The usefulness of gardens as historical archives: Louis XIV and the gardens of Versailles

By Hanneke Stegen, Bachelor of Arts student, The University of Waikato

Earlier this year I undertook a research paper in History at the University of Waikato, supervised by Dr Kate Stevens. Inspired by a trip to the Hamilton Gardens, I focused my essay on debating the usefulness of gardens as historical archives. I directed my research on the gardens of Versailles during the reign of King Louis XIV. Below is an excerpt from my final essay.

Within the gardens of Versailles, there is a veiled message etched into The Fountain of a Slave or L’Encelade.[1] This fountain illustrates the classical myth of a giant in bondage to the earth.[2] Seeking his freedom, he grasps in vain to raise himself from a force greater than his own strength.[3] It was the will of nature and the natural order that destines him to failure.[4] The message is clear; those who nature predestines to rise will—all others are doomed to fail.[5]

The Fountain of a Slave or L’Encelade. Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons.

When Louis XIV came to power, the French monarchy was weak, allowing a powerful nobility to flourish.[6] Under the traditional feudal system, the nobility dominated both France’s military and territory.[7] In this old system, the king relied heavily on the nobility to provide fighting forces.[8] Nobles also controlled the land through a powerful web of connected strongholds, from which they regulated trade and standardised political relations.[9] Thus, when Louis XIV ascended the throne, “the legitimacy of the French monarchy itself was not firm.”[10] Louis XIV had ambitious plans to strengthen the monarchy and increase his power over the aristocracy; he wanted “a powerful monarchy where only a weak one had existed before.”[11] Yet, was Louis XIV, like the giant in the myth, doomed to failure, or did nature and natural order, predestine him to rise above and conquer? The answer may lie within the gardens of Versailles.

Versailles’s gardens were destined, not by nature but by Louis XIV, to become instrumental in the King’s strategic ploy for recognised validation and greater power.[12] In 1677, Louis XIV established a seat of government outside Paris, forming a new court at Versailles.[13] Versailles became the centre of a new network that Louis XIV created to secure his power in the provinces.[14] Consequently, Versailles became magnetic for nobles who now were compelled, by a patron-client alliance, to seek royal favours from the King.[15] Nobles found themselves as bound to the court at Versailles as they were to the King, with their powers further weakened through the growing popularity of ideas about natural virtue [16] Louis XIV cunningly crafted the theory of natural virtue into the gardens, to justify his kingship and control his courtiers.[17] Previously, nobles had inherited their rulership, but France was now experiencing greater social mobility, brought about mainly through the growth in trade, which enabled many wealthy bourgeoisie to buy their way into the aristocracy.[18] Thus, with “nobles no longer a special breed,” commoners began to question the nobles’ authority.[19]

Louis XIV’s response to the upheavals of the time is echoed throughout the gardens of Versailles.[20] The idea of natural virtue maintains that some people are destined to rise above the masses as they possess qualities, such as learning, manners, strength of moral character and sense of place, which make them superior.[21] This philosophy was captured in the gardens’ numerous fountains. As the fountain’s waters rose and fell, so too, would the rightful rulers rise into power, while the illegitimate fall away.[22] Indeed, the chief gardeners of Versailles, Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie and André Le Nôtre, were both considered naturally virtuous men, who rose above the masses by displaying characteristics of taste and modesty that was admired, even by the King.[23] Their success was not attributed to the outcome of their personal effort but rather an “expression of natural endowments.”[24] Like the garden’s Cascades and Bosquet des trois fontaines, whose waters flowed down the step-like structures, carry a subtle message of everyone finding their own level in society, so too, did La Quintinie and Le Nôtre find their naturally ‘rightful’ level and position in the French aristocratic world.[25] This new faction of naturally virtuous, rising bourgeoisie was a useful political tool which Louis XIV exploited.[26] Unlike the nobles who inherited their rights, the King could entrust these naturally virtuous men with power because without him they could not seize control of the government.[27] The influx of new blood to the French court gave Louis XIV the perfect opportunity to take control of his courtiers.[28] Thus, it remained within his interests to continually perpetuate this philosophy.[29] Thus, the philosophy is woven throughout the gardens, in the battlement walls that guard and separate levels, or the distinct terraces regulating the view, communicating the idea of individuals’ permissible vision according to their rank.[30] The gardens naturalised this hierarchy, subsequently, becoming instrumental in preserving and perpetuating the philosophy.[31]

