The Landscape Guide

Jardin de Versailles (1)

Le Nôtre Orangery Basin of Neptune Grotto of Thetis Horseshoe Great Canal Festivals Bosket of the Three Fountains Water-theatre Labyrinth Le Marais

Ever since the year 1624 Louis XIII., whose only passion was the chase, had had a small shooting-box in the wide marshy ground at Versailles. He first hunted there when he was a boy of six, and had gone to Versailles since with an ever-increasing affection. The little castle, made of brick and rough-cast, built round a court with pavilions at the four corners, and surrounded by a wide moat, was pretty. The garden was quite in the style of the first third of the seventeenth century, and was laid out by Jacques Boyceau, who was superintendent of it as long as he lived. In his work there are two drawings still to be seen of parterres at Versailles, one a parterre de broderie, near the front of the castle on the garden side, the other a parterre de pelouse, with larger strips of lawn; and as this one is inscribed “from the park at Versailles,” it was probably farther away. There is no reason to suppose that the garden was extended so early as the time of Louis XIII., nor, as many have assumed, that it already showed the main lines of its later state. Also the plan drawn by Gomboust in 1652 of Paris and its environs shows Versailles with only a few parterres and surrounded by an immense park.

Louis XIV. seems to have shared his father’s affection for the place from the beginning. Its interest turned on the hunting; and after he had his first hunt there as a boy of twelve, he grew so fond of the simple, pretty little castle that it took him a long time to decide on a new building. He never did make up his mind to pull the old one down, but instead gave the builders the hard task of making new shells, one after another, round the old kernel. And so it was the garden and not the beauty of the castle that first excited his envy and sense of rivalry at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

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The main lines of the gardens of Versailles must have been planned immediately after the fall of Fouquet, in 1662-3 (Fig. 394). In these days we have accustomed ourselves to bring the immense castle buildings—showing a garden front of 415 metres— into harmony with the powerful lines of the garden, and to understand one by way of the other. But when the king gave orders to Le Nôtre to design a royal garden such as the world had never yet seen, there was nothing but the little hunting-box; and since he carried out the garden in its main lines and huge dimensions in those first six years before Louis could make up his mind that Le Vau should undertake the first extension of the buildings, we must imagine that Le Nôtre had in his mind some sort of vision of a palace of immense size, for he could hardly have ventured to combine this little moated castle with a far-reaching garden scheme of such magnitude.

As a fact, Louis did help him with his demands and desires. He often came out to Versailles, and the castle was itself changed and made magnificent inside. Here Le Brun was quite in his proper place, with his inexhaustible fancy in decoration. Fouquet had already started a Gobelin factory, and Le Brun was at the head of it, and had his own ideas carried out there. In this too the king had copied him, or rather he had had the factory moved to Versailles. But if he did have his rooms set out more tastefully, his hunting-box could not extend beyond the moat, and Louis planned fêtes that should even surpass those of the Spanish court in style and magnitude. Therefore, the garden must serve as a theatre, since the castle could not; and Le Nôtre knew very well what he was about when he brought down the horseshoe paths from the great upper terrace, and there laid out a second large parterre, and followed on with a very wide avenue, 335 metres long. This avenue passed from the parterre through thick, park-like shrubberies, of which at first only two were completed with their inside decoration, to a great oval basin, beyond which a wide cross-road formed the end to the garden. In 1664 the king was at the height of his passion for Madame La Vallière, with whom he frequently had a rendezvous in the hunting-box at Versailles. It is reported that it was in honour of the birth of her child that the king designed the grand fête which from the seventh to the fourteenth of May converted the lower part of the garden into the fairy palace of Ariosto’s Alcina. The palace itself was built in the middle of the great pond at the end of an island; the four walks in the avenues leading to the rotunda ended in triumphal arches, and between there were rows of seats rising like an amphitheatre, where the spectators were to sit and look on at performances, exercises, and sports, and as a finish at the wonderful firework piece, wherein after the disenchantment of Ruggiero the magic castle goes up in flames. On another day, a hundred paces farther along, there was an improvised theatre, covered with a white linen cloth, and here Molière’s La Princesse d’Elide was produced. There were water-sports in the moat, and a royal lottery came at the close of this most varied fête. As it was blessed with the finest possible weather, it was a brilliant success. In spite of all, the courtiers were angry, as Madame de Sévigné says, because the king had invited six hundred people and had not paid the least attention to their accommodation, "so that the gentlemen of Switzerland and Elbeuf had not a hole to hide in.”

