The Splendors of the Chateau - its Apartments and Gardens, the Hall of Mirrors

In planning the interior decorations at Versailles, the numerous company of artists employed by the sovereign devised a scheme of ornamentation inspired by the arts of ancient Rome. Mythological and historical subjects were utilized for the glorification of the Grand Monarch. A Description of the chateau, officially printed in 1674, gives us the key to the interpretation of the allegories. "As the Sun is the device of the King, and poets represent the Sun and Apollo as one, nothing exists in this superb dwelling that does not bear relation to the Sun divinity."

The emblem of Apollo was in evidence everywhere; signs of the month ornamented facades and walls; and inside the palace and out were symbols of the seasons and the hours of the day. The King's apartment bore on its ceiling and walls paintings depicting deeds of seven heroes of Antiquity, supported by Louis' planet emblem. All the interior decoration was Italian in style - marble wainscoting in window embrasures, floors of marble, panels of marble, doors of repousse bronze. The apartments of Anne of Austria and the Gallery of Apollo at the Louvre offered the first examples in France of this decorative style, and guided the artists at Versailles in making their plans.

Upon the Grand Apartments of the King and Queen alone, a dozen painters were engaged between the years 1671 and 1680. Charles Lebrun directed the artists, most of whom, be it said, were poor colorists. He himself worked on the vault above the Stairway of the Ambassadors and in the Hall of Mirrors. To imitate Italian works of art was at that time the avowed ideal of French decorators. At Rome the King's purse paid the expenses of a group of young artists who were allotted the task of copying designs that were later evolved at Versailles. To some was assigned the copying of ornaments made of metal, mosaic and inlay. Others specialized on bronze and wood-carving designs. There were painters who made only sketches of battle scenes and sieges. There were sculptors on the King's staff of copyists, and goldsmiths, and enamel workers. Flemish, Dutch, French, but principally Italian, craftsmen were recruited from the art centers of Europe, "for the glory of the King." At the Gobelin Tapestry Factory - a royal establishment - the workers were directed by Charles Lebrun, who for many years had been head of the "Royal Manufactory of Crown Furniture."

It was in the year 1677 that Louis XIV formally proclaimed Versailles his residence and the seat of Government. It was for the purpose of providing quarters for the Court and its attendants that Mansard was commanded to enlarge the chateau. Versailles now became, in truth, the temple of royalty. The newly appointed architect gave to the chateau its final aspect; the stamp of his genius rests upon the exterior design and interior embellishment of the most remarkable dwelling in the history of French architecture.

When the Court came to live at Versailles in May, 1682, Mansard and his builders were still feverishly occupied in the work of construction and reconstruction. The year 1684 saw the end of the ornamentation of the interior in the completion of the Hall of Mirrors. Mansard's style is particularly impressed upon the Marble Stairway, and the adjacent Hall of the Queen's Guards, and, above all, on the Grand Gallery of the Mirrors and the Salons (Peace and War) that flank it - works truly impressive in their proportions, adornment and arrangement.

Disposed about three sides of the main court, the red chateau was set low on a slight rise of land. The main entrance was flanked by the North Wing and the South Wing, interrupted throughout their length by lesser courts. The domed chapel upreared to the right of the gate was the fourth one to serve the palace. After a period of building lasting ten years it was consecrated in the year 1710. The exquisite white stone edifice is still regarded as an architectural gem. Its interior embellishments were carried out by some of the best artists of the Sun King's epoch. Here during the last years of his long and spectacular reign, Louis the Great worshiped. Here Marie Antoinette was married to the Sixteenth Louis.

Arrivals at the palace were admitted from the Place d'Armes to the court designated for their reception. Only the King and his family might enter by the central gate. Nobles passed through the gates at the side. Privileged persons were permitted to alight in the Royal Court; those of inferior prestige in the Court of the Ministers, which gave entrance to the offices and living quarters of the palace executives and the hundreds of minions composing the King's retinue. On the left of the enclosure called the Marble Court was the vestibule to the Marble Stairway; opposite was the doorway leading to the renowned Stairway of the Ambassadors, later removed by command of Louis XV. The royal suites, except those of the Dauphin and his attendants, were on the second floor. These rooms beneath the ornate Mansard attic were the scene of all the potent events and ceremonies that have distinguished Versailles above the palaces of the world.

