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How Versailles' Over-the-Top Opulence Drove the French to Revolt

October 29, 2019 in History

By Hadley Meares

The palace with more than 2,000 rooms, featured elaborate gardens, fountains, a private zoo, roman-style baths and even 18th-century elevators.

In the early morning of October 6, 1789, hundreds of starving, defiant women and men (some disguised as women) from Paris stormed the palace of Versailles, the legendarily extravagant seat of government in France. They tore through the gilded halls, beating and beheading palace guards, displaying one grisly head on a pike.

The mob headed through the marbled corridors adorned with art celebrating the Bourbon dynasty, towards the private apartment of the half-dressed Queen , “the Marquis d’Argenson thought that the palace had signaled the arrival on French soil of ‘oriental regal extravagance.’”

It is not surprising the Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the “sun king” and the “vainest man ever” was the royal responsible for turning what had once been a small royal hunting lodge into the most extravagant court that Europe had ever known. Entrusting Europe’s master architects, designers and craftsmen with what he termed his “glory,” he spent a huge amount of taxpayer money on Versailles and its more than 2,000 rooms, elaborate gardens, fountains, private zoo, roman style baths (for frolicking with his mistress) and novel elevators.

The Hall of Mirrors

The Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, in 1745.

At a time when most of his subjects lived bleak lives in little more than wooden or stone hovels, Louis was paying for the Hall of Mirrors, whose Baroque splendor dazzles to this day. As Francis Loring Payne describes the 240-foot-long hall in The Story of Versailles: “Seventeen lofty windows are matched by as many Venetian framed mirrors. Between each window and each mirror are pilasters designed by Coyzevox, Tubi and Caffieri—reigning masters of their time…Walls are of marble embellished with bronze-gilt trophies; large niches contain statues in the antique style.”

On May 6, 1682, Louis officially moved his court—including his government ministers, his official family, his mistresses and his illegitimate children—to Versailles. He also demanded that nobles and minor royals be in attendance at Versailles and live in whatever small apartments they were given. This move was designed to neutralize the power of the nobles. This it did, but it also created a hotbed of boredom and extravagance, with hundreds of aristocrats crammed together, many with nothing to do but gossip, spend money and play.

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