Versailles, the royal residence of the Bourbon kings from 1682 until the French Revolution, was surely the most magnificent court in Europe. The palace and its gardens were also unusually public, allowing entry to anyone who was decently dressed. This strategy of openness was politically calculated, drawing on the long tradition of granting French subjects access to their ruler. From the moment Louis XIV transformed his father's simple hunting lodge into the ultimate architectural expression of his absolute rule, travelers of all kinds flocked to see the king in his extraordinary setting.
What was it like to visit Versailles? Who went there and what did they think of what they saw? This exhibition explores the experiences of various types of travelers as they toured the Hall of Mirrors, strolled through the expansive gardens, witnessed the arrival of diplomatic missions, or watched the royal family dine. Its narrative is drawn from letters, diaries, and reports from the period, and these histories are made tangible through a dazzling array of art objects, sculpture, costume, and paintings.
There were some practical matters all travelers considered: how to reach Versailles, how to dress at court, and what sights to see. Nonetheless, specific visitors had vastly differing kinds of encounters with the royal family and the spaces they inhabited, depending on their rank and the reason for the trip. What gifts did they bring or receive? What souvenirs might they take home?
You may listen to the binaural audio experience that accompanies the exhibition by opening each gallery below, and clicking the associated orange "play" button. For optimal sound quality, please wear over-the-ear headphones while listening. Learn more.
John Adams, the American minister to France and future president of the United States, wrote in 1782, "The first Thing to be done, in Paris, is always send for a Taylor [sic], Peruke [wig] maker and Shoemaker, for this nation has established such a domination over the Fashion, that neither Cloaths [sic], Wigs nor Shoes made in any other Place will do in Paris."
Indeed, many foreign visitors to court exchanged their plain traveling clothes for fashionable, richly embellished French attire. Pre-embroidered panels ready to be cut and sewn to the client's specific measurements allowed for quick transformations.
Part of the dress code for gentlemen was the habit à la française, consisting of a coat with matching breeches and a coordinated waistcoat, combined with a smallsword and a tricorne hat (mostly worn under the arm). For presentation to the king and other ceremonial occasions at Versailles, women were required to don a grand habit, or formal court gown with a train, which could not be used more than once without substantial alterations.
Versailles is located approximately twelve miles west of Paris, a distance that took at least two hours to travel by road during the ancien régime. For those without a carriage, public transportation operated out of the capital. The Swedish traveler Mårten Törnhielm explained in 1687, "There are in fact three ways of traveling [from Paris to Versailles] . . . either in a coach in which there is room for sixteen persons . . . or in a carriage with eight seats . . . or in a rented carriage with four seats."
A more pleasant and economical way of traveling to Versailles was by water. A barge left each morning from the Pont-Royal, near the Tuileries Palace, and sailed the river Seine as far as Sèvres or Saint-Cloud, from which point it was an easy walk to the site.
A number of establishments near the palace catered to the crowds of travelers in need of a place to stay or refreshment after their journey. Within the town of Versailles, a sedan-chair service was available to carry visitors from their tavern or inn to the royal palace.
Before the expansion of the palace, the formal gardens designed by André Le Nôtre in the 1660s were the château's primary attraction. Louis XIV devised four itineraries to show off the grounds to the best possible effect. The accessibility of the palace gardens astonished some foreign tourists. British travel writer Sacheverell Stevens noted in 1756, "This liberty we are denied in England in the royal gardens at Kensington, unless when his majesty is gone to visit his German dominions."
Among the many attractions were the much-admired fountains. Fed by an ingenious hydraulic system pumping water from the Seine, they were activated only on special occasions or in honor of a distinguished visitor. The famous Labyrinth, laid out in one of the groves by Le Nôtre in 1665, was subsequently enriched with thirty-nine fountains featuring sculptures based on Aesop's fables.
Dating to 1662, the Menagerie captivated sightseers until the Revolution. From a central octagonal pavilion, visitors could observe a collection of animals in seven enclosures below. In addition to a large variety of birds, the Menagerie housed caged mammals, their domestication considered a symbol of the king's dominion over the natural world.
By virtue of his position as the personal representative of a foreign monarch or state, an ambassador experienced Versailles differently from other visitors. The official first made a formal entry into Paris and then, a few days later, traveled to Versailles for a "public" audience to present his formal letter of introduction (credentials) to the king. Both were magnificent events, demanding a display of coaches, horses, dignitaries, and liveried servants worthy of the visiting state.
