It was a warm, but not boiling, ideal day for making the big visit to the Gardens of Versailles- and with the added attraction of the Musical Fountains Show- a weekend event which recreates the spirit of Le Nôtre‘s astounding display gardens and fountains, all playing away to the sound of eighteenth century French music by Rameau, Lully and contemporaries. Versailles was, after all, a spectacular display case for the power and sovereignity of Louis XIV– but as well as the display, the gardens contained more private spaces for entertainment, assignations and celebration. We spent a good four hours enjoying it all, despite my less than enthusiastic support for the serried ranks of minutely ordered planting to be seen nearest to the Chateau. Symmetry has a short shelf life for me.
There were many examples of delightful, smaller scale fountains and planting to be found, especially in the groves or bosquet areas, and in the King’s Garden,
We were so thrilled that we watched it twice. The music and choreographed fountain action at the Mirror Pool was really fabulous. I found myself entranced by it, which was a surprise. Music by Lully and Charpentier played and the choreography was quite stunning, ebbing and flowing with the music and the mood. The Mirror Pool was commissioned in 1702, and the show captured a sense of the magnificence that Le Nôtre and Louis created, albeit with modern technology.
One of the groves, the Theatre Grove, which had originally been designed by Le Nôtre in the early 1670s, was re-designed in 2015 by Louis Benech and Jean-Michel Othoniel the former tackling the planting and the latter the fountains. Honestly, a bit of a dud. The fountains, see below, closely resembled a Barbie crown from Woolworths, and the planting was dull, prosaic, flat and insufficiently generous to create the necessary lushness. It seemed a strange choice to go for short, stumpy shrubs and perennials pretty much throughout.
But a superb detail must be mentioned. The huge strip planting of Equisetum hyemale against the corten steel wall of the modern pool was really striking and dramatic.
The Enceladus Grove was a good surprise. Although designed by Le Nôtre, it had an almost Victorian feel to it. A round pool, with a central sculpture, was surrounded by heavy, bronze coloured double trellis, punctuated by passageways, golden urns and a spectacular, small flowered rambling rose that wove it’s way through the trellis.
And, as eighteenth century baroque elegance gave way to Romanticism, Apollo’s Bath Grove, designed by Hubert Robert in 1776, shows the shift to a pre-Gothic, wild, tumbling landscape, complete with a specially constructed mountain top and grotto, filled with sculptures of Apollo and his nymphs which had originally been made for the abandoned Thetis Grotto built by Louis XIV.
Simplicity always works. The magic of the falling water cascading down the fountains steps is every bit as exciting as the tall Obelisk fountain itself.
Versailles does bigscale superbly. There is one exception to that comment. I am really not sure that sticking a socking great pylon at the centre of the view from Apollo’s Fountain looking down the Grand Canal is a good idea. Le Nôtre would certainly not accept the trade-off of a huge waterfall as being a good enough reason to effectively destroy his hard-won perspective view down the Grand Canal. Imagine something with the height and beauty of a football stadium lighting mast- I don’t think so.
Looking back as we left, the Orangery parterre is almost domestic in size, albeit given grandeur by being looked down upon. Back in England, William and Mary were giving Hampton Court it’s Dutch make-over, but there is no denying the need to keep up with the Joneses, as can be seen below in photographs I took in July 2014.