Did you know that “House of Cards” was the original name of Versailles?

In 1664, the great European powers are locked in conflict over this far-flung land of America, christened a century and a half earlier on a map printed in Saint-Dié in the Vosges in honor of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci … but with a typographical error it was called America when in fact it should read Ameriga.

The ports on America’s eastern cost are now the prizes of rivalry between Dutch and English colonists. In the same year an English fleet based in Boston returns victorious from the port of New Amsterdam where it has successfully overcome the Dutch resistance. Peter Stuyvesant, the unpopular Dutch governor, who has never been forgiven for imposing a nine o’clock curfew on the port in 1626, has surrendered to the British on 8 September 1664. New England is renamed New York by the victors in honor of the Duke of York, brother of Charles II and new owner of the settlement.


On the other side of the Atlantic, another birth is being celebrated: that of Château de Versailles. The French king, Louis XIV has invited a “petite armée”- courtiers, musicians, dancers and poets, his wife Queen Marie-Thérèse and his mistress the celebrated Mademoiselle de la Vallière – to discover the gardens designed by André le Nôtre, the initial outlines of the great ensemble that is later to symbolize the greatness of France. There he presents them with seven days of uninterrupted celebrations and entertainments, the famous ‘Plaisirs de l’Ile enchantée’ with Molière and Lully as masters of dramatic and musical entertainments. Costumed ballets – in which the Sun King himself dances — bals, plays and concerts are shown outside while the king and his courtiers spend the day hunting. Many have to sleep in their carriages as the Château is far from being hospitable and Versailles is still a village with very little accommodations! But nothing is too magnificent for this 25 year-old king, who since 1643 has reigned over a land that is prosperous, industrious, successful and – for a time – at peace with its Spanish, English, Austrian and Dutch neighbors.


In 1661, Louis XIV entrusts the architect Louis Le Vau with the task of enlarging and refurbishing in sumptuous style the simple hunting lodge, known as “le château de cartes” (literally “a house of cards”) built at Versailles by his father Louis XIII in 1624. Louis Le Vau has built the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte for the Minister of Finances Fouquet. A magnificent ball is held there in 1661 accelerating the fall into disgrace of the Superintendent who tried to match the king’s grandeur. Before Vaux, Louis Le Vau with his father, himself an architect, has designed many buildings on the île Saint Louis in Paris, and later on, as First architect of the king, he will draw plans for the French Academy, l’Institut, on the left bank of the Seine.


In Versailles, started in 1668, the first version of the château is completed by 1682. To the former “hunting lodge” of Louis XIII, Louis Le Vau adds three new buildings (corps de logis), converted into the “Grands Apartments” of the King and the Queen. The prior construction of brick is wrapped with a new envelop of white stone. On one side, facing the city of Versailles, the old building with its tilted roof is preserved; on the garden side, Italian construction prevails with flat roofs and terraces.

(copyright Versailles The American Story by Pascale Richard)


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