Garden of the Sun King: The Fountains of Château de Versailles
As you pass through the golden “La grille d’Honneur,” or gate of honor, even on the most overcast of days, one is immediately spellbound by the visual grandeur of the Palace of Versailles. It’s patinated gilt foliage reminded me of our Louis XVI style gold-leafed trumeau back in the gallery.
The “sun” was King Louis XIV’s chosen emblem of power, and he perceived his reign to be of divine providence. This is evidenced in the various representations of Apollo: god of music, poetry, truth, and light. Louis XIV’s tenure as king is often referred to as “Le Grand Siècle” (the Great Century) as the gilding throughout the palace and gardens conveys.
I had the good fortune of attending the gardens on the first day the fountains were running this spring. The current plumbing dates to the seventeenth century. With such delicate pipes, they run for only 15 minutes intervals at a time.
In the 1600’s, just as today, water was a costly resource, and there was much construction required for supplying these extravagant fountains. The “Marly le Roi,” or Marly Machine, had been installed along with aqueducts, tanks, and canals. This impressive hydraulic system was built in 1684 to pump water out of the river Seine and send it to the Palace of Versailles. A sophisticated system such as this was the only one of its kind in Europe at this time.
The grounds were designed by French landscape architect, André Le Nôtre, son of Jean Le Nôtre, master gardener of the Tuileries under King Louis XIII. André also studied under painter François Vouet and applied the laws of perspective from this tutelage in his great projects. It is André that transformed the more than fifteen-thousand acres of muddy swamp into majestic, meticulously patterned paths and parterres.
The gardens at Versallies alone contain 221 works of art. These include grand statutes and fountains by sculptors Thomas Regnaudin, Gilles Guerin, Balthazard and Gaspard Marsy, Martin Desjardins, and François Girardon. There is beauty in every direction as visitors explore the immense layout in tranquil adoration of its splendour.
It was a true sight to behold water cascading over rocks brought from the far reaches of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Of all the fountains, I was most in awe at the immense presence of the lead fountain of Apollo. He is sculpted emerging from the depths, his cartel of horses charging forward as he masterfully guides these graceful beasts onward.
Latona’s Fountain also exemplifies a dramatic event from Apollo’s youth. Here the god is shown as a boy while his mother, Latona (Marble, by Gaspard and Balthazard Marsy, ca. 1670), flees from the wrath of Juno, Jupiter’s wronged wife, as she pleads with Jupiter to punish those casting insults at her and her children, Apollo and Diana.
You can learn more about the myth which inspired this spectacular fountain here:
If a visit to Versailles is not on the agenda this spring, one can channel the romance of this exquisite sculpture garden with our 4-paneled hand-painted French screen below.
I highly recommend booking a tour of Versailles. Many tour companies, such as Sandemans, offer these in several languages, and you can make a reservation in advance. You will receive a delightful guided history of the gardens with entertaining commentary on art, architecture, King Louis XIV, and his dalliances, of course. Whatever your plans may be, the fountains of the Château de Versailles are definitely a must-see destination for anyone traveling to Paris. Not that we object to sipping espresso in Parisian cafes all afternoon!