The Gardens of Versaille occupy part of what was once the Domaine royale de Versailles, the royal demesne of the château of Versailles. Situated to the west of the palace, the gardens cover some 800 hectares of land, much of which is landscaped in the classic French Garden style perfected here by André Le Nôtre. Beyond the surrounding belt of woodland, the gardens are bordered by the urban areas of Versailles to the east and Le Chesnay to the north-east, by the National Arboretum de Chèvreloup to the north, the Versailles plain (a protected wildlife preserve) to the west, and by the Satory Forest to the south.
As part of le domaine national de Versailles et de Trianon, an autonomous public entity operating under the aegis of the French Ministry of Culture, the gardens are now one of the most visited public sites in France, receiving more than six million visitors a year.
In addition to the meticulous manicured lawns, parterres of flowers, and sculptures are the fountains, which are located throughout the garden. Dating from the time of Louis XIV and still using much of the same network of hydraulics as was used during the Ancien Régime, the fountains contribute to making the gardens of Versailles unique. On weekends from late spring to early autumn, the administration of the museum sponsors the Grandes Eaux – spectacles during which all the fountains in the gardens are in full play.
In 1979, the gardens along with the château were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of thirty-one such designations in France.
From the central window of the Hall of Mirrors unfolds, under the eye of the visitors, the great perspective that leads the gaze of the Water Parterre towards the horizon. This original east-west axis, prior to the reign of Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre was pleased to develop and extend it by widening the royal alley and digging the Grand Canal.
In 1661, Louis XIV entrusted André Le Nôtre with the creation and development of the gardens of Versailles which, in his eyes, were as important as the Château . The works are undertaken at the same time as those of the palace and last about forty years. But André Le Nôtre does not work alone. Jean-Baptiste Colbert , superintendent of the King’s buildings, from 1664 to 1683, directs the construction site; Charles Le Brun , appointed First Painter of the King in January 1664, gives the drawings of a large number of statues and fountains; finally, the King himself is subject to all projects and wants the “detail of everything”. A little later, architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who became the King’s first architect and Superintendent of Buildings, built the Orangery and made the Parc’s layout more simple, notably by modifying or opening up certain groves.
The creation of gardens requires a gigantic work. Huge “earthworks” are necessary to level the spaces, to develop the flower beds, to build the Orangery , to dig the basins and the Canal, where only woods, meadows and swamps existed. The trees are already grown large since many provinces of France; thousands of men, sometimes whole regiments, participate in this vast enterprise.
To remain legible, the garden must be replanted approximately every hundred years. Louis XVI is in charge at the beginning of his reign. The next replantation takes place under Napoleon III . After a number of storms in late XX th century, including that of December 1999 , the most devastating, the garden is fully planted. It currently offers a youthful appearance, comparable to that experienced by Louis XIV.
André Le Nôtre began transforming the park and gardens of Versailles in the early 1660s. They are the finest example of the jardin à la française, or the French formal garden. They were originally designed to be viewed from the terrace on the west side of the palace, and to create a grand perspective that reached to the horizon, illustrating the king’s complete dominance over nature.
The Parterre d’Eau and the Parterre and Fountain of Latona
The features closest to the Palace are the two water parterres, large pools which reflect the facade of the palace. These are decorated with smaller works of sculpture, representing the rivers of France, which are placed so as not to interfere with the reflections in the water. Down a stairway from the Parterre d’Eau is the Latona Fountain, created in 1670, illustrating the story of Latona taken from the Metamorphoses of Ovid. According to the story, when the peasants of Lycia insulted Latona, the mother of Apollo and Diana, the god Jupiter transformed the peasants into frogs. The fountain was begun in 1670 by Le Nôtre, then enlarged and modified by Hardouin-Mansart, who placed the statue of Latona atop a marble pyramid.
