The Palace of Versailles, Versailles
Louis XIV had intended from the start to have a Royal Opera House as part of his palace at Versailles.
The site was chosen and plans were made as early as 1682, when Louis XIV first moved in to Versailles. Three years later construction work was started, but it was soon put on hold because of financial difficulties due to various wars that were going on at the time. The site remained dormant for over eighty years until Louis XIV’s successor, his great-grandson Louis XV, finally ordered the opera house to be completed.
It was inaugurated by Louis XV on May 16, 1770 – the day of his grandson’s marriage to Marie-Antoinette – with a performance of the opera Persée by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). This was an opera which had first been performed eighty-eight years earlier in a temporary theater in Versailles.
Today the Royal Opera in Versailles is one of the oldest theaters in France that is still functioning as such – but it is not THE oldest, by any means. That honor goes to the Opéra-Théâtre in Metz, which was built between 1738 and 1753.
Address: Château de Versailles – Place d’Armes – 78000 Versailles
Directions: Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr
Next: Molière and Lully at the Royal Opera
One way to deal with the enormity of the Versailles Palace is to think of it as a gigantic psychogram of Louis XIV.
On the one hand, he was a Renaissance man with a keen interest in Greek and Roman mythology, as is clear from the art works on display throughout the palace. At the same time, he was a devout Catholic who went to mass in his private chapel every morning at ten o’clock precisely, taking only two or three hundred of his most privileged courtiers with him.
Presumably he didn’t really believe in the ancient Roman gods, but just thought of them as literature, i.e. fiction. He did not pray to Jupiter, Venus or Diana and was not afraid that they would come down and tweak his nose if he did something wrong.
He did believe, however, in the Christian God and the Catholic saints. He was a Very Catholic Monarch – which seems a bit strange considering that his grandfather Henri IV had been a Protestant who only converted to Catholicism pro forma so he could claim the throne.
Henri IV, however, had little influence over the education of his children, much less his unborn grandchildren. Even in Henri’s lifetime, his son Louis XIII received a strict Catholic upbringing – his mother Marie de’ Medici saw to that – and the next generation got more of the same.
One indication of Louis XIV’s religiosity was the fact that in his later years he began to worry about whether his soul perhaps might burn in hell for all eternity – not because he had squandered the people’s money on his palace, but because he had cavorted with so many mistresses.
To ensure the salvation of his soul he felt he should do some decisive Good Deed for the Church, and this led to what was probably the worst decision of his entire 72-year reign, his Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. This edict revoked his grandfather’s tolerant Edict of Nantes from 87 years before and effectively outlawed Protestantism or any other non-Catholic religion.
Someone in his entourage came up with a catchy slogan:
Un roi, une loi, une foi.
This means ‘One King, One Law, One Faith’ – they all rhyme in French – and Louis XIV felt that the time had come to enforce this.
One of the few who advised against this intolerant edict was Vauban, who feared it would lead to a civil war (which it didn’t) and to a mass exodus of some of the most skilled and productive people in France (which it did). In my Friedrichsdorf page, "A new home for the Huguenots", I have shown a place where some of these exiled French Protestants settled and helped to revive the economy of their new home.
In his earlier years Louis XIV had said to Vauban more than once: “I’ll follow your advice next time.” And he often did, in those years, but he became more advice-resistant as he got older. For more on this, see the tip/review Vauban memorial in the Dôme des Invalides on my Paris page.
On my Lille page I have written a tip/review called Vauban’s Citadel, which also includes links to my other Vauban tips.
Second photo: Looking up at the ceiling of the Royal Chapel.
Third, fourth and fifth photos: After climbing one flight of stairs you come to a place where you might also expect to have a good view of the Royal Chapel, if only there weren’t so many of your fellow tourists trying to do the same. Note that I took these photos at the lowest point of the low season in February. In the summer you can expect twice or three times as many people. But don’t let that bother you, OK? After all, you are a tourist, too, and you are getting in the way of their photos as much as they are getting in the way of yours.
Address: Château de Versailles – Place d’Armes – 78000 Versailles
Directions: Location and photo on monumentum.fr
Books: Daniel Halévy, Vauban, Editions de Fallois, Paris, 2007 (first published in 1923)
Alain Monod, Vauban ou la mauvaise conscience du roi, Riveneuve éditions, Paris, 2008
Next: The Hercules Salon
Versailles was saved from ruin by the decision of King Louis-Philippe in 1833 to transform the castle into a museum of the French history. He wanted to celebrate “all glories of France” as well of the "Ancien Regime", the Revolution, Empire and Restoration.
