Marie Antoinette’s private apartment, hidden behind a secret door in her bedroom in the royal palace at Versailles, reopens to the public on Tuesday after a major renovation.
The rooms, including a boudoir, library and billiard room, are spread over two floors overlooking an interior courtyard. They are said to be where France’s last queen first hid during the people’s march on Versailles during the 1789 French Revolution.
The reopening of the discreet but luxurious apartment where Marie Antoinette played with her children and received friends is the final stage of a project marking the 400th anniversary of Versailles that has also seen the restoration her two getaways from the main palace: a hamlet of rustic cottages and the Petit Trianon palace.
Austrian-born Marie Antoinette was 14 when she arrived in France to marry the future Louis XVI. She began the decoration and furnishing of the private rooms shortly after she became queen in 1774 and continued until 1788. Her demands for alterations to the rooms and impatience at getting the work done is said to have provoked the ire of the king’s chief architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel.
Historians and researchers have spent the best part of a decade consulting records and accounts of that time trying to establish how they might have looked. The result is an inner sanctum of gilt and silks – testament to the queen’s lavish and extravagant taste – where she withdrew from court life with her closest ladies-in-waiting to spend time with her children and a select circle of friends.
“It took the perseverance of the curators at the Château de Versailles over many years to restore this perfect image to us and weave together the links between the queen’s public and private lives,” said Catherine Pégard, the president of Versailles.
“These rooms, to which only a few friends and her close entourage were admitted, so small they can only be viewed by groups of 10 people at most, exude lightness. Once again, the curators through their careful attention to the most minor details, manage to give these rooms their sense. They offer visitors a new insight into the life of Marie Antoinette, a journey that raises a thousand questions about etiquette and intimacy.”
Laurent Salomé, the director of the palace, said the reconstruction was complicated by a lack of historical records but said the queen’s private apartment was a “fascinating space for those interested in the last glory of the [French] monarchy”.
“This world of refinement had largely disappeared and left very little trace in the archives, which complicated the job,” she said.
The painstaking work involved cross-checking plans, suppliers’ memorandums, various written orders and miscellaneous papers to establish a reliable idea of the appearance of the rooms. Archivists also searched for evidence of cloths and materials chosen by the queen for curtains and upholstery, including traces of fabrics found under modern renovations of chairs and sofas.
Two of the rooms, including the queen’s boudoir, are believed to have been decorated with toile de Jouy wall coverings featuring pineapples, a fruit brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus in 1493, whose rarity had made it a symbol of wealth and power.
Hélène Delalex, the curator in charge of Marie Antoinette’s apartments at Versailles, said the rooms were Marie Antoinette’s “great passion”.
“She demonstrated extraordinary taste, confidence and audacity. Just a few months after her arrival at Versailles without even asking the king, she ordered Gabriel to carry out major works, which he refused and complained to the sovereign. The tone was set. But this passion continued unabated and only the Revolution was able to put an end to it.”
At dawn on 6 October 1789, after an angry crowd forced their way into Versailles, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette left the royal palace with their children never to return. The couple attempted to flee France in 1791, but were caught, imprisoned and accused of plotting with foreign powers to confound the Revolution. The king was sent to the guillotine in January 1793 followed by Marie Antoinette nine months later.
The reopening of the private rooms, which were closed to the public for five years, is a highlight of Versailles’ 400th anniversary programme. The palace, which attracts almost 7 million visitors a year, dates to 1623 when King Louis XIII ordered a small hunting lodge on an 1,976 acre estate be enlarged. The buildings were further enlarged by Louis XIV.
“The hoped-for result is that the visitor will have the precious illusion of entering a place the queen has just left,” Salomé added.