Château de Versailles – French architecture (17th century)


The Château de Versailles is a magnificent building of the 17th century with a complex history throughout that century which I will do my best to summarize. At first, the building was a hunting lodge for Louis XIII. This is the original building in a U-shape that we can still see today. The hunting lodge was built between 1621 and 1623 by Nicolas Huau while the gardens were created by Boyceau. The building was made of brick and stone, to fulfill the architectural fashion of that time. The court that completes the U-shape is the Marble Court made of black and white marble. Then in 1631/3, Philibert le Roy built what we call the “House of cards”. He used the same plan as the original hunting lodge but added four square lodges and three corps de logis. He chose an architecture based on three colors: red (brick), blue (slate) and beige-white (stone).

    versailles_map    U shape plus extension

When Louis XIV was of age to reign, he decided to develop the Château de Versailles for three reasons. One of the reasons he did it was that he couldn’t extend the Louvre anymore. He also chose Versailles for hunting, as the first castle was a hunting lodge. Another reason, maybe the most important one, was that the Fronde (1645-1648) scared him and he decided to make of Versailles the city for the court and the seat of the government until October 6, 1789. The castle was modified by the famous Le Vau (architecture), Le Brun (paintings, decor) and Le Nôtre (garden) who had already built Vaux-le-Vicompte for the disgraced Nicolas Fouquet. The construction was the fruit of their symbiosis, their agreement. When Le Vau died, Jules Hardouin-Mansart replaced him.

In 1662, Le Vau built two common lodges which surround what is now the Royal Court. The north one is called the Gabriel wing because it was restored by the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel in the 18th century. Louis XIV makes the choice to follow the same three color scheme as his father even though it was not fashion anymore. In 1664, Le Vau suggested that everything be rebuilt. The gardens became a major source of expenses starting 1661. They are centered on a major axe which ends by an entrance in a crow’s-foot. Around this crow’s-foot, the city grew and Le Vau opened it to widen the road to Paris. This entrance is prolongated by the great canal. All the woody parts of the garden were modified in the 1670’s into bosquets (grove) to play on the surprise effect. The water plays are refined to contrast with the principal perspectives.

      versailles_map   1139298_f520

At the end of the 1660’s, Louis XIV showed a preference for Versailles and decided to improve the castle. He took the decision to envelope Louis XIII’s castle and make it bigger while keeping the original castle. This envelopment tripled the length of the facade on the garden side. This facade is entirely in stone. The horizontal crowning of the rooftop is more in the Italian taste than French. The first level of the facade is a continuous bossage which recalls one of the Louvre’s facades. The second level is follows the ionic style while the last one follows the attic one. The fact that there is no roofing except for a balustrade shows the Italian influence. At that time, the second level had an open terrace in the middle (as you can see on the painting below). The organization of the facade is made horizontally and not vertically which, once again, shows the Italian influence.

garden side  versailles no hall of mirrors

At the end of the 1670’s, Louis XIV moved the Court and the government to Versailles and extended the castle. Since Le Vau died, Jules Hardouin-Mansart is in charge of the construction. He built the North (1684-1689) and South wings (1678-1682) to accommodate the Court (see pictures below). He also reunited some wings to create a third court (the Ministers’ Court) which is the big court right after the first gate. In 1678, he also cover the second level terrace to reunite the King’s and Queen’s apartments. This covered terrace is also known as the Hall of Mirrors. Hardouin-Mansart also created the royal stables in 1679.

north wing     south wing

As you can judge for yourself, the creation of the Château de Versailles is the fruit of long thinking and a long history. I tried to show you important points about its construction but there is much more to learn about it (architecture, gardens, decoration, Trianon, …). So just choose a subject and go for it! One good place to start looking for answers is the official website showing the evolution of the castle with shorts videos which are well done. Of course, the best way is still to go there and see it for yourself!


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