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Palace of Versailles
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Palace of Versailles

The Chateau of Versailles (commonly called Versailles) is a royal chateau, outside the gates of which the village - and now the city - of Versailles, France, has grown.
opened up the interior court to creat the expansive entrance cour d'honneur, copied all over Europe]]
The palatial chateau was initially constructed as a simple hunting lodge for Louis XIII in 1624. In 1660, Louis XIV, coming to majority and taking on full royal powers, was casting about for a site near Paris but away from the tumults of the city. He had grown up in the disorders of the civil war between rival bands of aristocrats called the Fronde and wanted a site where he could organize and completely control a government of France centered upon his person. He settled on the lodge and decided to convert it into a palace; this was largely completed by 1688. The team of architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun and garden designer (André Le Nôtre; had been assembled by Louis' own finance minister Nicolas Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose grand success there was his undoing.

Louis XIV, in building the palace, was intent on more than merely outdoing Vaux-le-Vicomte. Versailles became the home of the French nobility and the location of the royal court. Louis XIV himself lived there, and symbolically the central room of the long extensive symmetrical range of buildings was the King's Bedroom (the Chambre du Roi), which itself was centered on the lavish and symbolic state bed, set behind a rich railing not unlike a communion rail. All the power of France emanated from this center: there were government offices here; as well as the homes of thousands of individuals. By insisting that nobles spend time at Versailles, Louis kept them from countering his efforts to centralize the French government in an absolute monarchy.

While the Palace was grand and luxurious, it was also impossibly expensive to maintain. Historians estimate that maintaining the Palace, including the care and feeding of its staff and the Royal Family, consumed as much as 25% of the entire national income of the country of France.

After Louis XIV, several smaller buildings were added to the Versailles area by Louis XV and Louis XVI including the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Hamlet of Marie Antoinette, which, in a way, is one of the world's first open air museums.

in white]]

After the French defeat in the Prussian-French war, the castle was the main headquarter of the German army from October 5, 1870 until March 13, 1871, and the German Empire was proclaimed here on January 18 (illustration, left).

The ravages of war and neglect over the centuries have left their mark on the palace and its huge gardens. Modern French governments of the post World War II era have sought to repair these damages. They have on the whole been successful, but some of the costlier items, like the vast array of fountains, have yet to be put back completely in service. As spectacular as they might seem now, they were even more extensive in the 18th century. The 18th century waterworks which fed the fountains was probably the biggest mechanical system of its time. The water came in from afar on monumental stone aqueducts, which have long ago fallen in disrepair or been torn down.

The Would-Be Versailles

The most lasting monuments to the past glories of Versailles are not in France but in the other countries of continental Europe. When Louis XIV had Versailles constructed, France was the most powerful and the richest state on the continent. Versailles ignited a chateau-building (and fountain-filled garden building) war between the monarchs of Europe.

In the small courts of Germany, echoes of Versailles sprang up, as ambitious as local funding permitted: Schwetzingen near Heidelberg; the New Palace (Neues Palais) and Charlottenburg in Berlin; Herrenhausen in Hanover; the Residenz, Würzburg;; Schönbrunn; in Vienna; Esterhaz in Hungary;

In Italy, the "would-be Versailles" include Caserta near Naples, (by Luigi Vanvitelli, from 1752 onwards), and Stupenigi outside Turin, which had begun as a hunting lodge as Versailles had.

The "Polish Versailles" is Wilanow, begun in the late 17th century as the "New Villa" just south of Warsaw erected for Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, then, as Versailles was, extended in several building campaigns. Wilanow is symmetrically ranged round a cour d'honneur with two patterned parterres on stepped levels. Wilanow was inherited by a series of Polish aristocrats, and it inspired other great Polish magnates to imitation, so that Italian and French architects and garden planners were drawn to Poland for employment.

Wilanow had a rival in Branicki Palace in Bialystok.

The grandest, most impressive effort was perhaps that made by Peter I of Russia when he had the Peterhof complex of buildings in gardens and parks built in the outskirts of Saint Petersburg (small illustration, right). The great palace of the complex is a spectacular building, set atop a hill above a cascade outdoing its model, Louis XIV's cascade at the Chateau of Marly.

The last shot in this war of sumptous architecture was probably fired by Ludwig II of Bavaria when he asked for a nearly identical copy of Versailles to be built, Herrenchiemsee, on an island on the bucolic Chiemsee lake in the countryside of Bavaria. His funds ran out too soon but the central portion was finished, along with its hall of mirrors, and formal french gardens were planted around it.

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