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From hunting lodge to palace

The first thing that attracted France’s kings to Versailles was its prolific game. Louis XIII, who lived 1601-1643, bought up land, built a chateau and went on hunting trips. At the time, much of the land around Versailles was uncultivated allowing wild animals to flourish.

The chateau Louis XIII built was little more than a hunting lodge having enough space to house the king and a small entourage. It was the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (1638-1715), a ruler who chose the sun as his emblem and believed in centralized government with the king at its center, who would radically transform Versailles making it the seat of France’s government by the time of his death.

He ruled France for 72 years and in that time transformed Versailles by encompassing Louis XIII’s chateau with a palace that contained north and south wings, as well as nearby buildings housing ministries. A series of gardens, created in a formal style, stood to the west of the palace (one of them today is in the shape of a star) and contained sculptures as well as the pressurized fountains capable of launching water high into the air.

“From the outset Louis attached a supreme importance to these water effects. Their virtuosity formed the star turn of a tour of the gardens,” writes Tony Spawforth, a professor at Newcastle University, in his book "Versailles: A Biography of a Palace" (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “The effects were the work of engineers whose machines made Versailles a hydraulic as much as an artistic wonder.” Unfortunately, Spawforth notes, problems supplying water meant that the fountains could only be turned on during special occasions.

In addition a grand canal, constructed to the west of the garden and running about a mile long, was used for naval demonstrations and had gondolas, donated by the Republic of Venice, manned by gondoliers.

As the French government moved into Versailles, and the king found himself swamped by work in his palace, he built himself the Grand (also called Marble) Trianon, a more modest palatial structure, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) to the northwest of the palace as a private retreat where only he and those invited could visit. Like the palace itself it had an abundant garden whose smells were said to overpower visitors

“The tuberoses drive us away from Trianon every evening,” wrote Madame de Maintenon in a letter dated Aug. 8, 1689. “The excess of fragrance causes men and women to feel ill.” (Source: Versailles official website)

Scholars have suggested a number of factors that led Louis XIV to build a great palace complex at Versailles and move the French government there. It’s been noted that by keeping the king’s residence some distance from Paris, it offered him protection from any civil unrest going on in the city. It also forced the nobles to travel to Versailles and seek lodging in the palace, something that impeded their ability to build up regional power bases that could potentially challenge the king.

Sparforth notes that the French Duke Saint-Simon (1675-1755) commented on how easy it was to see all the officials he needed because they were all located in one complex. Saint-Simon wrote that someone at Versailles “could see everyone he needed in the space of an hour,” something that would have taken much longer in Paris.

Date: 2015-12-17; view: 950

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