During the 18th century ordinary people could roam at will through the splendors of Versailles, the great palace built by the sun King, Louis XIV, a century earlier. Even the King's bedchamber was on view. Indeed, when the royal births took place, dozen of spectators, nobles and commoners had the right to be present throughout so that there could be no suspicion about the heir's identity.

Work on the palace began in 1661, and for the rest of that century and most of the 18th it functioned as both the French court and the seat of government. French aristocrats were compelled to move there, partly so that the king could keep an eye on them, and so were the principal ministries.

The gardens had 1,400 fountains, set in a formal pattern of lawns and walks adjacent to the mile-long Grand Canal. The 240-foot-long Hall of Mirrors was lit by 3,000 candles. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles between the Allies and Germany was signed in the hall and formally ended World War I. (Book of Facts, 176).

Perhaps the most well known room in Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors, which was called Grand Gallerie until the mid 19th century. This remarkable room was executed by Mansart and Le Brun between 1678 and 1686. Mansart was primarily responsible for its design, and it is thought that he was responsible for the decision to use mirrors for paneling. While such facings had been popular since the mid 1600s, Mansart may have used them to minimize the space that his rival, Le Brun, would have for painting. However, Le Brun used the space available, the ceiling, to his advantage. On the 246 foot length of the ceiling he painted the exploits of Louis XIV's early reign. These paintings were made even more impressive by using elements from classical mythology.

Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), the king's official portrait painter, also painted portraits of other French leaders during the 1600s. His most famous painting is of Louis XIV, depicting the king in a long black periwig, wearing stylish gold shoes with red heels and bows, carrying a jewel encrusted sword, and draped in an ermine lined robe decorated with fleur de lis, a stylized representation of a three petaled iris, which was a symbol of France.


Louis XIV: (1638 - 1715) "The Sun King" was the longest ruling monarch in European history ruling as absolute monarch from 1643-1715. He established his lavish court at Versailles as a measure to control the unruly nobility. He conducted four wars during his reign to increase France's power on the world stage.


Marie Therese: (1638-1683) Marie married Louis XIV on June 8, 1960 thus sealing the Treaty of the Pyrenees (November 7, 1659) and establishing peace between Spain and France.

Louis XIII: (1601-1643) He built a hunting lodge that would become the Palace of Versailles under Louis XIV as a retreat from his wife. While Louis XIII was king, the power of the monarchy increased due to the influence and control of Cardinal Richelieu, at the expense of the nobility and the Huguenots.


Marquise de Maintenon (Francoise Scarron): (1635-1719) After her husband, Paul Scarron, a satirical poet, died she became a governess for Mme. De Montespan's children. In 1683, she secretly became Louis XIV's second wife thus her rank remained unchanged.

Marquise de Montespan: (1641-1707) Although already wed, she became Louis XIV's mistress, much to the chagrin of the Queen Mother, Queen Marie. De Montespan bore the king four children but lost her foothold to power and influence over the king when Mme. Scarron became the governess of the four children. During the Affair of the Poisons (1679), Montespan was accused of participating in black masses and buying potions from the poisoner, La Voisin. Although she remained at court, she was supplanted by Mme. de Maintenon. In 1691, Montespan retired to a convent.

Mme. Du Barry: (1743-1793) She became Louis XV's mistress. Since she provided financial assistance to French emigres, she was condemned as a counter-revolutionary and was guillotined in December 1793.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: (1598-1680) was a "Jack-of-all-trades." He was a playwright, a painter, a composer, an architect, a theater designer, and caricaturist. However, he was most known for his sculpting.
Louis was so pleased with Bernini's work that he granted him an annual pension and in 1665 commissioned him to sculpt an equestrian statue of himself to serve as a companion piece to the marble bust. This was to be Bernini's last royal symbol of the king. The statue was actually carved from a single block of Carrara marble by Bernini's students and was completed prior to 1673. This classic, glorified flourish of Baroque art was not sent to Versailles until 1685, five years after the sculptor's death. Louis took an instant dislike to it. He first ordered it to be broken into pieces but relented and had it exiled to the far end of the gardens near the Pool of the Swiss Guards after his likeness was removed. Later Francios Girardon, a French sculptor, was commissioned to transform the statue into Marcus Curtius leaping into the abyss. This transformation was completed by placing a helmet on the stone figure's head and altering the base of the statue to take on the appearance of flames.
The American architect I.M. Pei, who was in charge of the grand renovation project of the Louvre, persuaded the officials at Versailles to make a copy of this statue which he placed in front of his famous glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre. This copy, cast in lead, is the only sculpture in the plaza/court surrounding the glass pyramid. Permission was granted by Versailles officials for a third and final copy to be cast for the Splendors of Versailles exhibition in Jackson. The Mississippi copy of the statue weighs ten tons and stands twelve feet, seven inches tall. Cast in crushed Carrara marble powder dust, this statue will permanently remain in Mississippi after the Jackson exhibition has concluded.

The Creation of the World Clock was originally intended for a ruler in India, but after seeing the beauty of it, Louis changed his mind and kept it for himself. Several artists were involved in the creation of this piece: Passemant designed the clock mechanisms, Roque built Passemant's design, and Francois-Thomas Germain completed the gold and silver plated bronze ornamentation. The clock features bronze figures and rotating planets.


Louis XV: (1710-1774) the great grandson of Louis XIV. Many of his policies would lay the ground work for the French Revolution. The Seven Years' War resulted in the loss of most of France's colonial empire to the English and Spanish.