Meanwhile the king did not contemplate any enlargement of his castle, though the works in the garden were pressed forward eagerly. The orangery under the south parterre was made before 1664 (Fig. 395).

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It was only half as wide as it is now, thus corresponding to the small building, and it had twelve narrow arches with the parterre and its basin in front, where the orange-trees were placed in summer. Louis had 190 trees transplanted from Vaux to Versailles, getting them brought there by Fouquet’s former gardener, La Quinteny, whom he also took into his service.

Above the orangery was the flower parterre, which must have existed in Louis the Thirteenth’s time, for Boyceau had made the plan of it. This parterre was shut off towards the castle garden by a wooden lattice, and remained of the same size when the castle was enlarged the first time; it was only much later that it was made twice as big. From 1678 it looked over the new orangery made by Mansart, and beyond it to the huge pièce d’eau des Suisses, at the side of which were the tree- and kitchen-gardens. But on the north side the corresponding part towards the castle already had in 1664 its large parterre and wonderful water-devices whence the avenue with the pretty groups of children slopes gently down to the Basin of Neptune between two boskets that were often altered (Fig. 396).

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The finest piece of ornamental work, however, on the northern side was one of the earliest that Louis made, the Grotto of Thetis (Fig. 397). 
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It was situated where the chapel is now, and later it had to give place to the extension buildings of the castle’s north wing, carried out by Mansart. The maker of the grotto was a certain Francini, no doubt one of the family of architects that Maria de’ Medici summoned to France. We hear of two brothers Francini who did their utmost as architects in water, and utilised every drop they could find in the neighbourhood, which was poor in springs. The chief reservoirs were put above the grotto, in the three chambers of which the water was dispersed into thousands of the devices so popular at the time, and into fountains.

The approach to the grotto was closed by three gigantic arched gates with gilded iron openings, upon which rays starting from a sun disk streamed down to six maps of the world in the form of medallions. Here started the worship of the sun, which the king himself personified in many and various ways at Versailles, as “ Le Roi Soleil.” Above these gates was seen a relief carving of Helios coming down to Thetis and hailed by nymphs and tritons. The interior of the grotto with its endless decorations of shells did not receive its finest ornamentation till 1675, when three groups of statuary were put up: a reclining Apollo with nymphs around him, and to right and left the horses of the sun-god being watered by tritons (Fig. 398).

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The great terrace immediately before the castle was a child of many sorrows for Le Nôtre, because no other part of the place was changed so many times. First of all there was a way across the drawbridge over the moat, with balustrades here and there, leading into a formal carpet-patterned parterre. This is what Boyceau designed, and what Le Nôtre found. He does not appear to have altered it at all for some time, because the first water-parterre is seen in the pictures that give the castle as enlarged by Le Vau.

Originally only gently inclined walks of semicircular shape led from the great terrace to the Latona parterre, which from its form got the name of the Horseshoe. It was in 1666  that Le Nôtre laid down the imposing steps which gave the feature of immense size to the show-garden, which again derives much of its importance and justification from the new buildings of Le Vau. In these years also the ornamentation was carried through of the two basins at the beginning and end of the great King's Avenue, intended to give the proper rhythm to the middle axis of the garden. If the cult by courtiers of the "Roi Soleil" had already begun in the grotto, the brotherhood of earthly and heavenly Sun-Kings had purposely united, so that the whole garden could be converted into a veritable temple of the sun.

The decoration of the water in the Horseshoe depicts the birth of Latona’s son. 