Grouped above the Marble Court at the far end of the main court of the chateau, were the State Apartments of the King. Though, in later times, the sequence of some of these salons was changed, in the years when the Sun King occupied them they comprised the Salon of Venus, opening upon the Ambassadors' Staircase, the Salon of Diana, the Salon of Mars, and the Salon of Mercury. These halls formed a magnificent prelude to the still greater magnificence of the Salon of Apollo, - the Throne Room where guests came into the presence of the King himself. The Salon of Venus was most admired for its marble mosaics and its ceiling painting representing Venus subduing all the other deities. In Louis' day, as now, the royal master of all this grandeur was here portrayed in white marble, garbed in the robes of a Roman emperor. Diana and her nymphs were depicted on the ceiling of the salon named for the Goddess of the Hunt. Here under candles glimmering in sconces of silver and crystal the courtiers engaged in games of billiards, while their ladies disposed themselves gracefully upon tapestried seats. And there were orange trees in silver tubs to add brilliance to the scene. In the Salon of Mars dancing parties and concerts were given. Silver punchbowls set on silver tables offered refreshment to the gay throng that coquetted and danced and applauded beneath the triumphant picture of Mars limned upon the ceiling. This room was a-glitter with silver, cut glass and gold embroidered draperies. In the crimson-hung Salon of Mercury was the King's bed of state, before which was a balustrade of silver. In all the Grand Apartments were hangings and furniture of extraordinary richness. There were tables of gilded wood and mosaic, Florentine marbles, pedestals of porphyry for vases of precious metal, ebony cabinets inlaid with copper, columns of jasper, agate and lapis lazuli, silver chandeliers, branched candle-sticks, baskets, vessels for liqueurs, silver perfuming pans. Windows were draped with silver brocade worked in gold thread, with Venetian silks and satins, or embroideries from the Gobelin studios. On the floors, originally of marble, were spread carpets woven in designs symbolical of kingly power.

The Throne Room known as the Salon of Apollo - the seat of the Sun King - was of the utmost richness. The throne itself was of silver and stood eight feet high. Tapestries represented scenes of splendor in the life of Louis the Great and on the walls were masterpieces by Italian artists of the first rank, which were later deemed worthy of a place in the Louvre. Much of the treasure vanished in the years 1689-1690 when the King was constrained to raise money for his depleted treasury. In December, 1682, the Mercure Galant, desirous of pleasing its readers, always avid of details about everything that concerned their King, published a long description of the furnishings of the State Apartments - the velvet hangings, the marble walls enriched with gold relief, the chimney-pieces bossed with silver.

Yet the glory of these apartments was outdone by the later achievements of architect and decorators in the Salons of War and Peace and the Hall of Mirrors that joins them. In the cupola of the Salon of War the great Lebrun painted an allegorical picture of France hurling thunderbolts and carrying a shield blazoned with the portrait of King Louis, while Bellona, Spain, Holland and Germany are shown crouching in awe. The colored marbles of the walls contrasted brilliantly with gilded copper bas-reliefs. Six portraits of Roman emperors contributed to the impressiveness of the Salon, and on the wall was a stucco relief of the King of France on horseback, clad like a Roman. The Salon of Peace was also decorated by Lebrun's adept brush. A ceiling piece portrays France and her conquered enemies rejoicing in the fruits of Peace. And, again, there are portraits of the ever-present Louis and the Caesars of Rome. Both these splendid halls remain to-day much as they were in the time of their creator.

Most lavish is the decoration of the Grand Hall of Mirrors - "the epitome of absolutism and divine right and the grandeur of the House of Bourbon." For two hundred and forty feet it extends along the terrace that surveys the gardens where Louis XIV and his successors delighted to ordain fetes of unimaginable gayety. Gorgeously costumed courtiers, women that dictated the fate of dynasties, diplomats of our day bent upon the solution of world-rocking problems, all have gazed from this resplendent gallery upon the fountains and allees that beautify the scene below. Seventeen lofty windows are matched by as many Venetian framed mirrors. Between each window and each mirror are pilasters designed by Coyzevox, Tubi and Caffieri - reigning masters of their time. Walls are of marble embellished with bronze-gilt trophies; large niches contain statues in the antique style. The gilded cornice is by Coyzevox, the ceiling by Lebrun. The conception of the latter comprises more than a score of paintings representing events that had to do with wars waged by Louis the Great against Holland, Germany and Spain. In the period when Versailles was the residence of kings - not a museum, alone, and the assembly-place of international Councils - the tables in the Grand Gallery, the benches between the windows, the many-branched candelabra, the tubs in which orange trees grew, were all of heavy silver. Thousands of wax candles lighted the salon, some of them set in immense chandeliers, others in lusters of silver and crystal. But Louis the Fourteenth's reign was not yet over when he was compelled to send many hundred pieces of his precious furniture to the mint, and the superb appointments of the Hall of Mirrors were partially substituted by furnishings of wood and damask.

