The Landscape Guide


Saint-Simon thus writes of the beginnings of Marly in his Memoirs:

Louis the Fourteenth, lassé du beau and tired at last of the swarm of courtiers, persuaded himself that from time to time he needed a small place and solitude. He searched near Versailles for somewhere to satisfy this new taste, inspecting several sites and exploring the lovely banks of the Seine. At last he found a narrow valley behind Louveciennes, unapproachable because of its marshes, shut in by hills on every side, and very narrow. with a miserable village on one slope, which was called Marly.

So the hermitage was built. The plan was to spend there three nights only, from a Wednesday to a Saturday, two or three times a year, with a dozen or so courtiers for necessary attendance. But what actually happened [Saint-Simon continues], was that the hermitage was enlarged, building after building sprang up, hills were removed, and water-works and gardens were put in (Fig. 416).

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 It is no exaggeration to say that Versailles, as we saw it, did not cost as much as Marly. . . . It was the king’s bad taste in all things, and his proud delight, to force nature, and this could not be checked by the pressure of war, or by religion. 

Saint-Simon did not like the king; he had outgrown his former tastes, and poured bitter scorn on all the achievements of the grand siècle, But the works produced in the years between 1677 and 1684 in this marshy woodland valley, which later on fell a victim to the Revolution, leaving scarcely a trace behind, belong all the same to the most perfect achievements of the century. As Saint-Simon’s statement that Marly cost more than Versailles may cause surprise, the following quotation may be made:

Marly est devenue ce qu’on le voit encore . . cette prodigieuse machine, dont on vient de parler, avec ses immenses aqueducs, ses conduites et ses réservoirs monstrueux uniquement consacrée à Marly sans plus porter d’eau à Versailles; c’est peu de dire que Versailles tel qu’on l’a vu n’a pas coûté Marly. Si on ajoute les dépenses de ces continuels voyages . on ne dira point trop sur Marly seul en comptant par milliards.

The king had meant to build a hermitage, and he had in mind something like the one in the quiet solitude of the white house in the park at Gaillon; and even when Marly had grown to what it was in the end, he made a pretence of laying aside his royal majesty at the gates, or at any rate of replacing the etiquette left behind at Versailles with a new kind, specially made for this Buen Retiro. As a fact, the Duchess Liselotte was horrified at the want of formality that prevailed at Marly. Hers was a nature that had never cared to take part in that mixture of grandeur and frivolity, severe etiquette and passionate desire for novelty, which was the accepted programme of court life, though it was one that could be changed easily on another stage and in another setting. “ You no longer know where you are,” she said. “ If the king is going for a walk, everyone puts on his hat. If the Queen of Burgundy would walk, she takes the arm of one lady, and the others walk by the side, and nobody can see which she is. Here in the drawing-room we all sit in the presence of the Dauphin and the Duchess, and some actually lie at full length on the sofa. . . I find great difficulty in getting used to this confusion. You have no idea how things go on; it does not seem in the least like a court.”

It was a great honour to be taken out to Marly on these three-day expeditions, and the list of those invited was eagerly awaited. Many was the exact opposite of Trianon, with its blue porcelain and scented flowers. Elaborate parterres of flowers were not wanted at Marly, for they would not have suited the idea of a hermitage; and even the modest parterre which lay to the south of the castle was made with a sunk lawn and only a narrow ribbon of flowers.

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 The lay-out of the garden was not, in the main, unlike Versailles (Fig.417) ; here too there was a large show-garden, but it was all around a great water axis, and it filled out that narrow woodland valley of which Saint-Simon speaks. As a fact, the king, with the purpose of getting a view, had had a hill that barred the end of the sloping garden completely removed, and had demanded a whole regiment to do it. 

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The small castle is half-way up (Fig. 418), and behind it a great cascade passes grandly through the park, which is on rising ground to the south: this cascade ends in a pond of half-moon shape, whence there is a descent by the southern castle terrace (Fig.419). 

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From here you pass from terrace to terrace on wide convenient steps in front of the house. The middle of each terrace is marked by a pond and many beautiful fountains, le font des quatre gerbes, le grand jet, la nappe, and l’abreuvoir; and also a final one at the place where the hill was taken away.