Fountain of the Chariot of Apollo and the Grand Canal
The Grand Perspective of the palace continues from the Fountain of Latona south along a grassy lane, the Tapis Vert or green carpet, to the Basin of the Chariot of Apollo. Apollo, the sun god, was the emblem of Louis XIV, featured in much of the decoration of the palace. The chariot rising from the water symbolized the rising of the sun. It was designed by Le Brun and made by the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Tuby between 1668 and 1670, cast in iron and then gilded. Beyond the fountain, the Grand Canal extends 1800 meters to the south end of the park.
North Parterre, Dragon Basin, and Basin of Neptune
Another group of formal gardens is located on the north side of the water parterre. It includes two bosquets or groves: the grove of the Three Fountains, The Bosquet of the Arch of Triumph, and north of these, three major fountains, the Pyramid Fountain, Dragon Fountain, and the Neptune Fountain. The fountains in this area all have a maritime or aquatic theme; the Pyramid Fountain is decorated with Tritons, Sirens, dolphins and nymphs. The Dragon Fountain is one of the oldest at Versailles and has the highest jet of water, twenty-seven meters. It is not actually a dragon, but a python, a mythical serpent that was killed by Apollo. The Neptune Fountain was originally decorated only with a circle of large lead basins jetting water; Louis XV added statues of Neptune, Triton and other gods of the sea.
South Parterre and the Orangerie
The South Parterre is located beneath the windows of the queen’s apartments and on the roof of the Orangerie. It is decorated with box trees and flowers in arabesque patterns. The underground orangerie was designed to hold over a thousand citrus fruit, palms and oleanders, and other southern-climate trees during winter. They are taken out into the gardens from mid-May until mid-October.
With Louis XIII’s final purchase of lands from Jean-François de Gondi in 1632 and his assumption of the seigneurial role of Versailles in the 1630s, formal gardens were laid out west of the château. Records indicate that late in the decade Claude Mollet and Hilaire Masson designed the gardens, which remained relatively unchanged until the expansion ordered under Louis XIV in the 1660s. This early layout, which has survived in the so-called Du Bus plan of c.1662, shows an established topography along which lines of the gardens evolved. This is evidenced in the clear definition of the main east-west and north-south axis that anchors the gardens’ layout.
In 1661, after the disgrace of the finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, who was accused by rivals of embezzling crown funds in order to build his luxurious château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis XIV turned his attention to Versailles. With the aid of Fouquet’s architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, Louis began an embellishment and expansion program at Versailles that would occupy his time and worries for the remainder of his reign.
From this point forward, the expansion of the gardens of Versailles followed the expansions of the château. Accordingly, Louis XIV’s building campaigns apply to the gardens as well. At every stage the prescribed tour was carefully managed, under the Sun King’s directions.
First building campaign
In 1662, minor modifications to the château were undertaken; however, greater attention was given to developing the gardens. Existing bosquets and parterres were expanded and new ones created. Most significant among the creations at this time were the Orangerie and the Grotte de Thétys (Nolhac 1901, 1925).
The Versailles Orangery, which was designed by Louis Le Vau, was located south of the château, a situation that took advantage of the natural slope of the hill. It provided a protected area in which orange trees were kept during the winter months (Nolhac 1899, 1902).
The Grotte de Thétys, which was located to the north of the château, formed part of the iconography of the château and of the gardens that aligned Louis XIV with solar imagery. The grotto would be completed during the second building campaign (Verlet 1985).
By 1664, the gardens had evolved to the point that Louis XIV inaugurated the gardens with the fête galante called “Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée”. The event, which officially was to celebrate his mother, Anne d’Autriche, and his consort Marie-Thérèse but in reality celebrated Louise de La Vallière, Louis’ mistress, was held in May of that year. Guests were regaled with fabulous entertainments in the gardens over a period of one week. As a result of this fête – particularly the lack of housing for guests (most of them had to sleep in their carriages), Louis realized the shortcomings of Versailles and began to expand the château and the gardens once again (Verlet, 1961, 1985).
