As my history on this blog will attest, I have a perennial reading interest in books about the giant dorm full of crazy spendthrift aristocrats that was Versailles. This illustrated history of the palace gardens, while shelved with books on garden design, actually has a great deal to offer in the way of history and personality in addition to its details about landscape architecture.
It opens with a party hosted by Louis XIV’s finance minister, Fouquet, to show off his newly completed chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet hoped to impress the young king (Louis was 23) with his wealth and good taste: gold plates, a play by Moliere, a ballet by Lully, and finally a fireworks display, highlighted by a mechanical whale that belched fire as it “swam” up the garden’s Grand Canal. Louis was a little too impressed. Three weeks later he had Fouquet arrested for embezzlement and imprisoned for the rest of his life in the Alps. Louis then swooped into Vaux and appropriated the house furnishings, the orange trees, the architect, the interior decorator, and the gardener. These three men would be the force behind one of history’s greatest home makeovers—the transformation of a remote hunting lodge into a showpiece of French wealth and power.
Gardener is probably not the correct term for the work done by Andre le Notre. Piping in the water for Versailles’ fountains alone required engineering and hydraulic feats of gargantuan proportions, with soldiers drafted to do the work in lieu of bulldozers. A third of Versailles’ building costs went to water supply (Thompson notes that there was better plumbing in the gardens than in the apartments), but there still wasn’t water pressure to run all of the fountains at once. Instead, a fountaineer was kept on constant standby, in case the king should suddenly decide to take a stroll. His boys would run around behind the hedges, switching the fountain jets on as the king approached and off again when he had passed.
Louis XIV was my kind of gardener, if operating with a very different budget. He liked instant gratification, flowers blooming all the time, no matter the season. Mature trees were transplanted from the forests around Versailles, to save all those tedious decades of waiting, and plantings were set into the ground in ceramic pots and changed out as necessary. On one occasion, visitors to the Trianon noticed that the color scheme of the surrounding flowers changed entirely while they were inside.
Illustrations show the formal style in favor at the time, with box hedges and yew trees trained and clipped into unnatural, geometric topiary shapes. Hedge-edged pathways called parterres were laid out in curlicue patterns, like embroidery, and bosquet served as outdoor rooms for dancing and intrigues. Most of the book focuses on the era of Louis XIV, but it concludes with the changes to the gardens in the more bankrupt era of Marie Antoinette, including the gardens as the backdrop to the “diamond necklace affair,” a public relations fiasco involving the queen, a cardinal, a fake comtesse, and 647 diamonds.
You’ll enjoy this book if you’d like a different lens through which to view the life of Louis XIV, or if you’d just like to daydream about how you would “garden” with an unlimited budget, 1,890 acres, and an army.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sun King’s Garden.