A discussion of French gardens invariably brings up the name Versailles. Everyone know of this grandiose palace of King Louis XIV, and when I was planning to go visit Paris for a weekend last year, I can’t even count how many times I was told to go visit, and how many times I had to disappoint people when, on my return, I told them I hadn’t been able to.
But why is Versailles so special, so important? Of course, it is a beautiful palace with beautiful gardens, but there is something more, something that makes it significant in the history of gardens and in the history of France. And most of this “something more” stems back to King Louis XIV himself, and his intentions when building Versailles.
Firstly, and most obviously, Versailles was built to show off the King’s power. The King, in 17th century France, was considered to be directly chosen by God, and thus, in essence, nearly divine, and through the plans of the palace and the garden, it is evident that King Louis XIV took this very seriously. When Louis made his plans to build Versailles, his architects were at a loss, since the site was entirely a marshland. By creating this masterpiece on a supposedly “unbuildable” piece of land, Louis was showing that he had power over nature (and thus, in a sense, was equal – or above – God). He continued this comparison with the divine buy placing statues of Apollo throughout the garden – and since Apollo was the sun god, and Louis the Sun King, the appropriate connection can be drawn. One of the fountains shows Apollo’s mother turning into frogs the villagers who had refused to serve them water, and another, at the far end of the garden, contains a statue of Apollo rising from the water on his chariot.
Through this, Louis was also showing off his massive wealth. The Apollo fountains were just two of 1400 total in the garden, which in total used seven times more water in one day than the city of Paris. Because of this, the fountains were only turned on as the King and his courtiers walked through the gardens, and off again once he had passed by. From the fountains, to the rest of the gardens, to the palace itself, Versailles is a grand display of royal wealth.
If the King is this great, then that must mean that France is pretty great too, right? At least, this is the logic that Louis hoped people followed when they saw the majesty of Versailles. As the King, he was, in a sense, the human representation of his country, and so if the King’s main palace is so grandiose and elegant, that reflected upon the state of France as well.
Finally, the underlying purpose of Versailles was that of a gilded cage – a place to keep all the King’s courtiers under one roof and Louis’s watchful eye, under the pretext of accessibility and protection. To keep them there, he entertained them with theaters, concert halls, pleasure gardens, and fireworks. But this was not only a physical control – it was psychological as well. Louis encouraged gossip amongst the courtiers, discussing this lord or that lady, and in this way kept them busy creating petty intrigue amongst themselves, and not plotting against him. He also turned every aspect of his day – from getting dressed in the morning, to dinner in the evening – into a highly involved ritual for all the nobles, thus making his courtiers focus on the small, inconsequential things, instead of the actual, larger matters of state.
In this way Versailles became the social and political center of Louis XIV’s France: a stunning garden and palace, with an infinite host of meanings and purposes. And even today, it continues to hold significance in the history of France and of gardening.