Sunday, March 23, 2014


Without simply repeating the lecture notes explain why Versailles Palace and Gardens were built, and the role they played during the rule of King Louis XIV

Louis XIV came to power in 1661 when he was 23 years old. During his 72 year reign, Louis XIV transformed not only the original hunting lodge of Versailles, but the reputation of France along with it. The renovations to the small chateau at Versailles began in 1662 as Louis’ interest in versailles increased. Beginning from around 1669 the chateau and its grounds were expanded into the palace and gardens f Versailles. It was not until 1682 that King Louis XIV made Versailles the Royal residence and court of France. Politically, the palace became the center of France and an extremely important representation of the power of Louis XIV. 

When he was a child Louis spent many days at his fathers hunting lodge at Versailles. As he grew older Louis XIV found Paris unappealing and decided to expand his fathers hunting lodge and move his palace and court to Versailles. This he did on a monumental scale. The palace and grounds were expanded to house the entire Nobility and court of France. Larger than any palace before it, Versailles was the epitome of excess, decadence and power. 

The power dynamics of Versailles were developed on a foundation of paranoia. When he was a child, Louis had experienced an upper class revolt so-called the Fronde. The nobility tried to seize power from the previous king, but were unsuccessful. From this point on Louis was on edge when it came to the nobility. Thus, one of the significant aspects of Versailles is that it housed the court and nobility of France. With the nobility in such close proximity Louis was able to keep an eye on them as well as prevent them from accumulating a larger power base at home and keep them busy with infighting instead of fighting him. Further, the palace at Versailles insulated Louis from the mobs of Paris. Like a rather large sanctuary, Versailles was an outward expression that nobody could touch the power of France or Louis XIV.

The sheer size of the palace is enough to awe its visitors, but it is the gardens that truly stun the viewer. From the back of the palace one gazes upon an expanse of fountains, pools, groves and many groomed garden features. These gardens represented control, power, wealth, prestige and safety. They were used to entertain nobles and portray Louis’ power. Louis XIV is often referred to as the sun king. He loved the allegory of the sun and used its motif throughout the grounds of Versailles. Along the same line, Louis found the god Apollo to his liking. The fountain of Apollo is one of the main water features of Versailles and represents Louis’ ultimate power and wealth. 

Versailles was meant to shock its guests and it accomplished just this. It was unmatched in size and became the model for gardens across Europe. Not only was Versailles the power center of France, it was also the cultural center. Versailles hosted unparalleled parties, balls, plays, concerts etc. It acted as a major influence on European architecture, city layouts, garden design, cultural development and political power. 

The impact of Versailles on the politics of Europe is hard to measure. For one, Louis XIV is still t this day the longest reigning monarch, which may speak to his power and the power of Versailles. However, it is difficult to measure the cultural impact of Versailles. The events that took place at Versailles shaped the course of French history up until the French Revolution and has had a lasting impact on architecture and gardens.

Interesting sites for further reading:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Palace of Versailles and it’s Historical Significance

Last week I traveled to Paris with my Global Economics class. There we met with business professionals and investment organizations in order to study globalization and its consequences. Rather appropriately then, during my free day I visited the Palace of Versailles, both because my garden art professor would have been dumbfounded had I decided not to go and because the Palace of Versailles and the gardens of Versailles encapsulate the concept of Globalization. 

In order to understand the significance of Versailles it is important to look at its design and the historical context in which it was built. The Palace of Versailles was initially a hunting lodge used by Louie XIII. However, when Louie XIV took power he found the inner city of Paris much to his dislike and decided to move the court to Versailles. Accordingly, the Sun King (Louie VIX as he liked to be know) began to formulate plans to expand the palace and to expand the gardens. In 1661 under the direction of the landscape designer André Le Nôtre, work on the gardens of Versailles commenced. The project was completed in a series of four building campaigns, which lasted until 1709. When the gardens and palace were completed , they became representations of enormous power and influence. 

