11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury

D.G. Hewitt - July 20, 2018

From 1682 until the Revolution of 1789, the Kings of France made the Palace of Versailles their principal residence. And it’s not hard to see why. Located just outside of Paris, the palace is absolutely huge, with numerous wings and hundreds of lavishly-decorated rooms. What’s more, the landscaped grounds are vast and, in places, simply awe-inspiring. All this means it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.

But what was life actually like for the King? And what about all those other people who lived there, or who visited back in the 18th and 19th centuries? Thanks to the many histories written at the time, as well as numerous paintings, journals and memoirs, we have good idea of what went on at this royal residence. And, while some of it is pretty much common knowledge, much of it is not so well known. So, here are just 11 things you really should know about the wondrous Palace of Versailles:

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The Palace of Versailles was originally built as a hunting lodge for the King of France. Wikipedia.

The palace was originally a ‘small’ hunting lodge

It may now be famous for being one of the biggest, and most opulent residences ever constructed anywhere in the world, but the Palace of Versailles had more humble origins. Indeed, the palace started out life as a relatively modest hunting lodge. Towards the end of the 16th century, King Henry IV started visiting Versailles, then a small village just 12 miles west of Paris, to hunt for boar and deer. Obviously, while he was visiting, he needed somewhere to stay, and so was provided with accommodation at the hunting lodge owned by the Gondi family, old Florentine nobility who were among the most prominent backers of the infamous Medici.

King Henry liked Versailles so much that he returned, first in 1604 and then again in 1609. And he passed on his love for the village and the hunting grounds surrounding it to his son, Louis. Indeed, in 1607, Louis, then still a prince regent, visited on his own. So in love was the young royal with the village that, when he was crowned King Louis XIII of France in 1610, he went back to Versailles and purchased some land for himself. Now, rather than having to rely on the Gondi family for lodging, the King and his guests could have a place of their own. In 1623, Louis ordered a modest but comfortable two-story hunting lodge to be built here – on the spot now occupied by the luxurious marble courtyard.

The lodge remained for almost a decade. And it might have remained small and humble had it not been for the political intrigue and unrest which gripped France in the winter of 1630. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s chief minister, joined his own mother in plotting against him. Louis defeated the plot. Though his throne was safe, the plot left him with a bad taste in his mouth. He ordered his men to transform the hunting lodge in Versailles into a full-on chateau, where he could escape the stresses of Paris life. And so, between 1631 and 1634, the renowned architect Philibert Le Roy oversaw the construction of a classically-styled chateau. The King also purchased a significant amount of land from the Gondi family. The land was steadily transformed into landscaped gardens. The foundations were set for the Palace of Versailles.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
As much as a third of France’s national budget was used to fund the construction of the new palace. Wikipedia.

It cost a fortune ($200 billion) to build

Upon the death of Louis XIII in 1643, his eldest son became king. However, at the time of his coronation, Louis VIV was just four years old. It wasn’t until the year 1651, when the monarch was 12, that he first visited the chateau in Versailles. It’s fair to say, it wasn’t love at first sight. The new king was not such a big fan of hunting and only returned on a few occasions while in his teens. All this changed in the year 1661, however. The death of Cardinal Mazarin, his chief minister, meant he was in sole charge of France. He quickly developed a passion for Versailles. And he was determined to make it a residence truly fit for an absolutist monarch.

Between 1661 and 1678, several new wings were added to the existing chateau, with much of the work designed by the architect Louis Le Vau. A second floor was soon added, influenced by the American style of the time, and the gardens were given an extensive makeover. Once all this had been done, private apartments for the King and his Queen were constructed, with a marble hall separating them. And then, from 1678, right up until Louis XIV’s death in 1715, even more work was carried out, including the construction of the world-famous Hall of Mirrors, as well as the elaborate Royal Chapel.

