Listen to this article
Sometimes, days in a garden have a double-barrelled climax. I have just had one of the best. As the light faded on a mild winter evening, I was looking along the main terrace at the Palace of Versailles and feeling obliged to admit that the French garden’s ground plan has exceptional style. Ten minutes later I was transported to a hidden world of equal wonder. I was behind closed doors for a superb finale to a day of design, discussion and display, linked to the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his master – gardener André Le Nôtre.
When they laid out Versailles’s vast landscaped park in the 1660s, the king and his landscape designer had to dispose of a smaller château on the site, set on a hill between two low rivers. The soil was sandy and as historians now realise, the full scale of the garden was only made possible by buying little parcels of land along its perimeter. It was slow, delicate work, as English high-speed rail planners may soon discover. Nonetheless, the Sun King’s ambitions continued to grow. By 1679 his aim was to buy all the surrounding woodland for a radius of 10km in order to “serve his pleasures”. Those pleasures were right-royal items, hunting and a mistress.
Louis picked on Versailles for gardening and hunting because it fitted well with the style of his new young mistress. Louise de La Vallière had come to court with Louis’s attractive sister-in-law, Henriette. The king made a pass at Henriette but she artfully diverted him to Louise, a pretty teenager in her entourage. The diversion was hugely successful. Louis, only 5ft 3in tall, fell for Louise. In order to make love to her away from his mother’s disapproving eye, he withdrew from Paris to Versailles. He ordered that only a select few should accompany him. He set about re-developing the site in ways which Louise would appreciate.
An Italian visitor, Sebastiano Locatelli, surprised the pair, much busied in the woods, while he was taking an innocent walk. To teach his intruder a lesson the king boxed the Italian’s ears. Nonetheless, Locatelli gives the best account of Louise’s much-contested charms. He saw her in the Tuileries in Paris, riding bareback on a spirited Barbary horse on which she stood up while it galloped. She then reseated herself without losing her balance and repeated the manoeuvre. She was controlling the horse by a single cord of knotted silk, connected to the horse’s mouth without a bridle. She would have been a natural for today’s Beaufort hunt in the heyday of Prince Charles.
On the lower terrace I dreamt respectfully of Louise, later to be supplanted in the king’s bed by the more cultured and curvy Marquise de Montespan. I was interrupted in my dreams by the arrival of Versailles’s chef de jardin, Joël Cottin, promising me a visit to the king’s unseen garden. Intrigued, I walked to the famous Orangerie, the imposing 17th-century structure which was built by Versailles’s main architect. Its big doors are barred to visitors, but Cottin’s keys unlocked a small central panel to let me in and I entered the terre de merveilles.
In the last of the day’s light, hundreds of potted trees stretched in formal lines beyond us. I doubt if the Sun King was ever more impressed with them. As the first frosts approach, all the clipped orange trees, evergreen Eugenias, pomegranates and box in Versailles’s vast landscape garden are tugged inside the historic Orangerie at Cottin’s command. There is no need for heating between its superbly built 17th-century walls. They are frost-proof. The Orangerie becomes a huge cathedral for migrant potted trees, some of which are 20ft high. Le Nôtre was known for his big tree-moving machines which an observer described as “devils”. Nowadays the terraced evergreens are brought under cover by specially designed tractors which tow their big tubs. “Ici,” Cottin told me, “les Français sont en ordre.” I think he feels they are not often so orderly elsewhere.
When Versailles was being built, Louis XIV had just confiscated masses of sweetly scented orange trees from the garden of his finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Since then, orange trees in Versailles tubs have been part of Versailles’s summer planting. In the twilight I walked through rank upon rank of the superbly pruned citrus trees, several of which still showed a glittering fruit. Many of them are far older than me, sometimes going back to prewar times. The war in question is the first world war of 1914. As young saplings, they mourned Verdun.
When they age, they are repotted and repruned, while the sides of their big wooden tubs are loosened ingeniously. On sunny winter days, air has to be let in through the Orangerie’s historic windows, but Cottin is a great head gardener, so wonderfully sanguine about his huge responsibility and his team of 26 gardeners. He knows exactly how to water his green army so that the excess damp will soak into the floor of pounded earth and stone. He never provokes the mildew which cost me my dahlias last year in my garden shed.
I was in a fabled Garden of the Hesperides, the fruit grove at the western edge of the mythical world. Through it gleamed big blocks of white marble. They are not tractor posts. They are great Baroque statues, works by Louis’s most famous sculptors. Between the big oranges and the cones of clipped box I walked straight into the famous “Rape of Proserpine”, sculpted by François Girardon. Recently, the nearby box pyramids have been lent out for presidential evening parties in Paris. Here, Cottin told me, “royalty lends to the republic”.
Before a fine marble bust of King Louis he stood to attention: “Salut, Le Boss.” He then took me through greenery to the most controversial of the royal statues, sheltered from our torchlight in a forest of winterised citruses. Heavens above, it is the great Bernini’s marble of Louis XIV on horseback, a sculpture so massive that it was said to have broken the roads in Rome when it lumbered from the sculptor’s workshop to be shipped on the river Tiber. When it reached Paris, it was not appreciated and was banished down to Versailles. In mid-November 1685, the king visited it in this very Orangerie and declared he wanted it removed and dumped. Girardon was brought in to reshape the marble carved by Italy’s greatest Baroque genius. Bernini had intended to show the king on the peak of a symbolic mountain of Glory, with an appropriate smile of rejoicing on his lips. Girardon recut the face, removed the disastrous smile and replaced the plan for a mountain rock beneath the horse with a cluster of leaping flames. The statue became the old Roman hero Marcus Curtius riding into a fiery abyss in ancient Rome’s legendary past. It was then expelled to stand by a garden lake. Nowadays, Bernini’s only “white elephant” survives in the Orangerie away from the public’s view.
Never have I walked through a Hesperides of 1,200 evergreens, direct descendants of a Sun King’s planting. Never have I traced my route by world-famous marble sculptures sheltering from the 17th-century past. They are Versailles’s hidden courtiers. Back in the chef de jardin’s office, a picture of Nicolas Sarkozy sits above a picture of Prince Charles. Sarkozy’s image is on a bottle of champagne, captioned: “Together, all becomes possible”. Prince Charles’s is on the cover of his book on organic gardening. I hope Bernini’s Sun King has not wholly lost his smile in the wonderland which I have just left behind.
Get alerts on Louis XIV when a new story is published