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On an island the goddess, with the twins at her side (Fig. 399), is praying Jupiter to pour his anger upon the rough people who, scattered about in the water below, are spurting jets upon her, that rise out of human bodies with mouths of frogs or from actual frogs. The original place was like this, but later on the noisy horrid creatures were quite close to the goddess, and had been reared up so that when the jets were playing the whole place looked like a water-mountain. But at the end of the avenue, in the centre of the gigantic pond, which once had supported Alcina’s palace of enchantments, there arose from the waves the young god with his four fiery steeds, just surmounting the water with half their bodies (Fig, 400).

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 Tritons trumpeting at the side announced the new light of day. But behind the Apollo fountain men were eagerly digging out the great canal. Le Nôtre had never felt the smallest doubt as to constructing this work on so immense a scale and with such incomparably imposing effect; for it was started at the trench of the crossways, and was gradually extended farther to the four points at the ends. This work satisfied by one ingenious effort the practical necessity of draining the marshy ground of the low-lying park, and of collecting the many separate canals and ponds into one, so making the garden an enclosure and giving it width at the same time, as only a moving mirror of water on a large scale can do. Possibly the canal at Fontainebleau had led the way to this, and the first attempt at Vaux had also been happy in garden and ground; but the wide canal at Versailles, 1560 metres by 120 metres, whose cross-arms (Fig. 401) extended to the length of 1013 metres, achieves the finest realisation of this idea of a French canal garden; and from then till now it has never been surpassed, but only imitated.

Louis had done a great deal for the garden, but still could not make up his mind to enlarge the little house. At the beginning Colbert was very hostile to Versailles, and he could not bear to see Le Nôtre and Le Vau always coming with new plans, so as to keep in the king’s good graces—plans that Louis accepted unhesitatingly and with real pleasure. There is a story that Le Nôtre was one day walking through the garden with the king, I who gave the same cheerful answer to every proposal of his, “ Le Nôtre, I will allow you 10,000 francs for that,” when Le Nôtre suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “ I will not say another word, or I shall be the ruin of your Majesty.” It was far more in accordance with Colbertts ideas to enlarge the Louvre in a grand way, and so to fix the king in Paris. In 1664 he wrote him an outspoken, pressing letter: “ Your Majesty is aware that, except for brilliant deeds of arms, nothing shows the greatness and the spirit of a prince so much as monumental buildings. Posterity esteems a prince according to the measure of those noble buildings that he puts up in his reign. How deplorable will it be, if the greatest and mightiest of kings, who shows excellence in the highest degree that a prince can attain to, should be measured by the standard of Versailles !—and such a danger is likely to befall.” As events proved, Colbert’s fears were justified up to a point that he could never have dreamed of.

Louis did certainly build at the Louvre, but with little interest, for he did not care for Paris, and it was at Versailles that he celebrated his festivals and his victories. In the year 1668 the Peace of Aix was made the occasion of festivities far more splendid and fairylike than anything that took place four years earlier. Madame La Vallière was nearing the end of her power, for the king had just come under the influence of Madame de Montespan, who, like himself, was in the full tide of youth. Louis had carried out the fateful ideas of monarchic rule, the Fronde affair was over, and its supporters were now his faithful servants; he had also been victorious over the foreign foe. The lady was beautiful and full of spirit and caprice. Madame La Vallière, who was modest and affectionate and inclined to be sad, hesitated a little while and then retired to a cloister. In 1668 the king would only have about him what was entirely pleasurable. The garden was now, as we have said, quite ready as seen from the castle, with its great lines, and its main ornament—the parts for show. But the twelve shrubberies made in the three main walks and the three crossways were at that time for the most part only simple massifs, as they were called, consisting of groups of trees with paths among them. There is only one of these thickets that appears to have been turned into a decorative  garden inside, perhaps with a view to this fête; it was called the Water Hill, on account of the rock-like fountains springing from a round basin; or else the Star, because of the five paths which approached these fountains and were bordered by trellis in a clever  way. Here the “ grand folk “ took their breakfast, where the place was ornamented with vases, arcades of cypresses, and sculptures. From here they proceeded to the theatre at one of the crossings, and soon came to the basin where the Saturn fountain was set up, with foliage overhead and costly tapestries intended to imitate marble. Here Molière’s comedy Georges Dandin was performed, with music by Lulli. As early as 1665 Molière had become the king’s court poet; and Louis (who had at first detested him because of his satire) treated him later on as protégé and friend, as long as Molière lived; and it is well known that the greater number of his comedies were written for the king's fêtes and were often directly commissioned.