On the great terrace stood the charming building of Mansart, rich in frescoes painted by Le Brun, Rousseau, and their pupils. It had a balustrade on the roof, and was only made big enough to accommodate the king’s own family. All the middle part and the top were used for the octagonal dining-hall, and round this were four small rooms. The idea, first conceived at the Trianon de Porcelaine, was thoroughly carried out here, where we also get the first complete example of a central building for pleasure-houses which yet has the character of a hermitage; and this was a pattern repeated endlessly in Europe in the eighteenth century.

On both sides of the house there were originally four basins adorned with faience, which later were supplanted by the so-called green cabinets (Fig. 417)—rooms hedged in greenery where the ladies plied their embroidery, and took their midnight meal (média noche) on festal days. The king’s honoured guests were put up in twelve little pavilions attached to the castle, decorated with frescoes and balustrades. They were always arranged as for a small household, and were interconnected by berceaux, which formed a semi- circle round the castle as far as the foot of the cascade. There were three other avenues separating these outrunning pavilions from the open terraces of the water-basins; first there came clipped yew, then leafy trees cut into globular shapes, and lastly an arti- ficially made portico (Figs. 417 and 418) of greenery. The eye passes over from the wide show-garden, designed for lively social gatherings, to small separate pavilions, out of which people could slip into quiet secluded groves (Fig. 420). 

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One of these, the Bosquet de Louveciennes on the east side, had within it a cascade champétre, an amphitheatre, Baths of Agrippina, and a Hall of the Muses (Figs. 417 and 421), all very attractive little places. 

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On the west side the Bosquet de Marly included a large tennis-court, other places for games, such as a toboggan run, a belvedere, etc. All these were in the park on the hill. We must now imagine this charming picture enlivened with a great many statues; even as late as 1753, when the Abbé Delagrive sketched out his plan, there were over two hundred works of sculpture, some of them masterpieces, as for example “ The Two Horse-Tamers “ by Coustou, which to-day adorns the entrance to the Champs Elysées, but formerly stood by the horse-pond (Fig. 422), and other works of Coysevox, now to be found in the Tuileries Gardens.

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At Marly, as elsewhere, Louis was perpetually altering something, first in one place, then in another, as long as he lived. He had scarcely achieved his first complete scheme, in 1684, when it was made the theatre of long-continued festivities of a splendid kind. In 1685 the marriage of the Duke of Bourbon-Condé with Madame de Nantes was the occasion of a great fair, where four stalls were set up to represent the four seasons. Two of these were reserved for the bride and bridegroom, the third for Madame de Montespan and the fourth for Madame de Maintenon. But Madame de Montespan probably saw for certain at this fête that her clever scheming rival had won the victory over her. She herself had persuaded Scarron’s widow to come to her as governess and nurse to her son; and slowly, step by step, Madame de Maintenon had contrived to make herself indispensable to the king. His triumphant faith in his own good fortune had been shattered by the miscarriage of his foreign policy; he had grown weary, and in this mood he came under the influence of a woman who had in all walks of life shown great ability as a teacher and a ruler. She was always unnoticed, yet she was master where- ever she came. But in one matter she had never been successful with the king—she had never made him economical, hard as she tried at Marly to check his everlasting alterations and embellishments.

Marly held its ground as long as the king was alive, but it fell into decay quickly during the Regency. The fact that it was not utterly destroyed—though the order was actually given—is due to the energetic protest of Saint-Simon, who represented to the Regent the incredible folly of such an intention. So Louis XV. more or less restored it to honour, and there were many fêtes held at the pretty country house; indeed when, on a day in October in the next reign, Louis XVI. was dragged from Versailles to Paris by a howling mob, preparations were actually being made at Marly for receiving the court at a fête. The storm of the Revolution raged over it and destroyed it so utterly that now in the quiet woodland valley nothing can be seen except here and there a straight avenue, a clump of trees, and in its last neglected state the horse-pond, the beautiful abreuvoir, to mark the spot where once stood a graceful work of art.

When one reads, in Dangeau’s writings, that the king found a palace “more beautiful than ever,” one must be prepared for great alterations, “Anything already there that cannot be improved must be destroyed, and something new must be made.” 

