The Luxurious Chateau and Parkland of Louis XIV

At the death of Louis XIII, in 1643, the little chateau of Versailles was abandoned as a dwelling. Then followed a fall in values at Versailles and a great flutter of uncertainty among those that had followed the King there. This feeling of doubt lasted for seven years. The faces of the court favorites were turned back toward Paris, and individual fortunes were speculatively weighed in the balance with the possibilities of the new King's whims and fancies. But when the twelve-year-old Louis XIV came to hunt in the vicinity of Versailles for the first time, he found the suburban dwelling of his father attractive from the start. The Gazette noted this visit, in 1651, and described the supper that the royal boy shared with the officials of the chateau. Two months later the King supped again at Versailles, and was so delighted with the estate and the hunting to be had thereabouts that, thereafter, he made it a yearly custom to visit Versailles once or twice in the hunting season, sometimes with his brother, sometimes with his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin.

Returning in 1652 from an interview at Corbeil with Charles II of England, then seeking refuge in France, Louis XIV dined at Versailles with his mother, Anne of Austria. In October, 1660, four months after his marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain, he brought his young queen there. The future of Versailles was assured. The King had decided to set his star and make his palace home where his father had established a hunting lodge.

The year 1661 was one of the most important in the history of the monarch. On March fifteenth, eight days after the death of Mazarin, the great Colbert was named Superintendent of Finances. It was he who was to give to the reign of Louis XIV its definite direction; his name was to be lastingly associated with the founding of the greater Versailles, and with the construction of the Louvre, the Tuileries, Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain. But Colbert's task in the enlargement of Versailles was no easy one, nor did he approve of it. He opposed the young King's purpose obstinately and expressed himself on the subject without reserve. "Your majesty knows," he wrote to the King, "that, apart from brilliant actions in war, nothing marks better the grandeur and genius of princes than their buildings, and that posterity measures them by the standard of the superb edifices that they erect during their lives. Oh, what a pity that the greatest king, and the most virtuous, should be measured by the standard of Versailles! And there is always this misfortune to fear."

But the King, like many another great monarch, had dreamed a dream. He was not satisfied with Paris as a residence. So he told Colbert to make his dream of Versailles come true - and Colbert had to find some way to pay the cost.

An irritating cause of the King's purpose lay in the fact that he was incited by the splendors of the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, built by his ill-fated minister, Fouquet. Louis determined to surpass that mansion by one so much more elaborate as to crush it into insignificance. Nicholas Fouquet had employed the most renowned masters of this period - among them Louis Le Vau, the architect, Andre Le Notre, the landscape gardener, and Charles Lebrun, the decorator. These were the men the King summoned to transform the modest hunting villa of his father. At the truly gorgeous chateau of his minister, he had witnessed the full measure of their genius. On August 17, 1661, Fouquet gave an elaborate fete to celebrate the completion of the chateau, which the King attended. Within three weeks the host was a prisoner of State, accused of peculation in office. Acting immediately upon his resolution to out-do the glories of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis engaged Le Notre to plan gardens and Le Vau to submit proposals for the enlargement and decoration of the chateau. One of the first apartments completed was the chamber of the infant Dauphin - heir to the throne, who was born in November, 1661. Colbert reported in September, 1663, that in two years he had spent 1,500,000 pounds, and a good part of this sum was for the construction of the gardens. Builders and decorators suggested one elaborate project after another, without regard to the cost, despite the protest of Colbert to the King that they were exceeding all estimates and provisions. It was a paradise period for profiteers.

Versailles became a favorite retreat of the extravagant young sovereign. He frequently drove out from Paris, and on sundry occasions gave splendid balls and dinners.

For periods of increasing frequency the King was in residence at Versailles. He urged on the builders who had in hand the construction of the living-rooms, kitchens, stables; he supervised the placing of pictures and other decorative works in various parts of the expanded chateau; impatiently he chided the superintendents for delay and feverishly they strove to meet his demands for greater haste. And though every hour of haste cost the King of France a substantial sum, he cared for nothing but the fulfillment of his luxurious plans. Hundreds of laborers were engaged in laying out the orangery, the grand terrace, the fruit and vegetable gardens. The original entrance court was greatly enlarged. Long wings terminated by pavilions bordered it. On the right were the kitchens, with quarters for the domestics; on the left, the stables, where there were stalls for fifty-four horses. At the main entrance to the court were pavilions used by the musketeers as guard-houses. Those were bustling times at Versailles, and every day disclosed a new development and opened the way to new miracles of construction.