The moment it was mentioned, I was loathe to go. But my friends insisted because they had heard so much about its grand schematic layout, its ostentatious use of gold, and its romantic overtones. For me, Versailles didn’t have any attractions. I felt it was gilding the lily, a period of architectural design run rampant by the hedonistic ambitions of French royalty. A palace dedicated to the overt preening of wealth and ambition. What could I learn from a monument to decadence whose creative design felt stifled by exhibitionism? My friends persuaded me that anything was possible at Versailles and encouraged me to search for a world hidden underneath the glaring pomp. I decided to take them up on the challenge and followed my chums to the château of the French kings, twenty kilometers (12.4 miles) southwest of Paris.
I was prepared for grandeur, but the imposing structure of the palace overtook everything, like an eighteenth century pyramid proclaiming to the ages, “I am here! Kneel before me ye others!” I searched for sophistication within the walls, but the garish interior rooms overpowered my senses with their riotous clash of color. All I could see were lurid velvet red drapes heaped upon gold encumbered ceilings, faux marble columns, heavy malachite trim, and gaudy parquet floors. I looked for refined beauty, but the salons deluged me with their ultra opulence. As I entered the famous Hall of Mirrors I felt I had over-eaten on a surfeit of ice cream, caviar, champagne, and cake. It was too much luxury in one place. Feeling nauseous from all the glitter I escaped into the hundred hectare (2.47 acres) garden that stretches out from the back of the castle, seeing some fresh air.
“My palms tingled with elation as I surveyed this new setting.”
Beyond the parterres there were concealed depths to the garden for me to explore. I wondered if I might stumble upon Versailles’ hidden world at last.
The formal fountains and delicately colored flower borders were a welcome respite from all that gilding, but their layout seemed constrained. Expectantly, I wandered past the courtly shrubs and decided to nip into one of the many enclosed garden groves fenced in by classical statues. Suddenly, I was transformed into a realm of artistry and scope. Tall, elegant trees created idyllic pathways leading to a rustic pond in the center. From the pond I continued on the trail towards another grove where milk-white statues gave reign to the imagination. In a third coppice, I sighted a miniature stadium with grass-covered seats like a mysterious stage awaiting its curtain call. There was a sweet yet mysterious character to these gardens. Unlike the flamboyant interior, this outdoor portion of the palace showed true regality in its restraint. There was poetry in the subtle arrangement of plants and ponds, an understanding of beauty in moderation. As for me, I could breathe again in this graceful setting and delight in the pastoral simplicity.
Where was this same dream like quality inside the royal walls, I wondered? Why was there such dichotomy between the inner and outer parts of the sovereign residence? I turned face and purposefully walked back into the château, determined to find some continuity, some semblance of the enchanted kingdom I discovered deep in the gardens. Perhaps it was my time in the shaded arbors, but when I returned to the bejeweled interior, I saw the chambers with new perspective.
“I was able to look beyond the blinding glitz and see for the first time exquisitely carved vines and flowers that echoed the burst of nature outdoors.”
Now I traced on the floor a mimicry of the understated geometric pathways I had walked along in the groves. From the flowery wallpaper recreating blooms to the bas-relief birds looking as if they were calling to their real life mates, I realized even under the opulence there was a keen desire to be close to the sylvan life. Garden and château had been designed to complement each other with opposing personalities, but I discovered a common playful theme running through both spaces. I was happy to find that under the gilding there still lived a delightful fantasy.
I had dismissed Versailles as an overblown memorial to debauchery, but its extraordinary gardens showed that hidden under the elaborate display of pomp the royalty had a powerful wish to recreate paradise on earth for themselves and their courtiers. I had to admit to my friends that I had misunderstood the Baroque landscape. Because of its obvious flamboyance, I had easily rejected Versailles’ architecture as unaesthetic. I had decided beforehand that it would not have any emotional impact on me, but I shouldn’t have disregarded its strength. Scratching underneath the surface I saw a secret message that spoke of the desire to be surrounded by spontaneous beauty that was everlasting and infinite.
An architect, an artist, and a landscape designer came together to plan the formation of the gardens at Versailles. Through embroidered patterns, geometric modules, and theatrical stage sets the natural panorama at Versailles showcases the triumph of man over environment, contemplates the essence of infinite space, and prepares the scene for drama. Illusion, fantasy, and symbolism all play a part in the tangle of trees, fountains, and sculptures carefully placed throughout the chateau’s multi-sectioned gardens.
For more on gardens, pick up Bespoke Traveler’s Journal: On Garden Paths.