In French gardens permanent theatres of greenery, without which later on in the eighteenth century no garden was complete, were still unknown. Pastoral plays and masques, which originated at these fêtes and because of them, were by preference played with a garden background. Spain had done things of the sort, as we know, that were quite astonishing. The theatre at Buen Retiro, with the stage opening into the park, was a peculiar blend of permanent theatre and garden background. When the party stayed in the garden, the stage was placed here or there in a suitable place. It was the business of mechanicians and stage-managers to produce surprising effects and wonders of decoration in the least possible time. The theatrical performance was for Louis XIV., as for Philip IV., the centre point of the splendid fête.

A place specially beloved by the king was the grotto, which he also used as a background for all kinds of musical performances. The other festivities on these May days of the year 1668, the supper and the tennis, took place at the various crossways of the avenues, or at the basins of Flora and Ceres, which were converted by the artists into wonderful rooms, all green and adorned with fountains, sculpture and draperies, so that people could say (comparing them with the rooms in the castle which had their own fountains and flowers at these fêtes) that “ palaces have turned into gardens, and gardens into palaces.” Two displays of fireworks given in the chief walk came at the end of these joyful days: the cost was computed at nearly 120,000 livres. A picture by the artist Patel has preserved the scene of castle and garden, as the king arrived at the fête in his chariot with six horses.

Shortly after this, when the remains of the fête were still ornamenting the garden, Lafontaine paid a visit to Versailles accompanied by three friends, Racine, Boileau, and Molière, with a view to seeing the king’s new arrangements. Lafontaine made use of this visit in a kind of prologue to his poem Psyche, and to him we owe the first description of the garden. The friends came in a carriage, and made their first halt at the menagerie. This perhaps belongs to the works of Louis XIII., and is situated in the park at the place where the cross-road of the great canal ends, and where the Trianon stands on the opposite side (Fig. 401). But Louis XIV. was incessantly building there: the central piece which comprises the chief animal-house in the middle, and the little ones grouped round it like the spokes of a wheel, was designed by Mansart, and has supplied the pattern for many other menageries in parks. Next to the menagerie comes the beautiful orangery, and this draws spirited verses from one of the three.

At table the writers talk about the owner of all these lovely things. It is only Jupiter who can without rest rule the world; human beings need to pause. Alexander gave his leisure to debaucheries, Augustus to games, Scipio and Lælius often amused themselves with throwing flat stones over the water, but our king is content to build palaces, and that is worthy of him . . . gardens so lovely and buildings so glorious are an honour to our country,” This kind of flattery was what Louis liked best to hear. The end and aim of the friends’ visit was, however, the grotto, and this is described in detail with its ornament and water-plays. But when the man on guard wants them to take part in the fun of these tricks, they cry off, and he can “ keep them for townspeople and Germans.” They ask for a dry place, and then Lafontaine reads his friends the first book of his poem. Between the reading of the first and second books they look at the other garden, and especially enjoy the charm of the basin of Latona, revealed to them as a whole from the stairs above it. This Lafontaine describes in his melodious verse. A little later Mademoiselle de Scudéry visits the garden, and her description is accurate to the minutest details, in her own eloquent and picturesque style. In the grotto she brings before our minds the concert of artificial birds and water-organs.

