‘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and Hidden Splendours of the Sun King’s Palace, a spectacular collection of photographs (almost all of them previously unpublished) by the Château de Versailles’s quartet of photographers – Christian Milet, Didier Saulnier, Christophe Fouin and Thomas Garnier – who have dedicated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.