For the audience at Versailles, the French monarch sent one of his carriages to transport the foreign representative to the palace, with the visitor's coaches and other royal vehicles forming the rest of the procession. A French prince and the Introducer of Ambassadors, in charge of all diplomatic ceremony, served as escorts. Depending on their rank, diplomats were received in either the King's Bedchamber or the Council Chamber.
Nothing was left to chance on these highly choreographed occasions, and the staff studied records of past events to ensure that proper respect was paid to each visitor. At the end of his stay, the ambassador took leave of the court in a farewell audience and afterward received gifts from the king.
The "best part of Versailles," wrote Adam Ebert, a traveler from Frankfurt in 1724, "was the king himself." This sentiment proved true for both foreign visitors and the French, whose fascination with their monarch was seemingly boundless.
The ruler made himself available to his subjects and tourists alike through a routine of daily ceremonies. Although access to some of these rituals, such as the lever (his formal awakening each morning) was restricted, all visitors could watch the king pass through the Hall of Mirrors on his way to attend daily mass. An entourage of courtiers and ladies in magnificent court dress escorted the ruler and members of his family to the palace chapel in a colorful procession that most travelers made sure to attend. A highlight of any journey to Versailles was the opportunity to witness a Grand Couvert, when the sovereign dined in public. Held several times a week, these formal meals were crowded affairs, in part because they offered an excellent chance to get a good look at the royal family.
Religious holidays and other special celebrations at Versailles were spectacular occasions that attracted throngs of curious onlookers. The procession of the chivalric Order of the Holy Spirit, for example, permitted visitors to admire a stately parade of the king and his fellow knights.
All visitors to Versailles could tour the state rooms and the Hall of Mirrors. The apartments of the king and the queen, however, were generally off-limits unless their inhabitants were absent. Few were allowed to enter the private rooms of royal family members or the king's mistress, but descriptions in several travel accounts (such as Henry Swinburne's of 1774) indicate that exceptions were made.
Although sightseers could freely roam the palace gardens, access to certain areas—such as the grounds of the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's personal domain—required special permission. The groves were fenced off to keep vandalism at bay, and guests could enter only in the company of a tour guide. In his popular 1754 publication on Versailles, William Lucas suggested that visitors "bespeak one of the Gardeners, whom you'll see in waiting with the Keys . . . to shew [sic] you every Thing there." German-speaking tourists were frequently taken around by Swiss Guards (mercenary soldiers who served as an elite security force protecting the palace).
Diplomatic missions arriving from as far away as Siam (1686), Persia (1715), the Ottoman Empire (1721, 1742), and Mysore (modern-day India; 1788) made Versailles a cosmopolitan place. These receptions, years in the planning and widely publicized, were major events that drew thousands of spectators. The Siamese audience, the first to be held in the Hall of Mirrors, set the precedent for the formal introduction to the king. The foreign representatives, carrying a letter of credence from their ruler, processed the length of the gallery toward the monarch, enthroned on a raised dais. The lead ambassador and the king each recited a prepared formal address (known as a harangue), while courtiers in glittering finery looked on. During the weeks they spent in France, ambassadors and their retinues enjoyed lavish entertainment, toured the palace and gardens, and saw the sights in Paris and the surrounding region.
An embassy's official purpose usually included establishing direct trade relations and, in certain cases, requesting French intervention, whether diplomatic or military. These state ties were cemented through an elaborate exchange of gifts reflecting each country's finest luxury products. Encouraged to wear national dress rather than the French court attire required for Euro-Americans, overseas ambassadors signified the global reach of the French state. Unofficially, the presence of foreign representatives at Versailles incited crazes for new fashions and exotic luxury goods.
Foreign royalty usually visited Versailles incognito. The convention of assuming a fictitious title of lower rank allowed distinguished personages to avoid challenging palace hierarchies; it also made their visits less expensive. In order for the sojourn to be politically advantageous, however, the individuals true identity was an open secret at court. Still, the visitor had to abide by the assumed rank: Joseph II thus approached the palace on foot as the comte de Falkenstein, rather than by carriage as befitted the Holy Roman Emperor.