After this fete of 1668 the want of room in the small castle made itself overwhelmingly felt, and Louis could not again venture to house his guests so badly. Therefore he decided to build, but only on the strict understanding that the old castle must be preserved, whereupon Le Vau put the first shell round it. But it is characteristic that the king kept, to the end, his own private bedroom and sitting-room in this old central kernel of the castle. Le Vau’s building was set up over the filled-in moat and the terrace in front of it, so that the parterre at the side had not to be removed; and the disappearance of the moat is significant architecturally, for it was a final farewell to the Renaissance feeling in France. A new age needed more space than a ring of water would allow. It is probable that from this date no castle of importance in France had a canal entirely round it, although, as we shall see, the founders did not like to be quite without water-trenches.

The fête had a greater effect on the garden of the future than on the actual castle, for both Le Nôtre and other artists had observed, when they put up the perishable green rooms in their splendid variety, that it would be much better to make such private fête-apartments with out-of-door decoration that would last, and so would be at hand always, and could be quickly got ready; for now, when they had to realise, as Colbert did at last, that the court would be living in the open, they must be continually inventing new surprises and new fêtes. For this purpose they could best make use of the shrubberies in thePetit Parc (Fig. 394), as the garden reaching to the great canal was now called. Some of these were already started. Now, however, in rivalry with Le Vau, who was very ambitious, a most prolific period set in for Le Nôtre. In the years 1669—74 all the boskets on the northern side of the great avenue came into being. First, after the making of the étoile, the two at the side of the Children’s Walk that led to Neptune’s basin were laid out. In the green massif of trees on the left—for the most part confined by a trellis—there appeared a water-arbour (berceau d'eau) where people could walk under the arches and keep dry; on the other side there was a water-pavilion, that consisted of a great series of jets of water and dolphins. Later on there was made in this place the beautiful Bosket of the Three Fountains (Fig. 402). 

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Le Nôtre and the other artists who were working together during these feverishly busy and productive years knew well that they could only hope to please a court that was blasé, and easily bored, by the production of more and ever more startling novelties. The artists in water had the most trouble, for they had to produce Le Nôtre’s new surprises. An immense supply of water was wanted to feed the endless fountains that were made in these years, and new ones were always in request. Wonderful fountains arose at every crossing-point of walks, after the temporary buildings for theatre and fête were put up in 1668. On the top of the basins were Flora, Ceres, Bacchus, and Saturn. These are some of the few statues still in existence. But any number more were needed in the groves.

The water-theatre (Fig. 403) in the northern group is one of the most artistic and most admired of these; at any rate it is designed as a permanent garden theatre artistically decorated, and it was so used.

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There is a semicircular stage with three paths rising gently from it in the form of a star, and in each of these there is a water-stairway with several sets of jets spouting high; then on both sides of the water-stairway there are narrow paths, crossed by jets that form arches and rise from between pyramidal yews. Where the paths meet there are smaller places with fountains; and the tall trees, which throw the whole into deep shadow, are held back with low trellis-work. A narrow space with fountains divides the stage from the spectators, who are in a large apartment with seats of grassy lawn raised up as an amphitheatre. The picture is completed with vases of flowers and fine statue decoration.

One of the most charming ideas of Le Nôtre was the labyrinth scheme, which was carried out in 1674. Lafontaine had brought the name of Æsop into everybody’s mouth with his Fables, and had also made French people familiar with Æsop’s appearance in the beautiful prose preface to the work. So Le Nôtre set up the Greek fable-monger opposite a figure of Eros at the entrance to the labyrinth. Anyone strolling in, enticed by Eros, will find that Æsop will be his guide, with his fables, For at every complication of the paths, which are very intricate, there stands a fountain adorned with animals taken from one of the fables (Fig. 404). 

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There are thirty-nine fountains as different surprises, all very pretty and humorous. At that time it was of the first importance to find some new device instead of the well-known designs for the labyrinth. And here there was a veritable garden of enchantment; the stranger had the loveliest pictures before his eyes, whichever way he turned. The animals were made of lead, and painted in natural colours, but the fountains were of coloured stones and shells, and their back- ground mostly of lattice or smoothly-cut beech hedges. Nothing more charming could be imagined than these animal groups designed by the best artists.