Works were undertaken mainly in the south wing to transform the former apartments of the princes. The works were paid by Louis-Philippe in person.
Original paintings and sculptures were collected with the addition of works ordered to the artists of the time like Eugene Delacroix. Three thousand paintings were ordered by king Louis-Philippe. The museum was inaugurated in 1837 and comprises a great number of works of the first half of the 19th century. It should be noted that part of these paintings currently decorates the Northern wing of the castle with the Galleries of the 17th century.
Versailles été sauvé de la ruine par la décision du Roi Louis-Philippe en 1833 de transformer le château en un musée de l'histoire de France pour y célébrer "toutes les gloires de la France" aussi bien de l'Ancien Régime, de la Révolution, de l'Empire et de la Restauration. Les travaux principalement dans l'aile du Midi où se trouvaient sous l'Ancien Régime les appartements des princes furent payés par Louis-Philippe en personne.
On rassembla des peintures et de sculptures originales en y ajoutant des œuvres commandées aux artistes de l'époque dont Eugène Delacroix. Trois mille tableaux furent commandés par le roi Louis-Philippe. Le musée fut inauguré en 1837 et comporte un grand nombre de peintures de la première moitié du XIXe siècle. Il faut noter qu'une partie de ces tableaux orne actuellement les l'aile Nord du château avec les Galeries du XVIIe siècle.
It is by the entrance of the "Cour Royale" to the northern wing that the traditional visit of the castle of Versailles begins. The 17th c. galleries are the part of the Palace circuit coloured in blue on the Versailles castle map.
The visit starts at the ground floor with a succession of decorated rooms and continues on the first floor.
On crowded days (3 million visitors/year) the visit is rather chaotic because the thousands of visitors pass from one room to another by relatively narrow doors. Moreover groups listening to the explanations of their guides do slow down the visitors flow.
If you are interested by furniture, the decoration, the paintings of this part of the castle it is better to come in low season i.e. in winter.
I hurried up through this part preferring to devote more time to the Grand Apartments of the King and the Queen (the circuit indicated in red on the map).
Practical note: there are toilets at the entry of this first part; to my knowledge there are none on the first floor. As there are apparently only two groups of toilets (the second one at the entrance to the gardens) there are often long lines for the ladies.
C'est par ici, c'est-à-dire l'aile nord, que commence la visite classique du château de Versailles. C'est le circuit en couleur bleue du plan mis à disposition des visiteurs.
La visite commence au rez-de-chaussée par une suite de salons, chambres, bureaux en principe au décor du XVIIe et continue ainsi à l'étage.
Par forte affluence la visite est assez chaotique car les milliers de visiteurs passent d'une pièce à l'autre par des portes relativement étroites. De plus les groupes lors des explications des guides ont tendance à ralentir le flux. Alors si le mobilier, le décor, les peintures de cette partie du château vous intéressent il vaut mieux venir en basse saison c'est-à-dire en hiver.
Je ne me suis pas attardé dans cette partie préférant me diriger au plus vite vers les Grands Appartements du Roi et de la Reine (partie du circuit indiqué en rouge sur le plan) pour consacrer plus de temps aux parties les plus remarquables du château.
Note pratique: il y a des toilettes à l'entrée de cette première partie; à ma connaissance il n'y en a pas à l'étage. Les dames constateront qu'on fait la file aux toilettes également à celles près de l'accès aux jardins. Apparemment il n'y a que deux groupes de toilettes pour tout le château!
wonderful and glorious, the history of a country n a castle museum. Yes the power of the rulers in a magnificent castle to surpassed any, and then save under the Republic by a smart king Louis Philippe who in 1837 created a museum to preserve the glory of France.
You must see it to believe it. Its a huge property even today at 37 hectares from the original 807 but it is my backyard for 9,5 years if need detail info let me know.
After going through some of the more bellicose parts of the palace, I was pleased to find that there is also a Peace Room (Salon de la Paix) which is every bit as beautiful as the War Room and the Mars Room.