Needless to say, Louis XIV spent a huge amount of money realizing his dream. At one point, it’s estimated that 60 per cent of national income was being ploughed into the vanity project. However, even today historians still disagree over how much money was actually lavished on building the Palace of Versailles. Certainly, in today’s money, it costs several billion dollars to construct. Some even place the total value of Versailles at around $50 billion or even $200 billion, with the vast land it sits on included in this breathtaking price tag. Since the vast majority of French men and women at the time were living in poverty, the money lavished on the palace fueled resentment of the royals, a resentment that would ultimately boil over in 1789, the year of the French Revolution.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
King Louis XV had a whole room dedicated to his love of clocks. Wikipedia.

The King had a whole room for his clocks – and another for his dogs

Not content with just his State Apartments, King Louis XIV also ordered the construction of a whole suite of other rooms for his personal use. Opening onto both the Marble Courtyard and the Royal Courtyard, these were some of the most finely-decorated rooms in the whole of the palace. They were also a telling sign of just how much wealth the monarch had, and just how happy he was to lavish it on decadent flights of fancy, even when millions of his people were living in abject poverty.

As well as his bedchamber, the King’s private suites included a dressing room and a private kitchen. He also had a billiard room built, compete with exquisitely-carved wooden panelling on the walls. But Louis XIV’s demands here were modest when compared to those of his successor. King Louis XV had many passions, including hunting and timepieces. He devoted one room to his vast clock collection. He even had the French Royal Academy of Science establish the ‘French Meridian’ in that very room, with the centrepiece clock used to set the official time for the whole of the kingdom.

The Dog’s Room was, as the name implied. Reserved for the royal hounds. Louis XV had his predecessor’s games room turned into a bedroom for his dogs, with proper beds installed and dog-themed artwork added for decorations. The King also had a Post-Hunt Dining Room built within his private suite. Getting invited to join Louis XV for dinner and post-dinner games after a successful hunt was one of the greatest honours anyone could wish for while visiting Versailles.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The Grand Canal took 11 long years to build – but Louis XIV definitely thought it was worth it. Paris Digest.

The Grand Canal brought Venice to Versailles

The Grand Canal, the centerpiece of the Palace of Versailles’ landscaped gardens, was one of the biggest and most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken by a European king. It was so big, in fact, that it took a whole 11 years to complete. Louis XIV didn’t just want a pond or a picturesque, ornate lake. He wanted a canal to rival those of Venice. And he didn’t just want to sit and admire it, he wanted to have fun on the water too.

Work began on the Grand Canal in 1668 and went on until 1679. In all, it stretches 1,670 metres from one end to the other. As soon as it was completed, the Sun King was determined to enjoy it. He would sail boats up and down his own private canal and then, in 1674, he went even further in his mission to bring Venice to Versailles. Louis ordered two gondolas and four gondoliers from the Italian city state and houses them in specially-made buildings at one end of the canal. This area was named, unsurprisingly enough, Little Venice.

The King would treat his favourites to gondola rides, while during the summer months the canal was also full with a variety of pleasure craft, while lantern-lit parties would be regularly held at the water’s edge. During the winter months, meanwhile, the frozen surface of the canal was used for skating and sledding.

The Grand Canal soon became one of the most popular spots of all Versailles. But people didn’t just love the canal for its engineering. The nearby Lake of the Swiss Guard could also be used for rowing. However, this body of water, as with several others, was notoriously smelly, due in no small part to the fact that the palace grounds had been built on marshland. A second canal, the Canal de l’Eure, was designed by Louis XIV’s architects as a means of addressing the insufficient water supply for the palace’s many water features and fountains. However, work was soon abandoned for financial reasons, with the treasury funds needed to fight wars instead of build follies.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The King would welcome huge numbers of visitors to his palace in Versailles. The Daily Telegraph.

Visitors were allowed – and they went everywhere

King Louis XIV was not one of those kings who wanted to be left alone. Quite the opposite, in fact. This was a man who reveled in the company of others. Or, more specifically, he enjoyed being seen and showing off his enormous wealth and, above all, his palace, which was the envy of royals right across Europe. However, it wasn’t just nobles and blue-blooded aristocrats who were able to enjoy the stunning exteriors and ornate interiors of the Palace of Versailles. In 1682, Louis opened his home to the public. As well as being allowed to stroll its extensive grounds, visitors were also allowed to walk the palace’s hallowed hallways – provided they follow the rules, of course.

