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FRANCE: The Versailles gardens

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The earliest mention of the name of Versailles is in a document dated 1038, relating to the village of Versailles. In 1575, the seigneury of Versailles was bought by Albert de Gondi, a naturalized Florentine, who invited Louis XIII on several hunting trips in the forests surrounding Versailles.

Pleased with the location, Louis ordered the construction of a hunting lodge there in 1624. Eight years later, Louis obtained the seigneury of Versailles from the Gondi family and began to make enlargements to the château. This structure would become the core of his new palace.

Louis XIII's successor, Louis XIV, expanded the château into one of the largest palaces in the world and following the Treaties of Nijmegen in 1678, he began to gradually move the court to here. The court was officially established at versailles on 6 May 1682.

Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux (January 27, 1615 – March 23, 1680) was the Superintendent of Finances in France from 1653 until 1661, under King Louis XIV.

Fouquet was a hugely wealthy and powerful man and his estate was a clear statement of ambition, presided over by a giant, brooding statue of Hercules. It wasn't just a series of outdoor rooms where you could relax and entertain. This was a garden whose massive scale made it seem like a provocative political act.

On August 17th 1661 Nicolas Fouquet threw a party in the garden to celebrate the completion of the work at Vaux-le-Vicomte. He invited 6000 guests, amongst which was the 22 year old King Louis XIV.

The guests were bedazzelled by the slendour of the gardens, and the party was a triumph - except for one thing. The King was beside himself with fury at the arrogance of Fouquet showing that he was richer and potentially more powerful than himself. This became the undoing of Nicolas Fouquet.

He fell out of favour with the young king, and his extravagant displays of wealth at Vaux-le-Vicomte proved to be the last straw. Louis XIV had Fouquet’s imprisoned in 1661 and his estate confiscated. However, clearly impressed by the design and workmanship at and Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis XIV employed the talents of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun - who all had worked on Fouquet’s grand château, for his building works at Versailles.

His plan was to create a palace and garden bigger and better than anything seen at Vaux-le-Vicomte. It didn't stop there as Louis also took everything that had been admired at Fouquets garden party - including the statues and specimen plants!

The Palace of Versailles

At this time Versailles was still just a hunting lodge but with the work of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun it had been turned into a palace fit for a King. The Hall of Mirrors is the best introduction to Versailles. Light is caught and magnified in over 350 mirrors, and by the time it was finished in 1680 the palace had grown to over 700 rooms. From its windows you can gaze down onto the enormity of its grounds. Nearly 2000 acres of gardens stretching out to the far horizon.

The genius of the gardens designer - Le Nôtre was to take what was already there and expand and transform it. There was already an avenue running east to west, so he widened it and put in the vast canal straddled by clipped hedges either side. The flat water, and clipped hedges were a perfect expression of domination over nature. However, it wasn't considered suppression, but an expression of order, peace and harmony. However, to have these things you needed power, and to have them in a more dramatic way that anyone else in the world meant that Louis XIV - the Sun King, must have been the most powerful man in the world.

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Just as he had done at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Le Nôtre laid out a series of parterres - elaborate patterns of plant designed to be seen from above. Originally  parterres got their colour from ground glass, broken pots, coloured gravel, but increasingly flowering plants were being used.

As newly discovered specimens poured in from all over the world, more and more suitable plants were being used in parterre designs. Tulips for example, went from being incredibly precious to being increasingly common, and in fact there are stories of 150,000 thousand plants coming in to Versailles in order to fulfil Le Nôtre design ambitions. In one extreme case, a planting design was put in over night so that when Louis XIV woke up the next morning he was faced with an entirely new - and completed - colour scheme!

In order to cope with the demands of Le Nôtre, new nurseries had to be build in the south of France where exotic plants would come in to be trialled and grown on to see if they would be hardy and suitable enough to make their way up to the Versailles showcase.

The Orangerie

When the orangerie at Versailles was built, it was the biggest in Europe. There are over 1100 trees here and each one has to be bought out in the spring and back into the orangerie in the autumn to protect them from frost.

The style of containers used to grow the citrus here are know - at least in England - as Versailles planter, and they are indeed almost perfect for moving citrus about.

In Italy of course, terracotta pots are used, but over time surely some of them break. The same it true for the versailles planters, but these can be repaired endlessly due to their metal corners and oak side panels.

Versailles took everything that proceeded it and exaggerated it. There is just more at Versailles that anywhere else and it is still a byword for enormity it a garden. What we see today is not so very different to how it was in the 17th century. It is still full of people as it had to bein the days when the Royal court was here. In fact, they had no choise other than to be here so that Loius XIV could keep his eye on them.

Le Nôtre employed several devices to create a sense of scale and surprise, of which water was perhaps the most important which he used in vast reflective pools of light, and in a series of extraordinary fountains. The other was the use of dramatic alleys of tightly clipped trees.

The hedges at Versailles are particularly good and are mostly hornbeams. They lend themselves well to large hedges as they will grow very tall, but at the same time can be clipped incredibly tightly - almost pencil thin.

This allows for narrow passageways between hedges which creates fantastic drama and energy.

On either side of the central axis, Le Nôtre laid out a series of small woods contained by clipped hedges - known as a bosquet. Inside each of these bosquets is an entertainment or spectacle designed to be visited in turn as you make a grand tour for the gardens.

Le Nôtres last piece of work at Versailles was the Salle de Bal which was designed to be a dance theatre.

The magnificent cascades were merely a backdrop to ballet performances laid on for the Royal court.  Le Nôtre was in his 70's when he created his final baroque extravaganza.

Although his work was dramatic, Le Nôtre himself was a modest, self-effacing man. Every account of him has a tone not just of respect but of genuine affability.

People liked Le Nôtre, and by all accounts he was a good and decent man and remained the Kings friend until his death in 1700.

For related articles click onto:
FRANCE: The Versailles Gardens
FRANCE: The Palais des Papes
PARIS: The Eiffel Tower
PARIS: The Eiffel Tower
MARRAKECH: Marjorelle Gardens
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