The Palace of Versailles, a brainchild of Louis XIV, best exemplifies the great opulence during the reign of France’s greatest monarch. Built with this end in mind, the significance of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV is unquestionable. It became a place for Louis to practise the art of government by spectacle and through ritual. Unprecedently grand, Versailles came to embody a form of court and government that would be widely admired and copied.
One might wonder why Louis needed such a palace in an insignificant little town like Versailles when he had the splendid Palais Royale in Paris and other magnificent palaces elsewhere in France. The simple answer is the Frondes. As a child the Frondes had a profound impact on Louis. Louis witnessed his mother being humiliated by members of the noblesse d’epee and Mazarin being chased out of the country. This left two major effects on him. Firstly, Louis became determined not to allow the aristocracy to revolt in such a way ever again and secondly in order to do so, he required a new place splendid enough to represent him adequately.
Versailles became a place for Louis to establish himself as the sole ruler of France and to erect his absolutist regime. Versailles had to perform one task in order for Louis to succeed: the fusion of the King’s imaginary and symbolic body with his real body, “L’ï¿½tat, c’est moi”. For example, the gardens (designed by Le Notre) provided an opportunity for the Sun-King to demonstrate his powers over the natural landscape. The heath and marsh were transformed into a pattern of lines and spaces which exemplified the victory of rule over disorder. This fusion demonstrated France’s recovery after the Frondes.
Constructed with this finish in mind, everything about Versailles depicted and glorified the greatness of Louis XIV. Both interior and exterior pictured Louis on a heroic scale. The symmetrical and figurative gardens were an extension of the architecture. This garden reflected the Sun-King’s control over the natural landscape. The famous fountain also portrays Louis as a source of life and implies that the world evolves around Louis. Inside, Charles Le Brun filled the palace with fabulous paintings illustrating celebrated episodes of Louis’ life and career. Louis’ bedchamber was purposefully built in the middle of the palace (implying that everything at Versailles evolved around Louis), and designed to accommodate enormous crowds of people who came to witness his lever and coucher. Behind all of this was one gigantic propaganda machine at work. The machine performed one function: to make people respect Louis. However, it wasn’t just about his own people but also foreign dignitaries who were supposed to be overwhelmed by Versailles. The palace and its artefacts were a deliberate working out of themes of Louis’ kingship in terms that could best be appreciated by its occupants and visitors.
Perhaps the most renowned and iconic room was the Hall of Mirrors, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansard. Charles Le Brun’s ceiling centrepiece pictures Louis in Roman armour but mantled like a French king, dedicated to the military victories of Louis. Louis would use this room daily as he walked from his “private” apartment to Mass. This room exhibited the power of the absolutist monarch.
In 1682, the court and government moved to Versailles. Politically, this benefited Louis in many ways. Firstly, it allowed him to centralize government and so became visible and accessible to his subjects. Louis realised the importance of this, “if there is any feature unique to this monarchy, it is the free and easy access of the subjects to their prince”. As a result, every aspect of Louis’ daily routine was conducted in the public gaze, particularly the lever and coucher. For instance, to attend the king in the first intimate moments of the day, to see him rubbed down with rose water and spirits of wine, shaved and dressed was the privilege of the highest in the land. This centralization of government strengthened the position of the monarch because it meant more and more aristocrats depended on the king for royal patronage. This permitted Louis to establish control.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, it allowed him to control the noblesse d’epee. They were forced to spend the majority of their year at Versailles under Louis’ close watch. This way Louis enhanced his authority over them and subsequently reduced their control in local areas. Following the examples of Cardinal Richilieu and Mazarin, Louis gave the high executive offices of government to the noblesse de robe. This created distinguished ministers such as Michel Le Tellier, Nicholas Fouquet and Jean-Baptiste Colbert. As a result the noblesse d’epee was forced to stay loyal to Louis in order to receive royal patronage which was needed to maintain their extravagant lifestyles. This diminished the influence and power of the sword nobles and consequently reduced the chances of revolts such as the Frondes.
There were also, however, limitations on Louis’ political influence. Whether or not government policies were implemented depended on the co-operation of officials throughout the length and breadth of France. Local government in the age of Louis XIV was a mixture of corruption, moral blackmail and genuine public interests. This undermined the political authority of Louis.
By requiring the noblesse d’epee to stay at Versailles for the majority of the year, Louis gained immense social control over them. Nobles lived under a discipline which would have astonished their forebears. The noblesse d’epee had to show deference to the endless ceremonies and rituals. These never-ending public rituals involved Louis and his nobles in stringent rules of etiquette. Every act in its rituals was designed to emphasise Louis as the personification of royal power. It was an offence to turn your back on even a portrait of Louis XIV. Not to be known at court could be fatal, “C’est un homme que je ne vois jamais” could virtually send sentence a noble to social death. This made it virtually compulsory for nobles to be at Versailles, since they would not survive if they weren’t. Louis had achieved control of the noblesse d’epee through Versailles. Altogether, this reduced the possibilities of an uprising against the monarch.
Culturally, Versailles provided great opportunities for Louis to enhance his image. Louis sponsored the work of a remarkable generation of artists, playwrights and architects. He made brilliant use of the arts as propaganda by giving them royal patronage which ensured that they sang Louis’ praises. With their assistance, the Palace of Versailles became virtually a shrine to Louis’ greatness. Everything about it built the ultimate picture of an absolute monarch which gave Louis an indisputable claim to greatness. Louis often starred in plays which portrayed him as God. In 1663 he founded the Academy of Dance which ensured that these plays were carried out routinely.
Under the influence of Colbert, Louis created three French academies which supported the study of fine arts, languages and sciences. The latter supported the works of many French scientists and helped to publicize their findings. This illustrated French advances in technology. French advances in technology can also be seen at Versailles. The water for the fountain came from the River Seine in Paris some 20km away. All this suggests that through Versailles Louis was able to develop France and make France the dominating power in Europe.
France’s dominance in Europe can also be witnessed through its cultural influence in Europe. Many monarchs, especially the German princes, built their own versions of Versailles. Emperor Leopold built Schï¿½nbrunn in 1695 as a Viennese Versailles. Versailles represented French power and grandeur, an idea which was admired and duplicated by many other princes at the time. Other parts of Versailles, such as the gardens which symbolized power over the natural landscape, also demonstrated the vast influence of France. This made Versailles a popular prototype for other European monarchs. Versailles had enabled Louis and France to exert significant influence on European culture at the time.
French influence in language was also important. French became the polite language of many foreign courts including Berlin and St. Petersburg. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War, was written in French (before this all treaties had been written in Latin). This implies that France had gained a respected status in Europe.
Versailles had enabled Louis and France to exert significant influence on European culture at the time. However, there were also limitations on French influence. In literature, for instance, many leaders produced works in their own style rather than the French style. The plays, rituals and festivals may have been glamorous to watch but they were only for a minority of privileged viewers because not everyone in France could read or write. Others simply did not share the appreciation of Louis presented as Augustus or Constantine in plays and paintings. Despite these limitations, Louis was still able have a considerable effect on European culture.
In conclusion, the significance of the Palace of Versailles was unquestionable. It provided a framework for Louis to launch his system of absolutism. Through Versailles, Louis was able to dictate France politically by centralizing government, socially by taming the nobility and culturally by determining French culture which was copied by many European countries. All three factors were equally important because they were inter-dependent of each other. Without having such successes in controlling the nobility and establishing absolutism, French culture would not have had such a dominating influence on Europe. Without establishing centralized control, Louis would not have been able to control the noblesse d’epee in the way he did. Therefore, all three factors all contributed to the significance of Versailles.