In accordance with the societal norms of the time, any man wishing to visit the Palace of Versailles was required to dress accordingly. This meant wearing now just a hat but a sword too. Fortunately for those who came unprepared, both formal hats and dress swords could be borrowed for the duration of a visit. Women, of course, were similarly expected to dress according to the fashions of the time, with formal wear and dancing gowns expected if they were staying for dinner or for a ball.

A diverse range of visitors passed through the Golden Gates between 1682 and 1789. These included representatives from almost every country in Europe, as well as from further afield. For example, the Ambassador of Siam visited in 1686, with the Ambassador of the Indian kingdom of Mysore coming two years later. But visitors also included scientists, poets and upper-class gentleman dropping by on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. Indeed, before long, Versailles became just as important as Rome as a Grand Tour destination, with poets and philosophers keen to be seen there. Incredibly, visitors were allowed into all areas of the palace, including the royal chambers. So, when Marie Antoinette gave birth to her daughter in December 1778, a huge crowd was there watching the whole thing.

Shortly after Louis XIV’s decision to open Versailles up to visitors, a vibrant – and lucrative – market for souvenirs started to develop. Most visitors to the palace wanted to take a memento home with them and were happy to pay large sums for the privilege. Expensive books, filled with printed paintings of highlights such as the Hall of Mirrors and the Ambassadors’ Staircase became bestsellers, as did miniature versions of the sculptures dotted throughout the landscaped gardens. While it may not have been on the same scale as today, by the turn of the 18th century, the Palace of Versailles was already a major tourist destination.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The Hall of Mirrors was the place to see – but you would also be seen, for better or worse. Wikipedia.

The Hall of Mirrors did more than just look amazing

The Palace of Versailles features hundreds of rooms, many of them ornate in their design. But none compares to the Hall of Mirrors. Completed in 1682, the room was decorated with some 357 mirrors, as well as with ostentatious chandeliers. It cost a fortune to produce and, to critics of King Louis XIV, was proof of the decadence that had gripped the Royal Family. But the Hall of Mirrors was not just about Louis showing off his vast wealth. The most famous room in the Palace of Versailles also had huge social and political significance.

For instance, the Hall of Mirrors, which connected the King’s private apartment with the Chapel, was designed to symbolise the economic power of France. Up until that point, the state of Venice had a monopoly on making mirrors. Despite this, Louis XIV went ahead and convinced an elite group of Venetian mirror-makers to work for him. According to some accounts, these men were later killed by the rulers of Venice for sharing their closely-guarded secrets. From 1682 onwards, France, and more specifically, Paris, was held up as the global capital of high taste and fashion, thanks in no small part to the Hall of Mirrors.

The mirrors were not just a means of highlighting France’s – and thus the King’s – economic and cultural capital, however. They also played a central role in social life at the Palace of Versailles. Each day, courtiers, aristocrats and other court insiders would line the Hall of Mirrors hoping to catch the monarch’s eye as he passed through on his way to daily prayers. Everyone was hoping to find royal favour, and the mirrors ensured that no act of scheming could go unnoticed. Every subtle nod and glance would be reflected hundreds of times. Worst of all, any slip or social faux-pas would also be seen by all and could prove fatal to a courtier’s ambitions.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The Apollo Fountain in the gardens of Versailles was King Louis XIV’s favorite. Bluffton University.

The fountains displayed the King’s victory over nature

Louis XIV is estimated to have blown around one third of the whole budget for his new palace on the gardens – and a big portion of this went on fountains and water features. These were not just designed to make the landscaped grounds more pleasing to the eye, though, of course, this was a nice bonus. Rather, they were designed to illustrate the wealth of the monarch. But, above all, the fountains were designed to show his power – after all, rivers and streams only flowed downhill, so by shooting water upwards, Louis XIV and his successors could demonstrate that they even had the power to defy nature.