The king and his court took great part in such developments, and there is a whole series of drawings and engravings showing Louis and his retinue inspecting one of the new groves. To make plans for fresh boskets became a sort of game at court. Le Nôtre certainly did not smile on amateur efforts, but when the powerful mistress, Madame de Montespan, wanted one of her own ideas carried out, all hands had to set to work. Madame little knew what an old scheme she was introducing into French gardens with her bronze tree that spurted water from the tips of its leaves. Perhaps her idea came straight from Spain. The tree was in the centre of a square basin crowned with bronze bulrushes, from which rose jets that crossed with those starting out of the tree, while swans at the corners sent their own jets into the pond. Other fountains completed this pretty artificial picture, as for example a pond with a bowl of fruits and water spurting out of them, and a so-called water-buffet, a very popular structure. At the time when Madame de Montespan was in power, this bosket, called Le Marais (Fig. 406), was one of the most admired, but the king’s taste in ladies changed and with it his taste for art; and so the designer was fated to see it changed in her lifetime, in the year 1705. All the groves, indeed the whole garden, contained a host of statues at that time, some of them copies of antiques; but far more were original, and one may easily suppose that from the year 1669 onwards every important sculptor in the kingdom was busy on Versailles. The garden to-day gives only a feeble idea of the original decoration. The statues have mostly fallen down, and in the revolution some were destroyed, though a few have been kept in museums, such as Puget’s Milo of Crotona and the Perseus and Andromeda, both in the Louvre. But one must mentally put these colossal groups back into their park surroundings, by the green walls of the King’s Avenue,. to get any notion of their effect.

The whole terrace was greatly changed at the same time as Le Vau’s building. Le Nôtre thought there were far too many parterres for flowers: at the side of the castle, only slightly sunken, were the two large flower-gardens, and on the lower side of the old parterre de broderie on the chief terrace was the one behind the basin of Latona. The old one did not seem to Le Nôtre conspicuous enough, so he conceived the idea of having a handsome water-mirror in this part. 

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At first he seems to have been a little irresolute about it, and he made one large basin and four smaller ones; but afterwards combined them all—water, flowers, and grass—very cleverly into a fine water-parterre. According to the plans of Le Brun, the water—parterre was filled with an incredible number of marble statues and groups of allegorical nature, and between these stood great vases: towards the stairs of the Latona there were two sphinxes with children on their backs, which were afterwards moved into the northern parterre. New statues were continually being brought into the Latona Horseshoe, and in the King’s Avenue (now the Tapis Vert, Fig. 400) rows of vases and statues stood on both sides of the way. At the end of this avenue, where the chariot of the sun and the god appeared, rising out of the waves, there was also the canal, now extended to its immense length. It was generally covered with boats, manned by Dutch sailors; later on there were even Venetian gondoliers, who settled in the park, in a small colony still called “ Little Venice.”

All of this was ready, though part of the statuary was as yet only in model form awaiting for completion the royal command and a full state purse, when the king, who for months past, had chosen to stay at Versailles, resolved to give a splendid fête in honour of the second conquest of Franche-Comté in 1674. “ One thing specially remarkable. about the king’s fêtes,” says Félibien, to whom we owe the description of it all, “ is the great speed with which all this glory appeared. His commands were so carefully and diligently carried out that it seemed like enchantment; almost in one moment, before you observe it, you are amazed to find theatres erected, groves with fountains and figures, refreshments carried about, and thousands of things going on that it would seem impossible to get done without a great many workmen and in a long time.” It was in order to achieve with promptitude what the king required that Le Nôtre made so many groves (Fig. 407). 

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They stood ready to supply the best of fanciful backgrounds at the six-days' fête. The courtiers began by paying Madame de Montespan the compliment of taking their morning meal in her newly finished bosket, the Marais, the beauty of which was now enhanced with garlands of flowers and many porcelain vases. Operas, plays, and fireworks now rang the changes once more, In front of the grotto Molière’s Malade Imaginaire was performed, and on the canal there were naval shows, while over all a fairy- like illumination shone into the black night, where suddenly all the fountains leapt into view, lighted by flames of many colours.


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