The Hidden Secrets of the Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is one of the most magnificent and historically significant buildings in the world. This stunning palace was once the residence of French kings and queens, and it has a rich and fascinating history that has captivated visitors for centuries. But did you know that there are many secrets and hidden treasures within the palace that are not open to the public? From secret tunnels and hidden rooms to private theaters and secret gardens, the Palace of Versailles is full of surprises and mysteries just waiting to be discovered. Here are little known facts about the Palace of Versailles.
1.There is a Secret Passage
Known as the “Secret Passage” or “Secret Staircase” this is located in the Palace’s Grand Apartments and was used by the king and his mistresses to escape the palace unnoticed. It was built during the reign of Louis XIV and was used to slip past the palace’s courtiers and guards. It’s also said the passageway came in handy during the French Revolution and was used to smuggle people out of the palace.
Not such a secret anymore, the passageway is hidden behind a door disguised as a bookcase. This door leads to a narrow staircase that leads down to a hidden exit in the palace’s gardens. The passage is pretty narrow and can only be used by a handful of people at a time.
These days the Secret Passage is open to the public and can be visited as part of a guided tour of the palace. Due to its popularity, and narrowness, access to the passage is limited and potential visitors have to book in advance.
Louis XV's secret room in the Palace of Versailles, used for secret meetings. (Trizek/CC BY-SA 3.0)
2.The Secret Room: Secret du Roi
As it turns out French Kings really liked their secrets. So much so that Louis XV had a secret room built in the Palace of Versailles which he used to host “discrete” meetings and discussions.
Known as the Secret du Roi, the room is located in the palace’s northern wing, near the King’s Private Apartments. Built in the mid-18th century, Louis used it as his own private office and as a meeting room for the king and his closest advisors.
The room’s design is quite impressive. Due to its secretive nature, it was designed to be completely soundproof. Much like the Secret Passage, the room is accessed via a door disguised as a bookcase. This door could only be opened by a secret mechanism known only to the king and a handful of trusted individuals.
The Secret du Roi was used for a variety of confidential meetings during the king’s reign such as discussions of state affairs and secret diplomatic negotiations. It wasn’t a bad place to be stuck for the afternoon and is as opulent as the rest of the palace, having its own fireplace, table, and comfortable chairs.
Aerial view of the Petit Trianon (far center) Domain of Versailles, France (ToucanWings/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
3.Marie Antoinette and the Petit Trianon
A secret room is nice, but how about having your own mini palace? Well, in 1774 Marie Antoinette was gifted the Petit Trianon, a smaller palace located within the larger palace complex by Louis XVI as a private retreat.
Antoinette liked her privacy, and the Petit Trianon was designed to be her own private space where the queen could escape from the hardships of courtly life and enjoy some downtime with her close friends (and if the rumors are to be believed, lovers). No expense was spared, and the building is a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture and is surrounded by stunning views of the palace gardens and parks.
Even better, it is said that the Petit Trianon came with its very own secret passageway. This supposedly joined the Petit Trianon with the main palace and allowed Antoinette to travel back and forth between the two unnoticed. The passageway was a special request from the queen who wished to move around the palace without being seen by nosy staff.
Today, the exact location of the passageway is a mystery and it’s unknown if it even still exists. However, there are several rumors and legends surrounding the passage, which have helped to keep the story alive over the years.
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4.Louis XIV and the Cabinet of Curiosities
One of the best things about being a king is surely having the money and power to be able to really indulge in your interests. In the case of Louis XIV, this led to the creation of the Cabinet of Curiosities.
The Cabinet of Curiosities held a collection of natural specimens, scientific instruments, works of art, and other oddities and rarities that the king had collected over the years. It was originally located in a small room adjacent to the King’s private apartments and was overseen by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a patron of the arts and sciences and the King’s finance minister.
While not technically a secret, only a very select few were ever allowed inside. The collection included a wide range of objects, from exotic animal specimens and rare plants to astronomical instruments and antique artifacts. Some of the most notable items in the collection included a rhinoceros horn, a nautilus shell, a stuffed crocodile, and a piece of the True Cross.
The Cabinet reflected Louis XIV’s interest in the natural world and his patronage of the sciences. It was also designed to be a symbol of his power and wealth, which was reflected in the cabinet’s design.
It featured an incredibly high ceiling, much more so than any other room, which was finished in an elaborate dome. This dome had an oculus that shone light into the room where three mirrors could reflect the light according to the sun’s angle. Each corner of this dome was beautifully decorated with cherubs, medals, and trophies.
The painting, Virgin of the Rocks by da Vinci, among the famous decorations in the Cabinet of Curiosities at the Palace of Versailles. (Public Domain)
The cabinet was also decorated in the royal colors of blue and gold and the walls were adorned with famous paintings, such as the “The Virgin of the Rocks” by da Vinci. Over time, the Cabinet grew in size and complexity, and it eventually became one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of natural history specimens in the world. Unfortunately, it was demolished in 1753 and replaced by the much less spectacular Gaming Salon of the King.
