The Palace of Versailles is simply the most opulent buildings ever built anywhere in the world, it was the palace that other palaces were based on. Covering 67,000 square meters with 700 rooms and 2,000 windows, it was the seat of French Kings, and it commanded respect. With a complex and rich history that started with Louis XIV and straddled a revolution, it is hard to scratch the surface of Versailles, but I have a few hand-crafted stories to tell that may be a little off-beat from what you might already know about the Château de Versailles.
The fountainiers whistle
Despite the fact a third of the budget of Versailles was consumed by the fountains, their thirst required the diversion of three separate rivers, there was never enough water to fuel all of the fountains at the same time. To give the impression of a fully functioning system, the fountainiers would use a secret whistling code with each other to open and close floodgates, thereby diverting the water wherever the royal party went. The advancement of technology led to the instillation of a pump in 1981; it is now possible to have all of the fountains running at the same time... but only for a few hours, before they run out of water.
Made in France
The crowning jewel in Versailles is the spectacular Hall of Mirrors. It was a court of the King and Queen, and it took 8,000 candles to light the hall the size of a football field. It pays tribute to the political, economic and artistic success of France, but did you know everything here was Made in France? It was a decision insisted upon by the King's financial advisor; if he were to spend so much money on Versailles, it would need to stand as a testament to the French culture. It might not seem much of a feat today, but at the time Venetians held a monopoly on mirror production. They were so desperate to keep their trade secret to themselves; they deployed assassins to poison any worker found out to have helped build the Hall of Mirrors.
The ceiling paintings of Versailles are magnificent. In the Hercules room, the ceiling painted by Lemoyne depicts Jupiter leading the titular character from the pyre to his new life as a god on Mount Olympus. With over 140 figures painted over 230 square metres, it is a sight to behold. The room was inaugurated for the wedding of Louis XV's daughter, and at the time people could not stop talking about the painting. It led the King to name Lemoyne, First Painter to the King. Unfortunately, he would hold the post for a mere six months before he took his own life, stabbing himself with his sword nine times. Was it overwork, court intrigue, or the death of his wife? It might have been by virtue of his remittance; 10,000 ecus for his work on Apotheosis of Hercules, hardly enough to cover the 29,000 livres he spent on the materials (24,000 alone for the ultramarine blue that makes the piece so unique). The fashion of grandiloquent ceiling painting was taken to the grave with Lemoyne's death.
Oui Oui Poo Poo
Versailles is synonymous with opulence and exquisite luxury, but we forget that the people living there in the XVIII century did not have water closets, not as we would recognise them today. Marie Antoinette had the first toilet in France, the lieu anglaise or place of the English; this is where we get the word loo from. Everyone else had a chamber pot, which was emtied by throwing it out the window. It was said people bore leather umbrellas in the courtyards to avoid the brown rain. The ground was so filthy that the ladies of the court hemmed the bottom of their dresses brown.
It was not just the 2,000 residents who needed to go to the loo in Versailles. As a public building, anyone wanting to petition the King was allowed inside, so long as they were dressed appropriately (hats and swords were available for rent at the entrance). So in between the exquisite rooms and marvellous fabrics, the corridors and stairwells acted as public lavatories.
Playing Make-Believe Peasant
Marie Antoinette was missing her Austrian homeland and solitude; her life was constantly on display in the palace. To escape the commotion of the court, she would retreat to the Trianon estate where she had developed a miniature fantasy-like farming village. Despite its idyllic setting, the hamlet was a real functioning farm with vineyards, fields, orchards and vegetable gardens producing fruit and vegetables for the royal table. In a muslin dress and straw hat with a lite switch in her hand, Marie Antoinette played make-believe peasants. Her ladies accompanied her, and they would use buckets of Sèvres porcelain specially decorated with her coat of arms while they milked cows and sheep (which were carefully maintained and cleaned by the servants no less).
The walls to the domain were high, and no one was allowed in without her expressed permission, not even the King. The general population were struggling to buy bread, and the reclusiveness of Marie Antoinette in her hamlet, the unintentional mockery of the economically depressed French peasants was viewed with suspicion. No doubt this was considered a catalyst in leading the French to Revolution.
So there you have my five favourite intriguing facts about Versailles. There are countless more strange stories and tales, but unlike the Queens of France, I don't need to make-believe that I am poor, so I had better get back to work. But let me know if you have a peculiar story about the Château de Versailles in the comments below.
Author: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.