In 1660, Louis XIV, coming to majority and taking on full royal powers, was casting about for a site near Paris but away from the tumults of the city. He had grown up in the disorders of the civil war between rival bands of aristocrats called the Fronde and wanted a site where he could organize and completely control a government of France centered upon his person. He settled on the lodge and decided to convert it into a palace. In 1661 Louis Le Vau made some additions which were further developed by him in 1668. In 1678 Mansart took over the work, the Galerie des Glaces, the chapel and the two wings being due to him. On May 6, 1682 Louis XIV took up his residence in the château.
The château was largely completed by 1688. The team of architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun and garden designer André Le Nôtre had been assembled by Louis' own finance minister Nicolas Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose grand success there was his undoing.
After Louis XIV, several smaller buildings were added to the Versailles area by Louis XV and Louis XVI including the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Hamlet of Marie Antoinette known as Petit hameau, which, in a way, is one of the world's first open air museums.
The politics of display
The magnificence of Versailles is so blatant that modern tourists are moved to inquire, "How much did this cost", a question they are never inspired to ask at Chartres. At Ulm, the townspeople built a cathedral so vast the entire population could stand inside it. The question asked at Versailles is not a genuine historical question, for its subtext, often spoken, is "Was it worth it?"
The anachronistic assumption in the "cost" of Versailles lies in perceiving it as a greatly expanded house on a royal scale. This is not the case: Louis XIV, in building the palace, was intent on more than merely outdoing Vaux-le-Vicomte. Versailles became the home of the French nobility and the location of the royal court. Louis XIV himself lived there, and symbolically the central room of the long extensive symmetrical range of buildings was the King's Bedroom (the Chambre du Roi), which itself was centered on the lavish and symbolic state bed, set behind a rich railing not unlike a communion rail. All the power of France emanated from this centre: there were government offices here; as well as the homes of thousands of individuals. By insisting that nobles spend time at Versailles, Louis kept them from countering his efforts to centralize the French government in an absolute monarchy.
While the Palace was grand and luxurious, it was also expensive to maintain. It has been estimated that maintaining the Palace, including the care and feeding of its staff and the Royal Family, consumed as much as 25% of the entire government income of France. However, this figure is disputed by historians who consider that it has been exaggerated by those who wish to overemphasise the role of royal extravagance in the causation of the French Revolution. Recent estimates would suggest that the figure was much closer to only 6%.
The 19th century moralists denigrating the cost of Versailles were generally unaware that, according to the memoirs of the duc de Saint-Simon, more funds were expended at Chateau of Marly than at Versailles.
Another way to look at this controversy over the costs of Versailles, is to consider the benefits that France drew from this royal palace. Versailles, by locking the nobles into a golden cage, effectively ended the periodical aristocratic groups and rebellions that had plagued France for centuries. It also destroyed aristocratic power in the provinces, and enabled a centralization of the state, for which a majority of modern Frenchmen are still thankful to Louis XIV, although French centralization, as further developed during the French Revolution, and later the Third Republic, is currently the subject of much debate and overhauling.
Versailles also had a tremendous influence on French architecture and arts, and indeed on European architecture and arts, as the court tastes and culture elaborated in Versailles influenced most of Europe. From the start, Versailles was conceived as much as a showcase of French arts and craftsmanship as a home for a king. Modern Frenchmen, even the least sympathetic to the former monarchy, are still generally quite proud of the lasting influence that French arts developed in Versailles have had in the world.