems, however, to be post-French Revolution propaganda. Sadly, no longer with us is the so-called Trianon de Porcelaine, a cluster of five white-tiled pavilions designed in an Oriental style, in which Louis XIV used to entertain his mistress Madame de Montespan. It was long ago replaced by Le Grand Trianon.

If there could be a single standout ‘greatest hit’ of Versailles, it would be the Hall of Mirrors, the product of six years’ work by Lebrun and the architect Jules Hardouin Mansart. This dream-like construction was conceived as a beautifully-proportioned row of 17 arcaded windows, overlooking the gardens rolling away below, with each window echoed by its own mirrored counterpart. Add the rows of crystal chandeliers, and the result is a kind of fantastical light-palace.

The 24 gilded wood torchères in the Hall of Mirrors [Credit: Thomas Garnier]

One of Louis XIV’s objectives at Versailles was to showcase French mastery in all spheres of manufacturing and creativity, and the sequence of ceiling paintings in the Hall of Mirrors extols the nation’s genius in everything from art and politics to warfare. However, there was no getting around the fact that the Venetians were the master mirror-makers of the age. The solution was to seduce Venetian artisans to come to France and make the mirrors for the Hall, but it was rumoured that the Venetian authorities sent assassins to slay the defectors and prevent their secrets from passing into French hands.

The era of the Bourbon kings is long gone, but great historical currents have continued to swirl around Versailles. In 1871, Kaiser Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, after Prussia had beaten France on the battlefield. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War One, was signed in the same Hall. And in July 2017, the newly-elected President Macron addressed France’s parliamentarians at Versailles, prompting some to criticise his monarchical pretensions. The Palace merely continues to keep its secrets.