Blog: The Golden Garden at Versailles

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The Orangerie at Versailles is as stunning today as it was in the time of Louis XIV.

The most magnificent and extensive gardens the Western world has ever seen are located 12 miles outside Paris at Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. 

Louis identified with Apollo at a young age and adopted the sun as his emblem. In fact, he danced as Apollo in one of the more than 40 ballets he performed in as a youth.

The Sun King’s emblem was extensively used: inlaid into furniture and marble floors, woven into carpets and ballet costumes, wrought into gates and grilles, carved into marble vases for the gardens and into door panels of staterooms of the Palace.

Prior to 1661, King Louis XIII used Versailles as a hunting retreat.

In 1662, the young King Louis XIV decided to transform the Chateau. He expanded the 20,000-acre property to encompass 37,000 acres with 27 miles of fence and 20 monumental gates. 

Over a period of four decades, Versailles was transformed. Vast open terraces turned into bosky groves serving as outdoor rooms for Louis and his court. Terraces were decorated with ornamental flower gardens. Exquisite yew hedges were interspersed, exposing a variety of colored earths.

Sand walkways, long shady avenues, palisade hedges and gushing jets with hundreds of gilded statues spread out and adorned 230 acres, or about two-thirds of the size of Hyde Park in London. 

A network of reservoirs and canals extending 19 miles beyond the Palace fed water to more than 2,600 fountains at Versailles.

Andre Le Notre was the master gardener appointed in 1662 by Louis XIV to create his golden garden at Versailles. Over a period of 38 years, The Sun King and master gardener employed thousands of workers, including at least 20,000 infantrymen, to create the finest garden, to this day unsurpassed, on Earth.

Le Notre was a cultured individual and consummate courtier.

Versailles represented the King’s passion for gardens interwoven with his complicated love life and many military adventures. Each new garden was an indicator of new conquests in his bedchambers or on the battlefields.

The Sun King and his master gardener shared a mutual love of gardening, a life-long friendship and a gift of design foresight – they clearly understood one another’s language.

Le Notre believed that he was the luckiest man on the globe. A late bloomer, he was handed the opportunity to create the most lavish garden in the world.

Le Notre was an accomplished artist, trained in geometry, which enabled him to partition compartments in gardens. He was well versed in architecture, construction and arithmetic for creating budgets within proposals, essentially making him a modern-day landscape architect.

In 1662, when Le Notre first visited Versailles, he found that the site was a massive swampland with sandy soils and impenetrable layers of clay and marls keeping the water table very close to the surface. 

He drew upon his skills in geometry and earth-moving to conceive the garden at Versailles, walking the grounds thoroughly until he knew them intimately.

In order to drain the surface water, he created the Grand Canal – a vast cruciform water body one mile long covering the area of about 60 football fields.

Plants were sourced from throughout Western Europe: elms, poplars and limes from Flanders; Indian and sweet chestnuts from Vienna; hyacinths, tulips, roses and red-currents from Holland; jasmine from the Royal nursery in Toulon; tuberoses and daffodils from Turkey; oranges and carnations from Italy and Spain; and Scots pine and silver fir from Lapland.

Millions of trees – including hornbeams, maples, oaks, walnuts, hazels, sycamores, alders, birch and elms – were planted.

The Sun King had legions of men bring tens of thousands of mature trees, to be planted in clumps, to Versailles.

Louis XIV adored the mellifluous scent of orange blossoms. There was a vast orangery at Versailles and at least 2,600 mature orange trees were kept in large wooden boxes and moved around the garden so that the Sun King could always enjoy them. During the winter, they were wheeled back to the orangery for protection against damaging frosts.

Flowers were grown year-round at Versailles and also imported. Three hundred thousand pots were constantly rotated year-round and during the summer, 92,000 potted plants were changed every two weeks.

Fruits and vegetables were grown year-round at Versailles. Ingenious horticultural techniques were used including bell jars and hotbeds consisting of alternate layers of soil and manure for forcing vegetables and trailing fruits out of season. The gardens at Versailles produced a wonderful array of vegetables and fruits: peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, figs, melons, plums, strawberries, apples, cherries and Louis’ favorite vegetable – peas.

Le Notre lived a blameless life. He had no rivals that could be compared to him. A life-long devotion to his majesty and friend brought him over 300 medals and a fortune equivalent to $15 million. 

In 1790, 90 years after Le Notre’s death, George Washington sent Thomas Jefferson to Versailles. There he studied Le Notre’s use of axial geometries and long avenues connecting important buildings and monuments in order to fashion the new capital city of the fledgling democracy of the United States of America.

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist, educator and co-author of Life, The Wonder of It All.