In all, it’s estimated that some 1,400 fountains were installed in the vast grounds surrounding the Palace of Versailles. Of these, around 600 are still around to this day (over the centuries many were simply dismantled and sold off to finance wars). Some of the most notable water features include the Neptune Fountain, with its 99 jets, and the Dragon Fountain. But perhaps the most famous of all is the Apollo Fountain. While there was already a water feature on this site, in 1636, Louis XIV had it taken down and replaced with the lavish depiction of Apollo riding his chariot. The Ancient Greek deity was the Sun God and was the French King’s icon and inspiration. It was this fountain Louis most liked to show off to his guests – adding to the myth that he himself might have been the reincarnation of the Sun God.

For their time, the fountains at Versailles were marvels of engineering. Men of science would come from many miles away to marvel at the ingenious hydraulic systems that sent water streams flying into the air. Some of these hydraulic systems are even used to this day. These days, however, the fountains are turned on far more regularly. Back in the 17th century, they were only really turned on for special occasions, above all when the King had esteemed visitors or wanted to really make a show of wealth and power.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
As many as 2,000 servants worked in the kitchens of the Palace of Versailles. Wikipedia.

Feeding 5,000 guests was hard work

At times, as many as 5,000 people were in residence in the Palace of Versailles. All of them needed feeding. What’s more, since they were the guests of the King himself, they needed to be fed well. This meant lavish dinners, with only the best ingredients from both home and abroad. And, of course, this meant that the palace needed to have the necessary facilities to deliver the kind of hospitality guests of the King of France would have rightly expected.

The palace kitchens were constructed relatively early on in the life of the Palace of Versailles, between 1661 and 1678. As with the stables, the kitchens were located outside of the main palace itself, largely in order to spare the courtiers and esteemed guests from the smells and the noise. Here, as many as 2,000 staff would prepare two to eight dishes per daily meal. Dishes would have included fresh fruit, soups and a wide range of meats. The demands imposed on the kitchen would be even greater whenever the King threw one of his lavish banquets. Then, the hardworking kitchen staff might be required to produce as many as 30 separate dishes for hundreds of guests.

While locating the kitchens far away from the main rooms of the palace may have had its advantages, there was one major drawback. King Louis XIV in particular liked to dine in his own private quarters. Since the distance between the kitchen and the King’s Apartments was so great, most meals were served cold.

Following the French Revolution of 1789, all the kitchen equipment in the Palace of Versailles was sold off. The kitchen buildings were also demolished at the beginning of the 19th century, as were the ice stores. Here, ice hauled up from nearby lake was stored before being chiseled off to serve with drinks and chilled dishes. Since ice was so valuable in those days before electric freezers, the stores even had their own armed guards!

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The Royal Opera House at Versailles broke the rules by being oval in shape. Wikipedia.

The Opera House was truly groundbreaking for its time

King Louis XIV may have been the brains – and the wealth – behind most of Versailles, including the legendary Hall of Mirrors, but it was his successor who inaugurated the Royal Opera House. Far from being a folly, this was – and indeed still is – regarded as one of the finest cultural venues in all of Europe. More than simply a lavishly-decorated thing of beauty, King Louis XV’s Opera House is celebrated for its numerous technical accomplishments, many of them overlooked by the millions of tourists who visit the palace each year.

King Louis XIV had initially intended to build a world-class opera house. However, old age got in the way of his plans, and he focused his energy on finishing the palace’s private chapel instead. It looked like his successor would similarly neglect the proposed opera house too. However, in 1742, he appointed Jacques-Agne Gabriel as his principal architect and gave him the green light to give Versailles ‘the perfect theatre’. Gabriel’s work was truly pioneering in more ways than one.

For starters, the Royal Opera House was oval, with architects only having just realised the way in which scrapping corners improved the acoustics. He also made the rows staggered, again something of a novelty at the time and one which would allow more people to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the stage. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, was the system of winches and hoists which could be used to transform the hall from a theatre into a ballroom, even if such a transformation took a large team of men two whole days to complete.

