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.

And the miracles were wrought, one after another - all by order of the King. On the site of the park a great terrace was bordered by a parterre in the shape of a half-moon, where a waterfall was later installed. A long promenade, now called the Allee Royale, extended to a vast basin named the Lake of Apollo. Streamlets were diverted to feed fountains. Twelve hundred and fifty orange trees were transported from the fallen estate of Vaux to fill the long arcades of the orangery.

In the midst of the activities of masons, carpenters, gardeners, the King was dominant, directing minute details - the laying of floors, the hanging of draperies, the installation of art works in the chapel. The restive master of the estate was impatient to enjoy his creation, and to invite his Court there to celebrate its completion with fetes both brilliant and costly. Colbert wrote in a letter dated September, 1663, of the beauty of the chateau's adornments - its Chinese filigree of gold and silver.

"Never," he swore, "had China itself seen so many examples of this work together - nor had all Italy seen so many flowers." Colbert suffered, but the King found royal satisfaction. The splendid scene of the Sun King must be set - the people had to pay. It was Colbert's affair to finance it.

The King commanded a series of fetes to be arranged. For eight days every diversion appropriate to the autumn season was enjoyed by the royal family and all the Court. Every day there were balls, ballets, comedies, concerts, promenades, hunts. Moliere and his troupe were commanded to appear in a new piece called "Impromptu de Versailles."

Colbert regretted the absorption of his sovereign in Versailles, "to the neglect of the Louvre - assuredly the most superb palace in the world." Louis tolerantly gave ear and inspected the Louvre, but to the building of Versailles he devoted all his enthusiasm.

The appearance of the villa erected by Louis XIII had been vastly altered as to its roofs, chimneys, facades. In 1665 the court was ornamented by the placing of the pedestals and busts that still surround it. In addition to the main edifice, the King gave orders for the building of small dwellings to be occupied by favorites of his entourage, and by musicians, actors and cooks. Three broad tree-lined avenues were laid out and the highway to Paris - the Cours-la-Reine - commenced. Already Versailles took on a more imposing aspect than ancient Fontainebleau. Workmen were constantly busy with the building of reservoirs, the laying of sod, the planting of labyrinths, hedges, secret paths and bosky retreats, with the setting out of hundreds of trees brought from Normandy, and the seeding of flower gardens of surpassing beauty. Ponds, fountains, grottoes, waterfalls and straying brooks came into being at the command of the ambitious young ruler. At some distance from the chateau courts and cages were constructed to shelter rare birds and animals. It was designed that this should be "the most splendid palace of animals in the world." The King decided the details of building and decoration and supervised the installation of the furred and feathered tenants of the palatial menagerie. This was the enclosure so greatly admired by La Fontaine, Racine and Boileau, during a visit to Versailles in 1668.

The first epoch of the construction of Louis XIV coincided with the first sculptural decoration of Versailles. A great number of works of art were ordered for the adornment of the walks and gardens. Many statues and busts of mythological subjects that were made at Rome to the order of Fouquet, after models by Nicolas Poussin, were removed from Vaux to Versailles. That was a thriving period for sculptors of France and adjacent countries. Records faithfully kept by Colbert detail expenditures of thousands of pounds of the nation's money for bronze vases, stone figures of nymphs and dryads and dancing fauns that were placed among the trees and fountains of Versailles. Much of the ornamental sculpture ordered at this time disappeared from the royal domain, as Louis XIV constantly demanded the work of the newest artists and all the novelties of the moment.