Second building campaign
Between 1664 and 1668, a flurry of activity was evidenced in the gardens – especially with regard to fountains and new bosquets; it was during this time that the imagery of the gardens consciously exploited Apollo and solar imagery as metaphors for Louis XIV. Le Vau’s enveloppe of the Louis XIII’s château provided a means by which, though the decoration of the garden façade, imagery in the decors of the grands appartements of the king and queen formed a symbiosis with the imagery of the gardens (Lighthart, 1997; Mâle, 1927).
With this new phase of construction, the gardens assumed the topographical and iconological design vocabulary that would remain in force until the 18th century. As André Félibien noted in his description of Versailles, solar and apollonian themes predominated with projects constructed at this time: “Since the sun was the emblem of Louis XIV, and that poets join the sun and Apollo, there is nothing in this superb house that does not relation to this divinity.” (Félibien, 1674).
Three additions formed the topological and symbolic nexus of the gardens during this phase of construction: the completion of the Grotte de Thétys, the Bassin de Latone, and the Bassin d’Apollon.
Grotte de Thétys
Started in 1664 and finished in 1670 with the installation of the statuary by the Gilles Guérin, François Girardon, Thomas Regnaudin, Gaspard Marsy, and Balthazar Marsy, the grotto formed an important symbolic and technical component to the gardens. Symbolically, the Grotte de Thétys related to the myth of Apollo – and by that association to Louis XIV. It was as the cave of the sea nymph, Thetis, where Apollo rested after driving his chariot to light the sky. The grotto was a freestanding structure located just north of the château. The interior, which was decorated with shell-work to represent a sea cave, contained the statue group by the Marsy brothers depicting the sun god attended by nereids (central grouping) and his horses being groomed by attendants of Thetis (the two accompanying statue groups). Originally, these statues were set in three individual niches in the grotto and were surrounded by various fountains and water features (Marie 1968; Nolhac 1901, 1925; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
Technically, the Grotte de Thétys played a critical role in the hydraulic system that supplied water to the garden. The roof of the grotto supported a reservoir that stored water pumped from the Clagny pond and which fed the fountains lower in the garden via gravity.
Bassin de Latone
Located on the east-west axis just west and below the Parterre d’Eau, is the Bassin de Latone. Designed by André Le Nôtre, sculpted by Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy, and constructed between 1668–1670, the fountain depicted an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Latona and her children, Apollo and Diana, being tormented with mud slung by Lycian peasants, who refused to let her and her children drink from their pond, appealed to Jupiter who responded by turning the Lycians into frogs. This episode from mythology has been seen by historians in reference as an allegory to the revolts of the Fronde, which occurred during the minority of Louis XIV. The link between Ovid’s story and this episode from French history is emphasized by the reference to “mud slinging” in a political context. The revolts of the Fronde – the word fronde also means slingshot – have been regarded as the origin of the use of the term “mud slinging” in a political context (Berger, 1992; Marie, 1968, 1972, 1976; Nolhac, 1901; Thompson, 2006; Verlet, 1961, 1985; Weber, 1981).
Further along the east-west axis is the Bassin d’Apollon – the Apollo Fountain. Occupying the site of Rondeau/Bassin des Cygnes of Louis XIII, the Apollo Fountain, which was constructed between 1668 and 1671, depicts the sun god driving his chariot to light the sky. The fountain forms a focal point in the garden and serves as a transitional element between the gardens of the Petit Parc and the Grand Canal (Marie 1968; Nolhac 1901, 1925; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
With a length of 1,500 metres and a width of 62 metres, the Grand Canal, which was built between 1668 and 1671, physically and visually prolongs the east-west axis to the walls of the Grand Parc. During the Ancien Régime, the Grand Canal served as a venue for boating parties. In 1674, as a result of a series of diplomatic arrangements that benefited Louis XIV, the king ordered the construction of Petite Venise – Little Venice. Located at the junction of the Grand Canal and the junction of the northern transversal branch, Little Venice housed the caravels and yachts that were received from The Netherlands and the gondolas and gondoliers received as gifts from the Doge of Venice, hence the name (Marie 1968; Nolhac 1901, 1925; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
Above and beyond the decorative and festive aspects of this garden feature, the Grand Canal also served a practical role. Situated at a low point in the gardens, it collected water it drained from the fountains in the garden above. Water from the Grand Canal was pumped back to the reservoir on the roof of the Grotte de Thétys via a network of windmill-powered and horse-powered pumps (Thompson 2006).