During the reign of Louis XIV there were in fact several periods of peace, one of which lasted over ten years, between the war against Holland and the war of the league of Augsburg.
Nonetheless, the sad fact of the matter is that Louis XIV was not a big fan of peace. Wars were his second favorite hobby, second only to his palace in Versailles. Vauban, his Commissioner General of Fortifications, repeatedly tried to dissuade him from fighting wars in distant places that he would be unable to hold or defend. To Vauban, fortifications existed to defend the ‘limits’ of the kingdom, not only to ward off attackers but to discourage them from attacking in the first place. To Louis XIV, wars were the way to augment his personal ‘glory’, so he didn’t really care why or where they were fought, or what had to be given up in the ensuing peace treaty. No wonder he and Vauban talked past each other for most of their lives.
Book: Alain Monod, Vauban ou la mauvaise conscience du roi, Riveneuve éditions, Paris, 2008
Next: The Queen’s bedroom
The Versailles Palace has hundreds of white marble statues, all roughly the same height, spread out all along the halls and in some of the rooms. I picked this one to photograph because I recognized the name.
Not that I ever knew much about Nicolas de Catinat, but I did know that one of the main streets of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, used to be called Rue Catinat back in the days when Indochina was a French colony. It was named after a French warship that took part in the French conquest of Vietnam from 1856 to 1859.
The warship, in turn, was named after this man, Nicholas Catinat (1637–1712), who was a French military commander and Marshal of France under King Louis XIV. (I have mentioned this in a tip/review called Têt in Saigon.)
The statue was made by someone called Cl. Dejoux in 1781, nearly seventy years after Catinat’s death. Whether it is an accurate depiction I don’t know. I find it hard to believe that generals still wore medieval armor in the seventeenth century, but perhaps some military historian can correct me if I am wrong about this.
Catinat, like Vauban, was a nearly exact contemporary of Louis XIV, who as a young king liked to have men of his own age in leadership positions. Another thing that Catinat and Vauban had in common was that they both lacked any sort of prestigious aristocratic background and rose through the ranks entirely on merit, which in seventeenth century Europe was highly unusual. Both of them took an unusual interest in the welfare of the men under their command, and often wrote memos recommending able men for promotion. Both received the title of ‘Marshal of France’ towards the end of their careers.
Vauban and Catinat were friends, by the way, as I have learned from the book Vauban by Daniel Halévy. Among other things, they conducted the siege of Ath together in 1697, with Vauban leading the engineers and Catinat in command of the soldiers. (Ath is a town in Flanders, Belgium, with one VirtualTourist page so far.)
Updates: Thanks to VT member Oleg_D. for informing me that generals like Catinat did indeed wear armor. “In fact, he is wearing typical, mid - second part of XVII century cuirassier armor also known as “three quarters”. It protected less surface of the body than armors of previous centuries because it was thicker and could protect from the hit of a bullet. Unfortunately development of powder and fusil guns made the armor useless by the end of XVII century. Although for all XVIII century Army Commanders used armor as the sign of their office together with their batons.” For more details, see Oleg_D’s comments below this tip.
Thanks also to breughel for pointing out that Ath is located in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, not in Flanders. (I thought it was in Flanders because that’s what Daniel Halévy said in his book on Vauban.) For more details, see breughel’s comments below.
Next: The Royal Chapel
On my way out I made one exception and took a photo of this bust of Charles X (1757-1836), who was coronated as King of France on May 29, 1825 at the Cathedral of Reims.
To polish up his image, Charles X commissioned the great Italian composer Gioachino Rossini to write an opera in honor of his coronation. What Rossini came up with was the lovely comic opera Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims), which ends with an aria for soprano with solo harp accompaniment, All'ombra amena. This is announced in the opera as a tribute to Charles X, and it is no doubt a more beautiful tribute than he deserved.
There are several videos of All'ombra amena on YouTube, for instance this one sung by Patrizia Ciofi at La Scala, Milan, in 2009:
The Journey to Reims, Reims by Nemorino.
The world’s first tourist opera, Il Viaggio a Reims in Frankfurt am Main.
Au Printemps, a Paris shopping tip mentioning that inveterate shopper, the Countess of Folleville in Il Viaggio a Reims.
Louvre: Musée Charles X, Louvre Tip by Nemorino.