In this mood Louis XIV. found himself before the wonderful little erection of the Trianon de Porcelaine. Marly was ready in essentials, and Versailles was practically finished. But this little blue and white tea-house, with its waves of sweet flower scents, what more was it than one of the groves which the master had already cast aside? So he summoned Mansart, who was architect enough never to say no if anything was to be pulled down and rebuilt, and who knew how to entangle the king in projects that were constantly changed. Also it was an argument that Madame de Maintenon, now the actual wife, must not be made inferior to the discarded mistress, and he wanted to give her a little castle as a wedding present [ed: see note on weddings and gardens]. In short, Mansart was commissioned to pull down the porcelain house and to set another of marble in its place. Fifty-six sculptors at once set to work to prepare the necessary carvings. Trianon was to be a convenient garden-house:  it had only one story, and its gallery on the roof was decorated with vases and statues. The garden was approached immediately from the house.

The novel feature was a certain irregularity about the ground-plan, which apparently was liked (Fig,:423). 

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People seem to have begun to feel that a very strict axial line was rather oppressive. As at Clagny, you crossed two semicircular moats and passed into an inner court, but this one was formed by two wings, and divided the long main façade into three parts. The whole of the middle division adjoining the court was an open pillared hall, used by Louis in summer as a dining-room. It looks straight into the garden, which lies in the axial line with terrace parterres, boskets, and a fountain to mark the end. It is clear that in this place Mansart had no idea of repeating the plan of separate pavilions; but still the king was so used to living alone in his summer residences, that a guest wing had to be built apart, though connected with the main dwelling by a gallery. 

This part for guests joins the castle at right angles, and is on one side only, so that an open view can be left on the canal side; for here you had the second and most agreeable way out into the garden, whereas on the other side you climbed up on steps, round a semi- circular basin, to the second garden terrace. From the hill-slopes sweet scents were wafted from the flowers that covered them; and this was perhaps the same in the days of the old Trianon. The garden of the new Trianon was certainly rich in flowers, and there were very unusual and magnificent ones grown in the Jardin du Roi, which was really a giardino secreto, situated at the back of the right wing of the corps de logis, under the king’s windows.

The guest wing, known as Trianon-sous-bois, got its name from being in the middle of the side boskets, one of which was greatly admired by reason of a certain novelty in it. The Duchess Lieselotte, who at one time inhabited this wing, thus writes: “ One bosket is called Les Sources, and it is so dense that the sun cannot penetrate it even at midday. There are fifty springs, and more, with little streams scarcely a foot wide which you can easily step over. They make small grassy islands, just big enough to put tables and chairs on, so that you can work in the shade. There are steps down on both sides, for the whole place is slightly inclined. Water flows down these steps, and makes a water- fall on either side.” On the front of this wing an avenue leads beside the bosket to the cascade, which shuts off the path in the form of a so-called buffet, There are a great number of other beautiful fountains in the park, which stretches a long way farther on this side, and is also quite unsymmetrical. There can be no doubt that this garden was intentionally less enclosed, and treated more simply, so as not to bring it into competition with Versailles, which was near at hand; they took pains to keep a more distinctly country style with less conventionality.

If Le Nôtre busied himself generally with the plans for Trianon, this will have been one of the last things he did. He had now grown old, and his prince had shown him honour; he had ennobled him, and given him the Order of Saint-Michel. The old man appears to have kept his childlike pleasures to the end. When the king invited him to Marly shortly before his death, and let him ride beside him in one of the little wheeled chairs, Le Nôtre suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, my poor father, if only you were alive, and could see how your own son, a mere gardener, is driving in a carriage by the side of the greatest king in the world, there would be nothing wanting to my happiness.” One month after this he died, Saint-Simon writes about him: “Le Nôtre died in 1700, after a life of eighty-seven years passed in perfect health, intelligent and upright, with keen enjoyment of his own ability, and honoured because he designed the plans for those lovely gardens that are the glory of France, and that have extinguished the fame of Italian gardens, which are indeed nothing to compare with them; now all the most famous masters of this art come here from Italy, to learn and to admire, Le Nôtre was so candid, so trustworthy, and so upright that everyone respected and honoured him”.


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Marly le Roi The literal translation is 'Marly the King'