Situated above the Latona Fountain is the terrace of the château, known as the Parterre d’Eau. Forming a transitional element from the château to the gardens below and placed on the north-south axis of the gardens, the Parterre d’Eau provided a setting in which the imagery and symbolism of the decors of the grands appartements synthesized with the iconography of the gardens. In 1664, Louis XIV commissioned a series of statues intended to decorate the water feature of the Parterre d’Eau. The Grande Commande, as the commission is known, comprised twenty-four statues of the classic quaternities and four additional statues depicting abductions from the classic past (Berger I, 1985; Friedman, 1988,1993; Hedin, 1981–1982; Marie, 1968; Nolhac, 1901; Thompson, 2006; Verlet, 1961, 1985; Weber, 1981).
Evolution of the Bosquets
One of the distinguishing features of the gardens during the second building campaign was the proliferation of bosquets. Expanding the layout established during the first building campaign, Le Nôtre added or expanded on no fewer that ten bosquets: The Bosquet du Marais in 1670; the Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau, Île du Roi and Miroir d’Eau, the Salle des Festins (Salle du Conseil), the Bosquet des Trois Fontaines in 1671; the Labyrinthe and the Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1672; the Bosquet de la Renommée (Bosquet des Dômes) and the Bosquet de l’Encélade in 1675; and the Bosquet des Sources in 1678 (Marie 1972, 1976; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
In addition to the expansion of existing bosquets and the construction of new ones, there were two additional projects that defined this era, the Bassin des Sapins and the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses.
Bassin des Sapins
In 1676, the Bassin des Sapins, which was located north of the château below the Parterre du Nord and the Allée des Marmousets was designed to form a topological pendant along the north-south axis with the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses located at the base of the Satory hill south of the château. Later modifications in the garden would transform this fountain into the Bassin de Neptune (Marie 1972, 1975; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
Pièce d’Eau des Suisses
Excavated in 1678, the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses – named for the Swiss Guard who constructed the lake – occupied an area of marshes and ponds, some of which had been used to supply water for the fountains in the garden. This water feature, with a surface area of more than 15 hectares, is the second largest – after the Grand Canal – at Versailles (Marie 1972, 1975; Nolhac 1901, 1925; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
Third building campaign
Modifications in the gardens during the third building campaign were distinguished by a stylistic change from the natural esthetic of André Le Nôtre to the architectonic style of Jules Hardouin Mansart. The first major modification to the gardens during this phase occurred in 1680 when the Tapis Vert – the expanse of lawn that stretches between the Latona Fountain and the Apollo Fountain – achieved its final size and definition under the direction of André Le Nôtre (Nolhac 1901; Thompson 2006).
Beginning in 1684, the Parterre d’Eau was remodeled under the direction of Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Statues from the Grande Commande of 1674 were relocated to other parts of the garden; two twin octagonal basins were constructed and decorated with bronze statues representing the four main rivers of France. In the same year, Le Vau’s Orangerie, located to south of the Parterrre d’Eau was demolished to accommodate a larger structure designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart. In addition to the Orangerie, the Escaliers des Cent Marches, which facilitated access to the gardens from the south, to the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses, and to the Parterre du Midi were constructed at this time, giving the gardens just south of the château their present configuration and decoration.
Additionally, to accommodate the anticipated construction of the Aile des Nobles – the north wing of the château – the Grotte de Thétys was demolished (Marie 1968, 1972, 1976; Nolhac 1899, 1901, 1902, 1925).