The Royal Opera House was officially inaugurated for a royal wedding in May of 1770. Between then and the Revolution of 1789, however, it was only used on 40 occasions, including for balls or receptions. Unlike some parts of the palace, the hall survived the Revolution and Napoleon would later use it for formal banquets. More recently, the Opera House was restored to its former glory in 2009, though health and safety regulations means that the original machinery is no longer in use.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
The first hot air balloon flight took off from the courtyard of Versailles. Pinterest.

It hosted the world’s first hot air balloon flight

Long before the Wright Brothers left terra firma, the Palace of Versailles had been the stage of the first-ever ‘flight’. On a warm September day in 1783, two Frenchmen, also brothers, succeeded in launching a hot air balloon in the grounds of the royal residence, with King Louis XVI himself there to watch history being made.

Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier had started experimenting with balloons in 1782. Before long, they were hosting demonstrations in their home town of Ardeche. The Royal Academy of Sciences soon heard of their work and invited the brothers to conduct an experiment in Paris. They agreed and so, on 19 September 1783, they assembled their huge fabric balloon just outside the palace doors. After two private trial runs, they were ready for their royal audience. As well as the king, hundreds of people, including some of Europe’s most eminent scientists watched on. At the last minute, however, it was decided that some farmyard animals should be the to test out the hot air balloon and so a sheep, a duck and a cockerel were ushered into the balloon’s wicker basket.

At precisely 1.11pm, the hot air balloon took off. It climbed to a height of around 600 metres, much to the amazement of the onlooking crowd, the king included. The fabric then started to disintegrate and the balloon slowly returned to earth, landing around two miles from the palace. A court physician gave the animals a check-up and was astonished to find their flight had not affected them at all. To reward their feat, the King granted all of the animals accommodation in the royal menagerie. Within two months of the inaugural hot air balloon flight at Versailles, a human passenger had taken to the skies and then France had several pioneering ‘aeronauts’, including that doctor who feared leaving the earth could harm animals.

11 Lavish Details About the Palace of Versailles that Helped Take It to the Next Level of Luxury
There were no toilets in the whole palace – the king would just go in a commode. Party Like 1660.

It wasn’t all luxury – Versailles was really filthy too!

Versailles has long been a byword for glamour and luxuriousness. However, while it may have cost billions to build, with no expense spared on the furniture and decorations, it wasn’t always so glam. In fact, the Palace of Versailles could be a very unpleasant place to live, which is why so many noble families soon tired of it and chose to build their own homes outside of the royal grounds. Even Marie Antoinette found Versailles too much and escaped to her own private hamlet whenever she could.

One major downside of Versailles is that there were no proper toilet facilities. The architects simply never thought to include them. The King and other members of the royal family did their business in luxuriously-decorated commodes, often in their dining rooms or bed chambers. Incredibly, the King might also use a random corner to go to the toilet in, with servants expected to clean up after him. But even the lowliest of servant wasn’t expected to clean up after the dogs that lived in the palace. None of them were house-trained, and so the floors were often filthy.

To make matters worse, the marble floors meant the Palace of Versailles was almost constantly cold. Most rooms had fireplaces, but the chimneys were not so good. This meant the walls and the furnishings were soon covered in soot. So, while many visitors were awed by the size and splendour of the palace, many also noted the squalor, and the records show that some left distinctly unimpressed by the royal residence and determined never to return.

If life was grim for the nobles, it was even worse for the hundreds of servants employed to keep the palace running smoothly. In stark contrast to the sprawling royal residences and the suites reserved for the King’s favourites and esteemed guests, their accommodation was cramped, noisy and filthy. Unlike the richer residents, however, they didn’t have the option of leaving and living in a country house, with most staying in servitude for all of their working lives.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Fornication, fluid and feces: the intimate life of the French court.” Susan Broomhall, The Conversation, February 2017.

“The First Hot Air Balloon Flight: 19 September 1783.” The Palace of Versailles.

“The Royal Opera House.” The Palace of Versailles.

“Opera Royal de Chateau de Versailles.” Opera Online.

“Visitors to Versailles, 1682-1789.” The Palace of Versailles.

“France reveals restored Versailles Hall of Mirrors.” James Mackenzie, Reuters, June 2007.

“Hall of Mirrors, Versailles.” The New York Times, June 2007.