Louis XVI: (1754-1793) became king when many factions in France were trying to regain power lost to the monarchy under Louis XIV. His rule is characterized by the French Revolution and the ending of the monarchy in 1792. Louis XVI supported the American colonists during the American Revolution.


Marie Antoinette: (1755-1793) After providing four royal heirs, Queen Marie Antoinette was very unhappy with royal life so she had the hamlet built to allow her a place to escape the frills and confines of courtly life. Due to affairs early on in her marriage, the diamond necklace scandal, and her own idiosyncrasies, she fell from favor with the common people and was tried, convicted and put to death via the guillotine.


Marie Leszczynska: (1703-1768) was the wife of Louis XV. Although Queen Maria and Louis XV had ten children, Maria had little influence over the court of Louis XV.


Mme. de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson): (1721-1764) mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to 1750 and thereafter his close friend, exerted a strong cultural, intellectual and political influence at the French court. She also had an affect on the new constructions at Versailles. At height of her influence, plans were drawn for place de la Concorde and her brother, Marigny, Superintendent of Buildings, contributed much to the elegance of contemporary architecture.

The Execution of Louis XIV, 21 January 1793

Report by a priest of
His Majesty's Household
Henry Essex Edgeworth de Firmont

The unfortunate Louis XVI, farseeing to what lengths the malice of his enemies was likely to go, and resolved to be prepared at all events, cast his eyes upon me, to assist him in his last moments, if condemned to die. He would not make nay application to the ruling party, nor even mention by name without consent. The message he sent to me was touching beyond expression, and worded in a manner which I shall never forget. A king though in chains, had a right to command but he commanded not. My attendance was requested merely as a pledge of my attachment for him, and as a favour, which he hoped I would not refuse. But as the service was likely to be attended with some danger for me, he dared not to insist, and only prayed (in case I deemed the danger to be great) to point out to him a clergy many worthy of his confidence, but less known than I was myself, leaving the person absolutely to my choice. . .Being obliged to take my party to upon the spot, I resolved to comply with what appeared to be at that moment the call of Almighty God; and committing His providence all the rest, I made answer to the most fortunate of Kings, that whether he lived or died, I would be his friend to the last. . .

The King finding himself seated in the carriage, where he could neither speak to me nor be spoken to without witness, kept a profound silence. I presented him with by breviary, the only book I had with me, and he seemed to accept it with pleasure: he appeared anxious that I should point out to him the psalms that were the most suited to his situation, and he recited them attentively with me. The Gendarmes, without speaking, seemed astonished and confounded at the tranquil piety of their monarch, to whom they doubtless had never approached so near.

The procession lasted almost two house; the streets were lined with citizens, all armed, some with pikes and some with guns, and the carriage was surrounded by a body of troops, formed of the most desperate people of Paris. As another precaution, they has placed before the horses a number of drums, intended to drown any noise to a murmur in favour of the king; but how could they be heard? Nobody appeared either at the doors or windows, and in the street nothing was to be seen, but armed citizens citizens, all rushing towards the commission of a crime, which they perhaps detested in their hearts.

The carriage proceeded thus in silence to the Palce de Louis XV, and stopped in the middle of a large space that had been left round the scaffold: this space was surrounded with cannon, and beyond, an armed multitude extended as far as the eye could reach. As soon as the King perceived that the carriage stopped, he turned and whispered to me, "We are arrived, if I mistake not." My silence answered that we were. One of the guards came to open the carriage door, and the gendarmes would have jumped out, but the king stopped them, and leaning his arm on my knee, "Gentlemen," said he with the tone of majest, I recommend to you this good man; take care that after my death no insult be offered to him-I charge you to prevent it." . . . As soon as the King had left the carriage, three guards surrounded him, and would have taken off his clothes, but he repulsed them with haughtiness: he undressed himself, untied his neck cloth, opened his shirt, and arranged it himself. The guards, whom the determined countenance of the King had for a moment disconcerted, seemed to recover their audacity. They surrounded him again, and would ha e seized his hands. "What are you attempting?" said the King, drawing back his hands. "To bind you, " answered the wretches. "To bind me, " said the King, with an indignant air. "No, I shall never consent to that: do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me . . ."

The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass; the King was obliged to lean on my arm, and from the slowness with which it proceeded, I feared for a moment that his courage might fail; but what was my astonishment, when arrived at the last step, I felt he suddenly let go my arm, and I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence by his look along, fifteen or twenty drums that were place opposite tome; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard at the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to god that the blood that you are going to shed may never be visited on France."

He was proceeding, when a man on horseback, in the national uniform, and with a ferocious cry, ordered the drums to beat. Many voices were at the same time heard encouraging executioners. They seemed reanimated themselves, in seizing with violence the most virtuous of Kings, they dragged him under the axe of the guillotine, which with one stroke severed his head from his body. All this time passed in a moment. The youngest of guards, who seemed about eighteen, immediately seized the head and showed it to the people as he walked around the scaffold; he accompanied this monstrous with the most atrocious and indecent gestures. At first an awful silence prevailed; at length some cries of Vive la Republique!" were heard. By degrees the voices multiplied, and in less then ten minutes this cry, a thousands time repeated, became the universal shout of the multitude, and every hat was in the air.

Taken from: Carey, J. (Ed.). (1987). Eyewitness to history. NY: Avon Books


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