5.Marie Antoinette Had Her Own Private Theatre
The opulence held within the Palace of Versailles is truly staggering. For example, Marie Antoinette had her very own private theater built within the palace which she used to stage plays and musical performances for her closest friends and family. The theater, known as the Théâtre de la Reine, or the Queen's Theatre, was located within the Petit Trianon. So, a theater within a palace, within a palace.
View of the Queen’s Theater in the Petit Trianon. (Trizek/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The theater was designed in the neoclassical style with a small stage and seating for around 200 people. It was decorated with elaborate frescoes, gilded moldings, and richly embroidered curtains, creating a luxurious and intimate atmosphere.
Marie Antoinette was a lover of the arts and was known for her love of music, dance, and theater. The plays and musical performances held at the theater were usually chosen by Antoinette herself and tended to be lighthearted comedies and operas.
Marie Antoinette a lover of the arts. A painting by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty 1774. (Public Domain)
Antoinette was said to be a talented musician and actress and she often took part in the performances. She did so in front of a select group of her closest friends and family. These shows were said to be the most exclusive and sought-after events at the palace.
6.The Hall of Mirrors- the Height of Luxury
The Hall of Mirrors is one of the most iconic rooms in the Palace of Versailles. It was originally designed as a tribute to the military victories of Louis XIV, but its use changed over time. It’s located on the first floor of the palace and runs the entire length of the building, offering eye-watering views of the palace gardens.
The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace. (Zairon/CC BY-SA 4.0)
While the Hall of Mirrors is well known today, few people realize how secretive its design and construction were. The hall was designed by the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart and was completed in 1684. It is, of course, named for its signature 357 mirrors that line the walls of the room.
These mirrors are impressive today, but back in 1684, they would have boggled the mind. The production of high-quality mirrors was a closely guarded secret and was only possible thanks to the king's patronage. When the hall was built Venice had the monopoly on making fine mirrors and it said France had to steal away Venetian mirror makers to get the hall finished. According to legend, the Venetian government was so determined to keep its monopoly it forbade its mirror makers from leaving the city under penalty of death.
This all means the hall’s construction would have been exorbitantly expensive and also incredibly secretive. It was the ultimate symbol of Louis XIV’s power and wealth.
Despite its origins as a tribute to Louis XIV's military victories, the Hall of Mirrors was eventually used as a location for state functions and diplomatic receptions. It was the site of many momentous events in French history, including the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which ended World War I.
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7.There’s a Secret Chapel in the Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles even comes complete with its very own secret Royal Chapel. Located on the first floor of the palace, it was only accessible through yet another hidden door in the King’s Chamber. It was used by the royal family for more private and intimate religious ceremonies.
The chapel was built in the early 18th century during Louis XV’s reign and was designed to be a place where the royal family and their closest friends and advisors could worship in peace. This doesn’t mean the chapel is humble in design, it's decorated in the ornate baroque style, with richly carved woodwork, marble columns, and gilded moldings.
The most impressive feature though is a magnificent altarpiece made by the artist Antione Coypel that depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This is framed by an elaborate rococo-style arch, and the entire chapel is bathed in a soft, golden light that comes in through the stained-glass windows.
The chapel was used by the royal family for private religious ceremonies, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. It was also a place of refuge for the royal family during times of crisis, and it provided a peaceful sanctuary away from the pressures of court life.
Interior of the chapel at the Palace of Versailles. (Nattawit/Adobe Stock)
8.It Has a Secret Tunnel to the Outside
One of the palace’s most impressive secrets is perhaps the tunnel that connected it to the nearby town of Versailles. It was built in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV and was used to transport food and people discreetly between the palace and the town.
The tunnel was an impressive length, measuring around 1 km (0.62 mi) long, and was dug deep beneath the ground to avoid detection. It was wide enough to take carts and horses and was lined with brick walls and vaulted ceilings.
For the most part, the tunnel was used for day-to-day practicalities. Food, wine, and other supplies were brought into the palace via the town through the tunnel. It was also used to bring in workers and craftsmen without attracting attention. You don’t want delivery wagons and common people messing up the look of your opulent palace after all.
Arguably, the tunnel took on an even more important role during the French Revolution during which it was used to smuggle members of the royal family and their supporters out of the palace and into hiding. Today, the tunnel is no longer used but visitors can still see its entrance, located in the basement of the palace.
The Palace of Versailles is a testimony to the glory and extravagance of the French monarchy. But beyond its grand façade lies a world of secrets that offer a glimpse into the private lives of the royalty who lived there. These hidden treasures remind us of the palace's fascinating past, and they continue to capture the imagination of visitors today.
From the secret passage used by the king and his mistresses to the private theater of Marie Antoinette, the Palace of Versailles reveals a rich and diverse history that invites people to explore and discover it. It is a place that never fails to amaze, and its secrets will continue to captivate curious visitors for years to come.
Top image: Palace of Versailles, France. Source: Mistervlad /Adobe Stock
Berger, R.W. (1985). Versailles: The Château of Louis XIV. Penn State University Press. Editors. 2023. Palace of Versailles. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Palace-of-Versailles
Jarus. O. 2017. Palace of Versailles: Facts & History. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/38903-palace-of-versailles-facts-history.html
Meares. H. 2019. How Versailles’ Over-the-Top Opulence Drove the French to Revolt. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/versailles-palace-opulence