Next: Le Bassin de Neptune
All you loyal readers of my Lyon page (thanks again to both of you) might recall that in that city I went in unprepared to see a Molière play, Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies), and understood most of it except for a few essential twists of the plot. These had me baffled until the next morning, when I bought a copy of the play and read it.
So this time I took care to read the text of Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The bourgeois nobleman) before I went to see it at the Royal Opera in Versailles. That was a good thing, because even though I didn’t understand every word they were saying (especially when they were yelling at the top of their lungs or trading obscure seventeenth century insults), I always knew what was going on and why.
In this play, with songs and incidental music by Lully, the main character M. Jourdain is a cloth merchant who has made (and partly inherited) a large fortune and now has pretentions of becoming a nobleman. He hires various experts to teach him music, dancing, fencing and philosophy, and he tries to marry his daughter off to a foppish aristocrat. (The role of M. Jourdain was played by Molière himself in the original production in 1670.)
In the end it is the daughter’s boyfriend who gets the idea of dressing up as a Turkish prince and doing a ridiculous ceremony to elevate M. Jourdain into the Turkish nobility – sort of like Rossini’s opera The Italian Girl in Algiers, but in reverse.
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme has some of the same elements as Les Femmes savantes, but mixed up in a different way. In Les Femmes savantes the wife is the pretentious one who wants to marry off the daughter to a pedantic intellectual. In Le Bourgeois gentilhomme the wife is one of the sensible characters, along with the daughter and her boyfriend and especially the maid, who has some of the best lines in the whole piece.
Twelve actors, five singers, three dancers and nine musicians were on the stage in Versailles. The elaborate and very funny staging was by Denis Podalydès.
The costumes were by Christian Lacroix, a prominent fashion designer who has lately been designing costumes for the theater. He has even designed the costumes for two recent productions of the Frankfurt Opera: Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea and Ezio by Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Address: Château de Versailles – Place d’Armes – 78000 Versailles
Directions: Location and photo on monumentum.fr
Next: Statue of Nicolas de Catinat
Here in the Diana Salon we have three girls with their audio guides gazing up at the ceiling, as Louis XIV looks on benignly from his pedestal in the background.
This room was named after Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting (not the Diana you were thinking of).
Second photo: This is the ceiling painting that the girls were looking at.
Third photo: The painting above the fireplace is The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Charles de la Fosse, from the year 1712. Sixty-two years later the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote an opera about this called Iphigenie in Aulis, based on a play by the French dramatist Jean Racine (1639-1699), who in turn was inspired by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides.
The plot has to do with the half-hearted efforts of King Agamemnon to avoid sacrificing his daughter Iphigénie (Iphigenia) to the gods in return for favorable winds to he can sail his fleet to Troy and start fighting the Trojan War. At the end of the opera Iphigénie is saved but the wind comes up anyway, so they can all jubilantly sail off to war. This was considered a happy end at the time, but from a 21st century point of view it might have made more sense for the gods to strand the Greek fleet in the harbor indefinitely and thus prevent the war altogether.
In 2005 I attended the premiere of a new production of this opera in Nürnberg. At the party after the premiere I had to comfort the stage director (with whom I was slightly acquainted from his visits to Frankfurt) because to his chagrin the wind machine hadn’t worked properly, so the whole point of the final scene was lost.
Fourth photo: This sign in the Diana Salon calls it more prosaically the Diana Room and explains that it used to be Louis XIV’s billiard room. From the audio guide I learned that it was also known informally as the ‘applause room’, because the ladies of the court always applauded vociferously whenever the king scored a point at billiards.
Next: The Mars Salon
When you start going around the King’s Grand Apartment on the first floor (i.e. one flight up) the first room you come to is the Hercules Salon. As I learned from the audio guide, the large painting on the side wall is The Meal at the House of Simon by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). It was originally painted for the refectory of the Servite Convent in Venice in 1570, but 94 years later it was transported to Versailles and given by the Doge of Venice as a present to Louis XIV.
Second photo: Looking out the window from the Hercules Salon at a very soggy palace garden in the rain.
Third photo: Sign by the fireplace in the Hercules Salon.
Directions: Location and photo on monumentum.fr
Next: The Venus Salon
The elaborate ceiling paintings in this room of course depict Venus, the goddess of love, but also various ancient heros and scenes that have some connection to the planet Venus.
