The Gardens of Versailles (Jardins du château de Versailles), situated to the west of the Palace of Versailles, cover about 800 hectares of land, much of which is landscaped in the classic French Garden style. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions of France, visited by over 6 million visitors a year.
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.
In addition to the meticulously manicured lawns, parterres of flowers and sculptures there 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 that 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 2012, the gardens along with the château were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of thirty-one such designations in France.
With Louis XIII’s final purchase of lands from Jean-François de Gondi in 1632 and his assumption of the seigniorial role of Versailles in the 1630s, formal gardens were laid out west of the château. The gardens remained relatively unchanged until the expansion ordered under Louis XIV in the 1660s.
In 1661, after the disgrace of the finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, who embezzled 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 programme 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.
In 1662, minor modifications to the château were undertaken, during the first building campaign. 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.
The Orangerie, designed by Louis Le Vau, was located to the south of the château. It took advantage of the natural slope of the hill by providing a protected area in which orange trees were kept during the winter months. 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.
By 1664, the gardens had evolved to the point that Louis XIV inaugurated them with the fête galante, a kind of party, called ‘Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée’. The event 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 realised the shortcomings of Versailles and began to expand the château and the gardens once again.
During this phase of the construction the symbolism of the gardens exploited Apollo and solar imagery as metaphors for Louis XIV. Three additions formed the topological and symbolic nexus of the gardens at that time: 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, the grotto formed an important symbolic and technical component of the gardens. The Grotte de Thétys is related to the myth of Apollo – and by that association to Louis XIV. It was the cave of the sea nymph, Thetis, where Apollo rested after driving his chariot to light the sky.
The grotto was a free-standing structure located just north of the château. The interior, which was decorated with shell-work to represent a sea cave, contained the statue depicting the sun god attended by nereids and his horses being groomed by attendants of Thetis. Originally, these statues were set in three individual niches in the grotto and were surrounded by various fountains and water features.
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, which fed the fountains lower in the garden via gravity.
Bassin de Latone
Designed by André Le Nôtre, sculpted by Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy, and constructed between 1668 and 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 Zeus who responded by turning the Lycians into frogs.
This episode from mythology was chosen as an allegory of 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 emphasised 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.
Further along the east-west axis is the Bassin d’Apollon – the Apollo Fountain, constructed between 1668 and 1671. The fountain depicts the sun god driving his chariot to light the sky. Bassin d’Apollon forms a focal point in the garden and serves as a transitional element between the gardens of the Petit Parc and the Grand Canal.
The modifications in the gardens during the third campaign were distinguished by a stylistic change from the natural aesthetic of André Le Nôtre to the architectonic style of Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Additionally, to accommodate the anticipated construction of the Aile des Nobles – the north wing of the château – the Grotte de Thétys was demolished.
The first major modification to the gardens during this phase occurred in 1680 when the Tapis Vert, the lawn that stretches between the Latona Fountain and the Apollo Fountain, achieved its final size under the direction of André Le Nôtre.
Beginning in 1684, the Parterre d’Eau was remodelled 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 the 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 were constructed at this time. They facilitated access to the gardens from the south, to the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses, and to the Parterre du Midi, and gave the gardens on the south of the château their present configuration and decoration.
With the construction of the Aile des Nobles (1685-1686), the Parterre du Nord was remodelled 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.
The construction of 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 enormous aqueducts, but the works were abandoned in 1690.
Between 1686 and 1687, the Bassin de Latone was rebuilt under the direction of Hardouin-Mansart. It is the final version of the fountain that you can see today.
During this phase of the construction, three of the garden’s major bosquets were modified or created, beginning with the Galerie des Antiques, which was constructed in 1680 on the site of the earlier and short-lived Galerie d’Eau. 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 south of the Orangerie, this bosquet was designed as an amphitheatre 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. This bosquet, located on the site of Le Nôtre’s Bosquet des Sources, featured a circular peristyle formed from 32 arches with 28 fountains.
