Living in the year 2000, we assume an informal lifestyle of comfort and convenience so incredibly different from that of a hundred years ago, or two hundred, or three hundred years ago, that we can hardly imagine that similar comfort and convenience were only in the realm of the rich and powerful of those times. Consider if you can, being awakened each morning precisely at eight o'clock, given a massage, checked by your doctor, then being dressed by a retinue of some forty valets and courtiers, followed by a light breakfast, a shave and presumably a haircut, all over the course of more than an hour in an elaborate ceremony that varied only slightly over the course of an entire lifetime. It was the start of a typical day if you were a king, your name happened to be Louis XIV, and you lived in a palace a quarter mile long rising three to five stories tall. Today, even the most decadent, luxury-loving dilettante amongst us would shrink from such an existence...well, after the first week or so anyway. But that was the chosen life of the "Sun King" of Versailles.
The Versailles we know today was begun around 1661 by Louis XIV to sustain just such a lifestyle. Located in what is now a suburb of Paris, it was then, a swamp-infested forest far enough from the big city to give the king the peace of mind in knowing any would-be rivals amongst the noble gentry were sleeping under the same roof as he, and close enough he could keep an eye on their every move...indeed, practically their every word and thought. His father had built a hunting lodge on the site around 1624 where the future king had enjoyed some of the happiest days of his youth pursuing his favourite sport. The woods abounded with wild boar, deer, wolves, fox, and pheasant. Except that by the time Louis XIV and his landscape architects got done "civilising" the place, much of the woods had given way to a neatly manicured, but distressingly complex maze of geometrical gardens, canals, fountains, and pools which, while certainly beautiful, were hardly conducive to hunting wild boar.
For all intents and purposes, various parts of the palace complex and its gardens were under construction for the better part of a hundred years. The original architect was Louis le Vau. The interiors were mostly by the painter, Charles le Brun, while the gardens were the work of Andre Lenotre. Later, Jules Mansard, best known for the roof style which bears his name and dominates parts of the palace, was responsible for remodelling earlier construction and bringing the whole project to completion around 1769 (largely because funds dried up). The famous Hall of Mirrors is one of his creations.
As much as Versailles had originally been built as a retreat from the political intrigues of Parisian salons, the mindless formality and intrigues weren't left behind but moved with the court to the new seat of government. As a result, smaller palaces, known as Trianons, began to spot the grounds as retreats themselves. Two generations later, Queen Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, even went so far as to have a small peasant village recreated in a remote corner of the park landscape, complete with quaint mill where she could play at being a peasant milk maid. In its rustic charm, it's one of the lovelier structures on the grounds.
And it was little wonder a queen would seek to be apart from the ceremonial hubbub of court. Often, during the winter months, as many as five thousand government officials, unofficial "hangers-on," noblemen, their wives, and families occupied the palace complex. Add to this a sizeable zoo, horses and hounds numbering close to a thousand, plus the thousands of servants, grounds keepers, and those needed to maintain the buildings in their accustomed splendour, and one could easily come to the conclusion the king might just as well have stayed in Paris. But then, that would have meant living in an even more formal, less hospitable old barn of a palace--the Louvre.