Visitors to Versailles view the private or "little" apartments of King Louis the Great, Louis XV and Louis XVI. The superb bedchamber of Louis XIV contains the bed in which the French Monarch died on September 1, 1715. In an ante-chamber, later called the Bull's Eye by reason of its unique oval window, courtiers were wont to gossip and intrigue while they awaited the King's rising. A quaint painting by a French artist presents Louis XIV and his family in the character of pagan deities. Next to the Bull's Eye was the room in which the King dined on occasion. The Hall of the King's Guards was near of approach to the Marble Staircase and to the ample and ornate apartments of Madame de Maintenon. The wonders of this Hall are also departed. In a group of small rooms were rich stores of objects of art, medals, cameos, onyx, bronzes, and gems of great value.

The State Apartments of the Queens of France were entirely altered in their decoration as one queen succeeded another. Marie Therese was the first to occupy them. We are told that before her bed there stood a railing of silver, that later gave way, for economical reasons, to one carved in wood. In the Grand Cabinet the wife of Louis the Great received in audience those that the King commanded. Here, at the end of a short and insignificant period as mistress of Versailles, Marie Therese died, July 30, 1683.

One of the few apartments that still retains the aspect it bore in King Louis the Fourteenth's reign is the Hall of the Queen's Guards, which had a door on the landing of the marble stair, also called the Queen's Staircase. This was the flight of steps most used in the time of Louis, since it led to the apartments of the sovereign, the Queen Madame de Maintenon.

The Ambassadors' Staircase, across the court, was of the richest possible decoration, but like the glory of the Kings of France, it has passed into oblivion. Louis commanded that it be paved and walled in marble from the choicest quarries, vaulted with bronze, graced by fountains. Amazing frescoes representing a brilliant assemblage of people of all nations adorned the walls. Of this staircase a reporter of the epoch wrote, "When full of light it vies in magnificence with the richest apartments of the most beautiful palace in the world." Which palace was, of course, Versailles.

The Grand Hall of the Guards, the apartments of the Children of France and their governess, the ten rooms that composed the suite of the Dauphin, the Grand Hall of Battles - each had its special decoration. "At the house of Monseigneur," wrote an old chronicler of the Court, "one sees in the cabinets an exquisite collection of all that is most rare and precious, not only in respect to the necessary furniture, tables, porcelains, mirrors, chandeliers, but also paintings by the most famous masters, bronzes, vases of agate, jewels and cameos." For one dazzling table of carved silver in the apartment of the King's son, the silversmith that fashioned it was paid thirty thousand dollars.

Beneath the state apartments of the King was the Hall of the Baths lined with marble and adorned with beautiful paintings. Upon the marble tubs, the tessellated floors, the gilded columns and mirrors of this apartment a great sum was expended.

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Versailles at last was finished - and what a spectacle and monument to selfish exaltation it was! "There is an intimate relation between the King and his chateau," wrote Imbert de Saint-Amand. "The idol is worthy of the temple, the temple of the idol. There is always something immaterial, something moral so to speak, in monuments, and they derive their poesy from the thought connected with them. For a cathedral, it is the idea of God. For Versailles, it is the idea of the King. Its mythology is but a magnificent allegory of which Louis XIV is the reality. It is he always and everywhere. Fabulous heroes and divinities impart their attributes to him or mingle with his courtiers. In honor of him, Neptune sheds broadcast the waters that cross in air in sparkling arches. Apollo, his favorite symbol, presides over this enchanted world as the god of light, the inspirer of the muses; the sun of the god seems to pale before that of the great King. Nature and art combine to celebrate the glory of the sovereign by a perpetual hosannah. All that generations of kings have amassed in pictures, statues and precious movables is distributed as mere furniture in the glittering apartments of the chateau. The intoxicating perfumes of luxury and power throw one into a sort of ecstasy that makes comprehensible the exaltation of this monarch, enthusiastic over himself, who, in chanting the hymns composed in his praise, shed tears of admiration."