Bassin de Flore; Flora, resting on a flowerbed. Golden lead sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Tuby (1672–1679). Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, what happened to those, who like the descending water down the cascades, fell from both the graces of the king and the aristocratic world. Hidden in Versailles’s Labyrinthe is the Le Paon et al Pie or the Peacock and Magpie fountain.[32] This fountain conveys the fable of a contest between a peacock and a magpie over what was more valuable: beauty or virtue.[33] The magpie, whose name in French also means piety, wins, illustrating the worth of virtue over beauty.[34] Such was the fall of Nicolas Fouquet, the once superintendent of finances, who descended from the heights of the aristocracy after hosting an ostentatious garden banquet for Louis XIV.[35] After a night of fireworks, and ballet in Fouquet’s garden, the proud young King walked away envious and threatened.[36] The consequence was calamitous for Fouquet, as less than three weeks after his garden banquet, on 5th September 1661, he was arrested and imprisoned.[37] Though endowed with a beautiful garden, Fouquet lacked the virtues of modesty to survive the egotism of the King.

The various images of natural hierarchy and natural virtue strewn about the garden, were clear reminders to all aristocracy of the consequences that occurred to those like Fouquet, who rose above their destiny. [38] The consequences are obviously illustrated in the garden’s two fountains, The Owl and the Birds and The Battle of the Animals.[39] Both fountains convey a terrifying message: nature itself excludes unworthy animals.[40] The fountains depict animals who were traitors to their own kind, ugly, or clumsy they are cast out of the sunlight and into darkness; cursed, they became nocturnal creatures.[41] The message within these fountains would have been bone-chilling, especially at Versailles where access to the king was essential to gaining social importance.[42] This example demonstrates how gardens display their creator’s purpose: in this case, Louis XIV’s message of natural virtue and how visitors were intended to receive this message.

Fortunately, there were those whose virtues enabled them to stay in the King’s sunlight. Appointed as Fouquet replacement, Jean-Baptiste Colbert—unlike his predecessor—was blessed with virtues which kept him in the graces of the King.[43] Colbert, an avid collector of books, generously donated part of his book collection to the King for a new royal library.[44]  In contrast to Fouquet, who kept most of “his collections away from general public view,” Colbert became a collector for France. [45] Evidently, the natural hierarchy and order had taken its course: where Fouquet had fallen, Colbert had risen.

Indeed, Versailles’s gardens reflect many realities of the French court. Where a giant had failed, Louis XIV had succeeded, turning a weak monarchy into a powerful one. Once a fragile monarchy, subservient to the nobility, now a powerful King, showered grace and light to whomever he deemed worthy—crushing those who fell from his favour. According to the gardens, natural hierarchy had judged Louis XIV worthy to rise to the very heights of power. Evidently, the gardens are a rich source into philosophies and historical issues of the time. They tell a history of power intermingled with narratives and political concerns of that century.

Parc de Versailles, bosquet de l'Encelade. Vue générale du bassin.
The Fountain of a Slave or L’Encelade, Parc de Versailles. Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Chandra Mukerji, Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 288.

[2] Mukerji 1997, p. 288.

[3] Mukerji 1997, p. 288.

[4] Mukerji 1997, p. 289.

[5] Mukerji 1997, p. 289.

[6] Tony Bennet and Joyce Patrick, Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010), p. 180.

[7] Bennet and Patrick, p.180

[8] Mukerji 1997, p. 48.

[9] Mukerji 1997, p. 2.

[10] Mukerji 1990, p. 654.

[11] Mukerji 1997, p. 113.

[12] Mukerji 1997, p. 2.

[13] Michel Baridon, A History of the Gardens of Versailles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), p. 7.

[14] Bennet and Patrick, p. 180

[15] Bennet and Patrick, p. 184.

[16] Bennet and Patrick, p. 183.

[17] Mukerji 1997, p. 19.

[18] Mukerji 1997, p. 18.

[19] Mukerji 1997, p. 279.

[20] Mukerji 1997, p. 279.

[21] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[22] Mukerji 1997, p. 288.

[23] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[24] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[25] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[26] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[27] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[28] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[29] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[30] Mukerji 1997, p. 286.

[31] Mukerji 1997, p. 286.

[32] Mukerji 1997, p. 285.

[33] Mukerji 1997, p. 285.

[34] Mukerji 1997, p. 285.

[35] Christopher Thacker, The History of Gardens (Sydney: Reed, 1979), p. 147.

[36] Thacker, p. 148.

[37] Thacker, p. 148.

[38] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[39] Mukerji 1997, p. 283.

[40] Mukerji 1997, p. 283.

[41] Mukerji 1997, p. 284.

[42] Mukerji 1997, p. 284.

[43] Mukerji 1997, p. 177.

[44] Mukerji 1997, p. 177.

[45] Mukerji 1997, pp. 106, 177.

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