When talking about Versailles’ royal palace, I noticed that many people do not expect it to be so far from the city centre. To be accurate, the Chateau is not even in the outskirts of Paris, being Versailles a nice, indipendent town with about 90000 inhabitans located 14 miles west to the Ville Lumiere. To be even more accurate, in 17th century, before the palace was built, there was no town there but the area was sadly familiar to the aristocracy for king Louis XIII built there an hunting lodge, then transformed into a small palace, charmingly described by the Duc de Saint-Simon as:
“the saddest and most ungracious of places, with no view, no water and no land, because it is all airless quicksand and marshes”.
The question is simple: why Louis XIV, the man who stated l’état c’est moi (the State is me) and worked hard to be the centre of France’s universe turning the country into an absolute monarchy, decided to move from the capital to a swampy (and stinking) game reserve? His passion for hunting is not enough to justify this drastic decision so the answer lays in a mixture of commemoration and mistrust – and a pinch of jealousy. Commemoration of his father, Louis XIII who died when he was only 5 years old and mistrust of Parisians who gladly took part in La Fronde (1648- 1653), a civil war you could easily associate to the many French revolutions hadn’t it been organized and financed by the aristocrats – including part of the royal family – to stop the growing power of royal government. When it failed it was clear that a new epoch was coming, the epoch of Versailles and the Sun King.
This new era officially began in 1661 with the death of cardinal Mazarin, the first minister who navigated French monarchy out of the Fronde, and the opening of the construction site in Versailles. Louis XIV was finally confident enough to take up the reins and govern alone and to work to project his authority in a new setting: the grandest royal palace ever built in Europe, able to host not only the royal family but also all the aristocrats – remember the proverb “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” and add a note about how to organize their agenda according to your daily schedule (click here to learn more)
Of course, Louis XIV wanted his new chateau to be far from Paris and its easy-to-manipulate mobs hence the idea to stop the renovation works taking place in the Louvre and start all over again in Versailles, a place he already knew very well as he spent a lot of time there, hunting animals or chasing girls. To the king satisfaction, the architect Le Vau designed the new building like an envelope around the former hunting lodge, almost to protect and cherish Louis XIII memory while affirming his son own role as an absolute monarch.
Only jealousy is still without an explanation and to solve this last mystery we need to travel from Versailles to Vaux-le-Vicomte, a beautiful palace inaugurated on August 17th, 1661. Its very proud and – to be kind – a bit naive owner was Nicolas Fouquet, the French finance minister who, while the Sun King was struggling to find money enough to finance the construction of his palace, invited him and other 6000 people to the housewarming party of his new mansion. Louis XIV didn’t make a fuss about it immediately but he did leave the party and that was a very bad omen. Not even a month later Fouquet was charged with peculation and lèse-majesté (an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state) and the Sun King had him imprisoned until his death in 1680. Fouquet’s trial is an extremely complicated matter in French history. Of course, not everything that happened was related to Louis’ jealousy but let’s say that the king’s malevolence did not help him out and his tragic fate inspired books and fiction and is intertwined with strange facts and legends such as the Man with the Iron Mask (who really existed!). Going back to the history of Versailles, you can see that the Sun King’s motto “Nec pluribus impar” (none his equal) assumes a whole new meaning…