Supposedly there is also a painting of the wedding of Louis XIV, but I must admit I got a stiff neck before locating that one.
Next: The Diana Salon
This room was named after the planet Mars but also after Mars, the god of war.
Second photo: In the center of the ceiling there is a painting by Claude Audran (1657-1734) called Mars on a chariot drawn by wolves.
Third and fourth photos: Decorations in the Mars Salon.
Fifth photo: This sign in the Mars Salon (‘Mars Room’) explains that it was formerly used as a Guards’ Room and later as a Ballroom for evening receptions.
Next: The King’s Room
Cant write enough ,its still my home for almost 10 years, and again today (busy day for visiting friends indeed), its magical wonderful and when you live here and see the world stops by, its gives me goosebumps. There is no words to say, its just one of those places on earth you must see at least once,and if you are lucky enough to see it every day, then blow my mind.
2143 windows, 1252 fireplaces, and 67 staircases. The gardens included roughly 1400 fountains, using water pumped up from the Seine. The length of the garden front is 670 meters.
see my other tips on it, for more détails.
The visit of the “Grands Apartments” begins with this splendid and large "Hercules drawing room" at the junction of the central body and the northern wing of the castle.
This room built between 1712 and 1736 by Robert de Cotte occupies the site of a former chapel. It is remarkable by the decoration of the walls with marble of various colours, the many pilasters with the Corinthian style capitals of gilded bronze and especially by its marble chimney decorated with splendid bronzes of Antoine Vassé evoking Hercules. On top of the chimney hangs a painting of Veronese “Rebecca and Eliézer”.
On the wall opposite the chimney hangs another large Veronese “the Meal at Simon the Pharisee” offered to Louis XIV by the Republic of Venice in 1664.
Still more remarkable is the ceiling painted by François Moyne representing the Apotheosis of Hercules. This immense painting painted with oil on strengthened canvas was extremely admired in its time but the painter exhausted by his work committed suicide whereas he had received the title of “First Painter of the King”.
It is in this room that took place the ball given by Louis XV for the marriage of his eldest daughter Elisabeth with the Infant of Spain in 1739. The festivities, there were many in this room, were lit by candles what fouled up the vault and the painting of Le Moyne whose restoration of the 480 m2 at a height of 15 m was finished in 2001.
The Hercules Drawing-Room is one of the most remarkable parts of the Royal apartments and deserves a somewhat lengthier visit. The light is very beautiful as the "Salon d'Hercule" is exposed to the east and the west.
La visite des "Grands Appartements Royaux" débute par ce magnifique et vaste "Salon d'Hercule" à la jonction du corps central et de l'aile nord du château.
Ce salon construit entre 1712 et 1736 par Robert de Cotte occupe l’emplacement d’une chapelle provisoire. Il est remarquable par la décoration des murs en marbre de différentes couleurs, les nombreux pilastres aux chapiteaux de style corinthien en bronze doré et surtout par sa cheminée en marbre ornée de magnifiques bronzes d'Antoine Vassé évoquant Hercule. Au dessus de cette cheminée pend un tableau de Véronèse "Rebecca et Eliézer".
Face à la cheminée se trouve un autre Véronèse de grandes dimensions " Le repas chez Simon le Pharisien" offert à Louis XIV par la République de Venise en 1664.
Encore plus remarquable est le plafond peint par François Le Moyne représentant
l'Apothéose d’Hercule. Cet immense tableau peint à l'huile sur toile marouflée fut fort admiré en son temps mais le peintre épuisé par son travail se suicida alors qu'il avait pourtant reçu le titre de "Premier Peintre du Roi".
C'est dans ce salon qu'eut lieu le bal donné par Louis XV à l’occasion du mariage de sa fille aînée Elisabeth avec l’infant d’Espagne en 1739.
Les fêtes, nombreuses dans ce salon, étaient éclairées par des bougies ce qui encrassa fortement la voûte et le tableau de Le Moyne dont la restauration des 480 m2 à une hauteur de 15 m a été terminée en 2001.
Le salon d'Hercule est une des pièces les plus remarquables des Grands appartements et mérite qu'on s'y attarde. La lumière y est très belle, ce salon étant exposé à l'est et à l'ouest..