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.
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. Fortunately, 7 years later Louis XV and the court returned to Versailles.
Seeming to heed his great-grandfather’s admonition not to engage in excessive spending, 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).
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 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. The king died at Versailles on 10 May 1774.
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 intellectuals of the French Enlightenment), 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 aesthetic was abandoned and the gardens replanted in the French style. However, with an eye on economy, Louis XVI ordered the palisades – 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.
In 1792, under order from the National Convention, some of the trees in gardens were felled, while parts of the Grand Parc were parcelled and dispersed. Sensing the potential threat to Versailles, Louis Claude Marie Richard, the 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.
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 of trees in the Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Bosquet des Trois Fontaines. Massive soil erosion necessitated the planting of new trees.
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.
While much of the chateau’s interior was irreparably altered to accommodate the Museum to all the Glories of France, 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, Napoleon III ignored the château, preferring instead the château of Compiègne.
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 favoured 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 programme. However, owing to the Franco-Prussian War, which toppled Napoleon III, and the Commune de Paris, replantation of the garden did not get underway until 1883.
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.
Owing to the natural cycle of replantations that has occurred at Versailles, it is almost certain that no trees dating from the time of Louis XIV are to be found in the gardens.
The fountains are the marvel of the gardens of Versailles. The gardens of Louis XIII required water, and local ponds provided an adequate supply. However, once Louis XIV began expanding the gardens with more and more fountains, supplying the gardens with water became a critical challenge.
To meet the needs of the early expansions of the gardens under Louis XIV, water was pumped from ponds near the château, with the Clagny pond serving as the principal source. Water was pumped to the reservoir on top of the Grotte de Thétys, which fed the fountains in the garden by means of gravitational hydraulics. Other sources included a series of reservoirs located on the Satory Plateau south of the château.
By 1664, increased demand for water necessitated additional sources. In that year, Louis Le Vau designed the Pompe, a water tower built north of the château. The tower drew water from the Clagny pond using a system of windmills and horsepower to a cistern housed in the Pompe’s building. With the completion of the Grand Canal in 1671, which served as drainage for the fountains of the garden, water, via a system of windmills, was pumped back to the reservoir on top of the Grotte de Thétys. While this system solved some of the water supply problems, there was never enough water to keep all of the fountains running in the garden in full play all of the time.
While it was possible to keep the fountains in view from the château running, those concealed in the bosquets and in the farther reaches of the garden were run on an as-needed basis. In 1672, Jean-Baptiste Colbert devised a system by which the fountaineers in the garden would signal each other with whistles upon the approach of the king indicating that their fountain needed to be turned on. Once the king passed a fountain in play, it would be turned off and the fountaineer would signal that the next fountain could be turned on.
The increasing demand for water and the stress placed on existing systems of water supply necessitated newer measures to increase the water supply to Versailles. Between 1668 and 1674, a project was undertaken to divert the water of the Bièvre river to Versailles. By damming the river and with a pumping system of five windmills, water was brought to the reservoirs located on the Satory Plateau.
During Louis XIV’s reign, water supply systems represented one-third of the building costs of Versailles. Even with the additional output from the Machine de Marly, fountains in the garden could only be run at half-pressure. With this measure of economy, fountains still consumed 12,800 m3 of water per day, far above the capacity of the existing supplies. In the case of the ‘‘Grandes Eaux’’ – when all the fountains played to their maximum – more than 10,000 m3 of water was needed for one afternoon’s display. Accordingly, the ‘‘Grandes Eaux’’ were reserved for special occasions.
Today, the museum of Versailles still faces water problems. During the Grandes Eaux, water is circulated by means of modern pumps from the Grand Canal to the reservoirs. Replenishment of the water lost due to evaporation comes from rainwater, which is collected in cisterns that are located throughout the gardens and diverted to the reservoirs and the Grand Canal.