The French royal family staged elaborate entertainments for their private guests, including fireworks, ballets, and suppers. An apartment was furnished for them at Versailles, although most chose to stay in Paris. The king and queen bestowed upon these visitors sumptuous gifts of carpets, porcelain, and tapestries from the royal manufactories. Some travelers selected their own presents, as did Gustav III of Sweden when he toured the Sèvres porcelain works on June 19, 1784.
Incognito visitors highlighted in this exhibition include:
Gustav III of Sweden (comte de Gothland, 1771; comte de Haga, 1784)
Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (comte de Falkenstein, 1777, 1781)
Archduke Maximilian of Austria (comte de Burgau, 1775)
Grand Duke Paul and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia (comte and comtesse du Nord, 1782)
Prince Henry of Prussia (comte d'Oels, 1784)
Many young gentlemen from the noble and aristocratic families of Europe visited Versailles on a journey known as a Grand Tour. Often traveling with a tutor, they sought to further their education by studying foreign languages, cultural life, and social behavior, and by polishing their manners. As a highlight of their stay in France, those carrying letters of introduction would be presented to the king.
The court also attracted philosophers, gardeners, physicians, tradesmen, musicians, and artists, all with their respective professional interests in mind. Visiting architects examined the buildings, interiors, and surrounding gardens to familiarize themselves with the latest French fashions. Surprisingly, few of them made drawings of the palace, possibly because excellent engravings of Versailles were readily available.
Dozens of guidebooks helped these visitors navigate the site, and various souvenirs were available to commemorate the occasion, some sold right inside the royal residence.
Before 1776, most visitors to Versailles from the American colonies were young men who combined studies in Great Britain with a brief tour of the Continent. The nature of the American presence at Versailles changed dramatically during the American Revolution, when France became the colonists' only military ally in their struggle against Britain. Sent to France by the Continental Congress as a commissioner in December 1776, Benjamin Franklin would remain there until 1785, becoming a popular celebrity at the court of Louis XVI. He and two other Founding Fathers of the United States, John Adams and (later) Thomas Jefferson, went to Versailles to secure and maintain French support for the American cause.
Versailles continued to fascinate its visitors until the end of the ancien régime, but it sometimes failed to live up to high expectations. This was especially so in the waning years of the monarchy, when the palace and gardens fell into a state of decline. Thomas Bentley, business partner of the famed ceramist Josiah Wedgwood, lamented in 1776 that Charles Le Brun's celebrated paintings in the Hall of Mirrors were "faded or covered with dirt." Louis XIV's Versailles had become outmoded and extremely expensive to maintain, particularly in a time of mounting state debt exacerbated by French support for the American Revolutionary War.
The Enlightenment, emphasizing the virtues of reason, individualism, and tolerance, influenced the views of many later eighteenth-century travelers. Some visitors condemned the stark divide between the extravagant lifestyle of the court and the prevailing poverty among the French populace, illustrated poignantly by the beggars waiting outside the palace gates. On the eve of the French Revolution, the American diplomat Gouverneur Morris ridiculed Versailles as "an immense monument [to] the vanity and folly of Louis Fourteenth."
In May 1789, facing a growing financial crisis stemming from mounting state debt, Louis XVI summoned to Versailles the Estates-General (a legislative body that had not convened in 175 years). Although rising tensions in Paris led to the storming of the Bastille on July 14, life at Versailles was not immediately affected. This changed dramatically on October 5, when a large mob led by market women enraged over the lack of bread marched to the palace, ultimately forcing the royal family to return to Paris. With the court departed, the number of sightseers dwindled. The Russian writer Nikolai Karamzin visited in June 1790, poetically comparing Versailles without a court to a body without a soul. Yet, the abandoned residence still cast a spell on him: "I have never seen anything more magnificent than the palace of Versailles."
Marquee: Charles-Gabriel Sauvage, called Lemire pere (1741–1827). Figure of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, 1780–85. Porcelain, 12 3/4 x 9 1/2 x 6 in. (32.4 x 24.1 x 15.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Huntington, 1883 (83.2.260). Now at The Met: Attributed to Étienne Allegrain (French, 1644–1736). View of the Château de Versailles and the Orangerie, ca. 1695. Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 64 15/16 in. (115 x 165 cm). Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon (MV 6812)