By the year 1668 Versailles apparently approached completion. It had then been seven years in building. But in 1669 the general character of the chateau was again changed. In the embellishments proposed by Le Vau, the architect, the royal domain became the scene of renewed activity, engendered by the King, then just turned thirty years of age, and eager to achieve still greater improvements at Versailles to mark the increasing prosperity of his reign. Half-finished buildings were demolished and begun anew. Immense structures arose, and once again artists flocked to Versailles. Inside the palace and in the park they wrought an elaborate scheme of decoration that made this the most sumptuous dwelling of the monarchy. In the words of Madame Scudery, an annalist of that epoch, Versailles, under the new orders of the King, became "incomparably more beautiful." Another Versailles was born; at the same time there was created a town on the vast acres purchased by the King, in the midst of which three great avenues were built, converging toward the chateau. In addition to the enlargement and improvement of the palace, the King ordered the erection of houses for the use of Colbert, now superintendent of the royal buildings, and for the officers of the Chancellery. From this time he interested himself particularly in the advancement of the infant town; he bought the village of "Old Versailles" and made liberal grants of land to individuals who agreed to build houses there. Opposite the chateau arose the mansions of illustrious nobles of the Court.

As the King remained obstinate in his determination that the "little chateau" of his father should not be removed to make room for a structure more in harmony with the surrounding ostentation, Le Vau covered over the moats and built around the lodge of Louis XIII with imposing effect. The new buildings containing the state apartments of the King and Queen and public salons were separated by great courts from the insignificant beginning of all this mounting splendor. Le Vau did not live to see the completion of the palace. He died in 1670. The work of reconstruction, in which the King maintained a lively interest whether at home or abroad, was continued by the architect's pupils at a cost of thousands of pounds. Eagerly Louis read plans and listened to reports. With still greater interest he attended the proposals of the great Mansard - nephew of the designer and builder who in 1650 revived the use of the "Mansard roof." When he succeeded as "first architect," Jules Mansard (or Mansart) first undertook the erection of quarters for the Bourbon princes. In the same year (1679) that he began the immense south wing for their use, he gave instructions for the building of the now historic Hall of Mirrors between two pavilions named - most appropriately in the light of after events - the Salon of Peace and the Salon of War. From the high arched windows of this glittering Grand Gallery great personages of past and present epochs have surveyed the gardens, fountains and broad walks that are the crowning glory of Versailles.

In the time of the Grand Monarque more than a thousand jets of water cast their silver spray against the greenery of hedge and grove. "Nothing is more surprising," said a chronicler of Louis the Fourteenth's reign, "than the immense quantity of water thrown up by the fountains when they all play together at the promenades of the King. These jets are capable of using up a river." A writer of our day bids us pause for a moment at the viewpoint in the gardens most admired by the King - at the end of the Allee of Latona. "To the east, beyond the brilliant parterre of Latona, with its fountains, its flowers, and its orange-trees, rise the vine-covered walls of the terraces, with their spacious flights of steps and their vividly green clipped yews. Turn to the west and survey the Royal Allee, the Basin of Apollo, and the Grand Canal, or look to the north to the Allee of Ceres, or to the south to that of Bacchus, and you realize the harmony that existed between Mansard and Le Notre in the decoration of the chateau and in the plan of the gardens." Beyond the palace and the surrounding gardens lay the park in which the Grand Trianon was built, of marble, near the bank of the Grand Canal. Madame de Maintenon, who became the King's second wife, was housed within these sumptuous walls, which were completed in 1688.

And so the construction of this miracle work of the Great Monarch went on. In Versailles, Louis was bent on realizing himself, and nothing but himself. The Pharaoh of Egypt built his pyramids with as little consideration of what it meant in tribute from his subjects. Each year took its toll in money and men to make this home of Louis the Magnificent. "The King," wrote Madame de Sevigne on the twelfth of October, 1678, "wishes to go on Saturday to Versailles, but it seems that God does not wish it, by the impossibility of putting the buildings in a state to receive him, and by the great mortality among the workmen." But the work had continued, as the King commanded, and when he finally entered into possession of his new palace in 1682 with all his Court, thirty-six thousand men and six thousand horses were still engaged in making matters comfortable and satisfactory for His Glorious Majesty. "The State," exclaimed the Sun King, "it is I!" and in the same mood he might have added, "Versailles - it is the State!"