Versailles: A Landscape of Politics

aerial view, with view of garden facade  aerial view, focusing on trident

Palace: Charles Le Brun, Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart
Gardens: André Le Nôtre
major building campaign: 1668-85

The Gardens at Versailles

The 17th - century garden in France, not just the garden at Versailles, was almost as important as architecture. In part this was because the garden, perhaps more than any other art form, demonstrated two things: man's ability to tame and control nature, or the triumph of man over the environment, and the new scientific understanding of space as infinite.

At Versailles, the development of the gardens preceded that of the palace. A hunting lodge had been built there in the 1620s by Louis XIII.  Louis XIV developed the palace to royal dimensions, making it the center of his court and government.

The Italian renaissance garden was the model for the early design of the Versailles gardens by Le Nôtre. This model, true to the values of the Renaissance, was a geometric model, based on large square modules subdivided into smaller squares. Le Nôtre later departs from this order as his work on Versailles progresses.

garden at the Villa Medici la Petraia, Florence, 15th cent. parterres and view of Palace, garden facade

parterre de broderie: embroidered landscape

aerial map of Versailles gardens (palace and trident at bottom)

Le Nôtre's plan proceeds by defining three avenues forming a trident or trivium, leading to the palace.  He then adds fountains, canals, and several squares of carefully planted flowers. A cave (Grotto of Thetis), intended to represent the birthplace of Apollo, was added although later destroyed when the Versailles chapel was built. The garden contains multiple allusions to Apollo and Roman emperors in order to communicate the message that Louis XIV was not only as glorious as the Sun God but enjoyed a status equal to that of the greatest emperors of all time.

central palace block, garden facade

The flower beds have coordinated color patterns in intricate configurations, suggesting a parallel to embroidery work and giving them the name "parterres de broderie" (emboridered landscape). The combination of axiality (made by the continuation of the Avenue of Paris in the central canal through the garden), geometric modular design, and a planned and intricate use of color leads to the sense of these gardens as being "gardens of intelligence."  As rational, ordered, intellectual experiences of nature, the gardens maintain a tie to the classical Renaissance spirit.  The more dramatic and "irrational" areas of the garden reflect the baroque interest in creating emotional and theatrical experiences.  Several pictures below communicate the aesthetic of these gardens as a series of planned and unplanned encounters with symbols of the king, with nature, and with infinity.

Apollo Fountain, Jean-Baptise Tuby, 1668-70 Apollo Fountain
sculpture of Apollo's bath, made for the Grotto of Thetis, marble and rocaille, life-sized (Francois Girardon, 1666-75) Latona Fountain, 1668-86

There is also a baroque side to the gardens: they literally became theaters, or stage-sets, for the dramas and spectacles of court life and the royalty, as well as for performances of true plays. These festivities, however, were not conceived for the purpose of amusement. Versailles was the incarnation of paradise, or at least, that was what Louis wanted the French nobles to think. As paradise on earth, it was the site of ceremonies and festivals, to which Louis would invite nobles, tempt them with the offer of a wonderful life, lead them into a life of debauchery, which would then make them ineffective, at least in the sense that they would not challenge the authority of Louis.

In addition to this "theater of politics," it was and is a setting conceived for the presence of the visitor who walks through paths to arrive at bridges and moats which of course cannot be seen until reached, to receive glimpses of the palace, and glimpses of distant parts of the garden, freestanding arcades which hint at the palace but are not a part of it.

The gardens are an example of baroque art for several reasons.  They are painterly, through the use of dramatic effects of light and shadow cast by the natural forms and sculptural (again through the natural forms) and they incorporate surprising vistas made through the contrast between visions of indefinite and infinite expansion into the distance as opposed to the enclosing and disorienting space of the labyrinths.  In other words, the overall effect of the gardens is both transcendence and "vanitas"--an anamorphic experience made into a garden.  They are also baroque because they are the setting for this theater of politics. Versailles, in its gardens and palace, communicates a visual story of power.  Finally, they are the living version of the "grand manner" landscape painting (paintings such as Nicolas Poussin's two paintings about the burial of Phocion).

