"L'etat, c'est moi!"
In the mid-1600s, the Louvre was becoming a less-than fit place to live. The King of France, Louis XIII, could smell the privies of Paris from his royal chambers. It did not seem that this condition befit the monarch of the most powerful nation in Europe.
And so in 1623, Louis ordered the construction of a small castle around a hunting lodge in a sleepy village west of Paris. Sadly, the King died before he could move in.
In 1661, the death of Cardinal Mazarin left the young King of France, Louis XIV, in full control of his realm. In the wake of the Thiry Years' War France was truly the mightiest country in the world. Louis had a vision for a palace that would display that might to his often-contentious nobles, as well as the rest of the world.
And so the execution of the Sun King's vision began. Approximately 37,000 acres of forest were cleared for formal gardens. For the remainder of Louis' reign, the palace and gardens took shape; extensions were built, plans were changed, new ideas were incorporated, structures and gardens that had fallen out of favor were torn down. The town of Versailles had its start as the outbuildings of the palace, and housing for the army of laborers required to maintain it.
The famous Hall of Mirrors was completed in 1682, which happened to coincide with Louis making Versailles the official residence of the French monarch, as well as the zenith of France's power. With the construction of the chapel in 1708, Louis stopped building.
Versailles was also a manifestation of Louis' mastery of politics: With the experience of the Fronde behind him, Louis wanted to keep his nobles where he could see them. And so when Louis moved into Versailles in 1682, he ordered them to move in as well. He demolished a nearby village, Trianon, and had it rebuilt in grand style for guest quarters. And so began the tradition of French court politics, where every detail, from the room you were assigned, to the type of lace fringing your underwear, indicated your status. With so many political opportunists crammed into one place, courtiers could scheme against each other for status, and not against Louis, who was able to play the 'good cop'.
Louis XIV died in 1715 and left the realm to his five-year-old great-grandson Louis XV, who chose to live elsewhere when he finally gained control of France. Versailles has been built and rebuilt by succeeding Kings and Emperors, looted by the Revolution, nearly demolished and turned into a museum, and has been occupied by German armies on two separate occasions. Today its gardens are a public park on the outskirts of Paris, and tourists form ridiculously long lines to tour the palace.
But the purpose of the grandeur of this former hunting lodge will always be clear: The manifestation of the power of France's Sun King.