With the construction of the Aile des Nobles (1685–1686), the Parterre du Nord was remodeled to respond to the new architecture of this part of the château. To compensate for the loss of the reservoir on top of the Grotte de Thétys and to meet the increased demand for water, Jules Hardouin-Mansart designed new and larger reservoirs situated due north of the Aile des Nobles (Thompson 2006). Construction for the ruinously expensive Canal de l’Eure was inaugurated in 1685; designed by Vauban it was intended to bring waters of the Eure over 80 kilometres, including aqueducts of heroic scale, but the works were abandoned in 1690: see “The Problem of water” below.
Between 1686 and 1687, the Bassin de Latone, under the direction of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, was rebuilt. It is this final version of the fountain that one sees today at Versailles (Hedin 1992; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985) .
During this phase of construction, three of the garden’s major bosquets were modified or created. Beginning with the Galerie des Antiques, this bosquet was constructed in 1680 on the site of the earlier and short-lived Galerie d’Eau (1678). This bosquet was conceived as an open-air gallery in which antique statues and copies acquired by the Académie de France in Rome were displayed. The following year, construction began on the Salle de Bal. Located in a secluded section of the garden west of the Orangerie, this bosquet was designed as an amphitheater that featured a cascade – the only one surviving in the gardens of Versailles. The Salle de Bal was inaugurated in 1685 with a ball hosted by the Grand Dauphin. Between 1684 and 1685, Jules Hardouin-Mansart built the Colonnade. Located on the site of Le Nôtre’s Bosquet des Sources, this bosquet featured a circular peristyle formed from thirty-two arches with twenty-eight fountains and was Hardouin-Mansart’s most architectural of the bosquets built in the gardens of Versailles (Marie 1972, 1976; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985)
Fourth building campaign
Due to financial constraints arising from the War of the League of Augsburg and the War of the Spanish Succession, no significant work on the gardens was undertaken until 1704. Between 1704 and 1709, bosquets were modified, some quite radically, with new names suggesting the new austerity that characterized the latter years of Louis XIV’s reign (Marie 1976; Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985)
With the departure of the king and court from Versailles in 1715 following the death of Louis XIV, the palace and gardens entered an era of uncertainty. In 1722, Louis XV and the court returned to Versailles. Seeming to heed his great-grandfather’s admonition not to engage in costly building campaigns, Louis XV did not undertake the costly building campaigns at Versailles that Louis XIV had. During the reign of Louis XV, the only significant addition to the gardens was the completion of the Bassin de Neptune (1738–1741) (Marie 1984; Verlet 1985).
Rather than expend resources on modifying the gardens at Versailles, Louis XV – an avid botanist – directed his efforts at Trianon. In the area now occupied by the Hameau de la Reine, Louis XV constructed and maintained les jardins botaniques – the botanical gardens. In 1750, the year in which les jardins botaniques were constructed, the Jardinier-Fleuriste, Claude Richard (1705–1784), assumed administration of the botanical gardens. In 1761, Louis XV commissioned Ange-Jacques Gabriel to build the Petit Trianon as a residence that would allow him to spend more time near the jardins botaniques. It was at the Petit Trianon that Louis XV fell fatally ill with smallpox; on 10 May 1774, the king died at Versailles (Marie, 1984; Thompson, 2006).
Upon Louis XVI’s ascension to the throne, the gardens of the Versailles underwent a transformation that recalled the fourth building campaign of Louis XIV. Engendered by a change in outlook as advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Philosophes, the winter of 1774-1775 witnessed a complete replanting of the gardens. Trees and shrubbery dating from the reign of Louis XIV were felled or uprooted with the intent of transforming the jardins français of Le Nôtre and Hardouin-Mansart into an English-style garden.