The "grand manner" landscape in painting

Nicolas Poussin: The Burial of Phocion, 1648 (approx. 4' x 6') Claude Lorrain: Landscape with Cattle and Peasants, 1629, 3'6 x 4'10

We have only to look at the dates to recognize that these paintings were not influenced by Versailles, but what they may tell us is that in both cases (paintings and garden), the Baroque vision of allegory, of the dynamic between nature and human control, and theatricality was manifested. Likewise, Poussin and Claude do not offer us identical visions of the "grand manner" landscape and we should probably not be surprised to learn that their influences on later generations of artists were not identical. Poussin's influence will be felt more strongly by neo-classical artists, along with philosophers who "read" moral lessons in his paintings in both cases because they, like Poussin, believed that the paintings should be carefully composed to communicate important values. As a result, although his landscapes are naturalistically rendered, they are not "real." His later landscapes, near the end of his life, become very poetic, as he continues to believe that the viewer should read the painting but the lessons themselves become less philosophical and moral, and more imagined. Claude's interest was more purely in the landscape as landscape (rather than the site of a political message) and his influence will be felt in particular by American landscape painters of the 19th century.

The Palace of Versailles

aerial view, garden facade central block, garden facade

In 1668, expansion of the original hunting chateau already located on the site was begun. The basic plan for the palace was that of two u-shaped wings, one for the king and one for the queen, with a long gallery between them and a terrace on top. The queen had to have quarters that were equal to those of the king because she had inherited the Spanish throne and was a queen in her own right, a true equal to Louis. Although the space was treated equally, the messages which the ornamentation communicated were not the same. The King's stairs, known as the Staircase of the Ambassadors, was a long ceremonial staircase. On the first landing, there was a niche with a fountain, a sculpture of the birth of Apollo, and above that, a bust of Louis. There were also illusionist paintings in the architectural niches which created the sense of looking outdoors and onto ceremonial scenes. The intention was to impress visitors with the power of Louis. The Queen's staircase, located on the other side, was less propagandistic than the king's, but opulent, with exotic marbles and gilding.

Salon de Guerre (War Chamber), 1678 Hardoun-Mansart and Le Brun: the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces), beg. 1678, approx. 240' long

The Salon de la Guerre glorified Louis as a warrior and as the leader of a nation which was victorious in battle. This room was dominated by a marble relief of Louis as an equestrian knight, derived from ancient roman images of emperors.  The Hall of Mirrors was created during a later expansion. The mirrors on one side of the gallery echo the arched windows on the other, creating an effect of layers of reality and unreality. In that sense, it may be very baroque with the baroque qualities of light and infinite expansion again being used to create an image of power -- a goal that may not have been that distant from Bernini's colonnade for St. Peters, with its goal of framing the church as the source of power in the western world. Yet at St. Peter's, exterior and interior, the dominant theme is the co-existence of two realms (secular and sacred) and the possibility of movement from one to the other.  At Versailles, the dominant theme is the extension of power into infinity, rather than an interchange between the sacred and the secular.

Hardoun-Mansart: Versailles Royal Chapel, 1698-1710, apse fresco by Charles de la Fosse: Resurrection of Christ  ceiling fresco in the chapel, by Antoine Coypel: God the Father in Glory 

The chapel continues the theme of the power of Louis using traditional Christian iconography, suggesting an interchange in this case which is more grandiose than simply Louis as Sun God.

The 18th century saw the addition of several buildings to the gardens, buildings which repeat some of the features of the palace on a smaller scale (Grand Trianon), and buildings which seem to be modeled on Palladio's villas (Petit Trianon). The conglomerate of trees, fountains, buildings on different scales, all contribute to the sense of Versailles as a city in and of itself. More than a city, the repetitions with uniformity suggest endlessness and infinite expansion, again the symbolic message of the power of Versailles.

As a unified composition, the components of Versailles -- garden, palace and city -- are united and held together through a gigantic axis of symmetry, the Avenue of Paris, which leads from the park areas, to and symbolically, at least, through the center of the palace, with Louis' bedroom located on the axis. The road continues through the palace and garden seemingly to the rest of the world. Ultimately the road projects the illusion that Louis controls Paris and the earth; he is the Sun King, radiating his power over the earth.

Hyacinth Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701

The Rigaud portrait gives us the leader in a solidly architectural setting, flooded with velveted and richly colored surfaces, a king who stands securely and confidently, displaying his legs almost as grandly as he indicates his crown with his scepter.  His face is not as pompous as we might expect, and the softness of the velvety satiny surfaces, along with the suggested softness of his face (and the dainty elegance of his legs), tends to undercut what could have been a harsh and more objective portrait.  But perhaps this needs to be understood not only in the context of the person in the painting but in light of the fact that by 1701, the baroque style was being replaced by the rococo: a style of elegance used to portray "fantasy" worlds of love and leisure.  We might also make note of the fact that the king had studied dance (not only for social reasons but because it improved his physical agility) and he liked to perform.