L’escalier des Ambassadeurs, also called Grand escalier de Versailles, was one of the château’s main attractions and of great political importance. This monumental staircase was the place, where ambassadors from all around the world were waiting to be received by Louis XIV and to present him their credentials.
As Louis XIV took into mind to made Versailles the very centre of France, it was clear that there needed to be a representative, and impressive, place to receive foreign diplomats. Monsieur Le Vau thought it best to made this place serve as the entrance to the King’s Apartment, a grand spectacular staircase.
The planning of the staircase began in 1668, but did not start until 1672, after the death of Monsieur le Vau. The main construction work was done by 1674, after which Monsieur le Brun was charged with decorating of the whole thing.
It was accessed by a large vestibule with a barrel vault and three arches, which led to a smaller flight of steps ending at an elevated platform with steps to the left and right of it, each of them ending at the doors to a salon, the Salon the Diane and the Salon de Venus on the other side, in which Louis XIV received the ambassadors. Le Brun decorated it with allegories of the Four Parts of the World and added images representing visitors. According to Claude III Nivelon: “These double galleries, seem to be filled with figures that represent all sorts of Nations from the Two Indies, East and West, Persians, Greeks, Armenians, Muscovites, Germans, Italians, Dutchmen, Africans, in short all those who are known (…) And it can be said that when the Great King descends by that staircase amidst and followed by and the princes and princesses, it creates such a great and superb spectacle that one would think all the people are thronging to this place of honour he is passing and to see the most beautiful court in the world.”
The staircase was richly decorated, with red, green, white and grey marble from France, and featured a fountain at the top of the steps as well as a large basin of red marble, which was held by two bronze dolphins. A bust Jean Varin made in 1665 of Louis XIV hovered above the platform and was replaced in 1703 by a different bust of Louis XIV, showing a slightly aged King, created by Antoine Coysevox in 1681.
The decoration did not just feature faces from all around the world, but also impressed with various tapestry imitating frescoes by Monsieur van der Meulen, which showed how good Louis XIV was at warring. One featured the capture of Valenciennes, one the Battle of Cassel, one the siege of Cambrai and a other the capture of Saint-Omer.
All in all, truly an architectural masterpiece stretching out from the ground floor of the château to its very roof… and to make it even more impressive, the staircase had a glass roof, something very new and difficult to create at that time.
Under Louis XIV, the staircase was, obviously, used to receive foreign diplomats, but it was also used for the annual the procession of the Knights of the Holy Spirit and for concerts. Louis XV later turned in into a theatre for Madame de Pompadour… and then had it demolished in 1752. His daughters wanted new apartments and the staircase took too much space away.
By then the staircase had become one of Versailles most famous sights to see, so thankfully various people attempted to build their own versions of it. There is a replica at the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels and it is still used diplomatic receptions. The most famous replica is at Herrenchiemsee, Ludwig II’s own version of Versailles, although it is just half-finished. The left-wing of the staircase is completed, the right-wing is not, for work on it was stopped after the impeachment of the Fairy Tale King.
Thanks to the château de Versailles, we can all have a digital glance at this masterpiece of a staircase in form of a 3D video, that allows the viewer to look up and down, left and right, by moving the mouse while pressing the left mouse-button. Try it.