The attempt to convert Le Nôtre’s masterpiece into an English-style garden failed to achieve its desired goal. Owing largely to the topology of the land, the English esthetic was abandoned and the gardens replanted in the French style. However, with an eye on economy, Louis XVI ordered the palissades – the labour-intensive clipped hedging that formed walls in the bosquets – to be replaced with rows of lime trees or chestnut trees. Additionally, a number of the bosquets dating from the time of the Sun King were extensively modified or destroyed. The most significant contribution to the gardens during the reign of Louis XVI was the Grotte des Bains d’Apollon. The rockwork grotto set in an English style bosquet was the masterpiece of Hubert Robert in which the statues from the Grotte de Thétys were placed (Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
In 1792, under order from the National Convention, some of the trees in gardens were felled, while parts of the Grand Parc were parceled and dispersed. Sensing the potential threat to Versailles, Louis Claude Marie Richard (1754–1821) – director of the jardins botaniques and grandson of Claude Richard – lobbied the government to save Versailles. He succeeded in preventing further dispersing of the Grand Parc and threats to destroy the Petit Parc were abolished by suggesting that the parterres could be used to plant vegetable gardens and that orchards could occupy the open areas of the garden. Fortunately, these plans were never put into action; however, the gardens were opened to the public – it was not uncommon to see people washing their laundry in the fountains and spreading it on the shrubbery to dry (Thompson 2006).
The Napoleonic era largely ignored Versailles. In the château, a suite of rooms was arranged for the use of the empress Marie-Louise; but the gardens were left unchanged, save for the disastrous felling trees in the Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Bosquet des Trois Fontaines. Massive soil erosion necessitated planting of new trees (Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
With the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, the gardens of Versailles witnessed the first modifications since the Revolution. In 1817, Louis XVIII ordered the conversion of the Île du roi and the Miroir d’Eau into an English-style garden – the Jardin du roi (Thompson 2006).
The July Monarchy; The Second Empire
While much of the chateau’s interior was irreparably altered to accommodate the Museum to all the Glories of France (inaugurated by Louis-Philippe, 10 June 1837), the gardens, by contrast, remained untouched. With the exception of the state visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1855, at which time the gardens were a setting for a gala fête that recalled the fêtes of Louis XIV, Napoléon III ignored the château, preferring instead the château of Compiègne (Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
Pierre de Nolhac
With the arrival of Pierre de Nolhac as director of the museum in 1892, a new era of historical research began at Versailles. Nolhac, an ardent archivist and scholar, began to piece together the history of Versailles, and subsequently established the criteria for restoration of the château and preservation of the gardens, which are ongoing to this day (Thompson 2006; Verlet 1985).
Replantations of the garden
Common to any long-lived garden is replantation, and Versailles is no exception. In their history, the gardens of Versailles have undergone no less than five major replantations, which have been executed for practical and aesthetic reasons.
During the winter of 1774-1775, Louis XVI ordered the replanting of the gardens on the grounds that many of the trees were diseased or overgrown and needed to be replaced. Also, as the formality of the 17th-century garden had fallen out of fashion, this replantation sought to establish a new informality in the gardens – that would also be less expensive to maintain – of Versailles. This, however, was not achieved as the topology of the gardens favored the jardins français over an English-style garden. Then, in 1860, much of the old growth from Louis XVI’s replanting was removed and replaced. In 1870, a violent storm struck the area damaging and uprooting scores of trees, which necessitated a massive replantation program. However, owing to the Franco-Prussian War, which toppled Napoléon III, and the Commune de Paris, replantation of the garden did not get underway until 1883 (Thompson, 2006).
The most recent replantations of the gardens were precipitated by two storms that battered Versailles in 1990 and then again in 1999. The storm damage at Versailles and Trianon amounted to the loss of thousands of trees – the worst such damage in the history of Versailles. The replantations have allowed museum and governmental authorities to restore and rebuild some of the bosquets abandoned during the reign of Louis XVI, such as the Bosquet des Trois Fontaines, which was restored in 2004. (Thompson, 2006).
Owing to the natural cycle of replantations that has occurred at Versailles, it is safe to state that no trees dating from the time of Louis XIV are to be found in the gardens.