Within the design of the gardens at Versailles it is very easy to pick up on global influence and in return the influence of Versailles on other gardens. Le Nôtre was raised and educated in Paris and as such, developed a classical French style. This French style was heavily influenced by both late renaissance and baroque concepts. An arial view of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles illustrates the combination of these styles. Looking down on the gardens we can see the axial design that runs through the entire landscape. There is a central axis and cross axis from which radiate pathways that form an interesting geometric pattern. The reliance on axis and symmetry is a classic renaissance characteristic. The design was to demonstrate mans ability to subject nature to specific patterns and further reflected humanist ideals that controlling nature brought one closer to God. In this case the garden design demonstrates specifically the Sun King’s power and control. Renaissance ideas stem from Italy, but were transported to France when in 1494 Charles the 8th of France invaded Italy and stumbled across the Poggio Reale (an early Renaissance chateau and garden). As avenues of trade expanded and transportation methods improved, renaissance ideas and new ideas in general began to spread. Thus, we can see how economic and political forces translate into the spread of cultural ideas. 

Not only were the gardens of Versailles based on offshoots of renaissance ideas, a new art form, the Baroque, came to play a large role in Le Nôtre’s design. The baroque period is characterized by exaggerated movement and emotional depictions that produce dramatic effects. For a concrete example of baroque style see figure two. This is the famed Hall of Mirrors inside the palace of Versailles. The rounded architecture that has fewer geometrical straight lines and sharp edges, but instead swirls and evokes colorful and emotional images is a good representation of the period. The gardens however are not necessarily fully baroque nor fully renaissance in style. Their layout is geometrical and controlled, but the designs within the gardens are swirly, colorful and emotional. Some may call this fusion of baroque and renaissance styles a flamboyant renaissance style. 

Within the gardens of Versailles there were also quite a few allegorical statures and fountains. Apollo who was the god of the sun and sky was a natural favorite of Louis XIV. Apollo was the god of gods as Louis XIV was the king of kings. Both the Apollo fountain and the Lotona fountain are depictions of Apollo and his power.

It is clear then that Louis XIV and his larger than life palace was a show of ultimate power, which resonated through the entire European continent. This is of major significance because the Palace of Versailles, the gardens of Versailles and the ideas therein became immortalized. For many thousands of years before Versailles gardens had been used to display wealth and power, but the display at Versailles was of a different scale entirely. Not only did it solidify gardens as a show of power, but it helped contribute to the way future gardens and even cities were laid out. For example, the axial design of the gardens with radiating walkways that form geometrical sections became the basis for street design in Paris. The criss crossing patterns and strange geometrical shapes made it difficult for people to block off one section of the city if there was a revolt. There was always another way to get to the destination. Further the gardens acted as an interesting transitionary style from very controlled renaissance design to colorful and dramatic baroque design.

Globalization allowed for the spread of renaissance ideas to France, which in turn contributed to the design of Versailles in a new baroque style. The significance of the garden can be seen not only in power dynamics and influence on other gardens, but on things as removed as city and street planning. Overall, I would say it was a productive visit to Versailles and an academic win for DIS.

Check out these interesting descriptions of the Palace of Versailles and it's gardens:

Figure 2:

FIgure 5:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Humanist influence on Renaissance Gardens

Question: Explain with examples the ways in which the Renaissance spirit of a rediscovery of the classics and the new Humanist ways of thinking were expressed in the design and content of the Italian Renaissance garden.

In order to answer this question completely it is important to understand each component of the questions, i.e. what were Renaissance ideas and humanist ways of thinking? 

The Renaissance, which formally began in Italy sometime during the early 1300s (Scholars still debate the actual starting date), was a refocus on classical Greek and Roman ideas. It was an age of discovery, invention and art. However, the new renaissance ideology was practiced by a very select segment of the population. Those who had enough money, time and cultural awareness had access to Renaissance ideas, but the vast majority of the population was not generally effected. 

Humanism was a specific Renaissance idea that focused the attention of study on human importance in relation to God and nature, as opposed to the previous focus on divine and eternal matters. The study of man (broadly construed to mean humans) was a way to get closer to God. Since God had created everything in his image, studying humans and nature acted as a way to understand God. 

These ideas translated into new garden designs and ornamentation. One way to see the influence of the Renaissance and Humanism is to examine the evolution of the quadripartite design. In medieval and monastic gardens, the beds were simply arranged with a few plants, a small water feature and a tree or two and each item in the garden had its own significance (tree - tree of life, water feature - rivers that flowed out of eden, etc.). However, when this is compared to a Renaissance equivalent, the designs of the interior sections of the bed become much more complex and ornamental. While each section of the quadripartite design did not have the same significance of the monastic garden, the overall theme was humanist. Nature was seen as an ordered creation of God, thus, man could organize and improve nature’s raw materials, and by doing so come to know God. The focus is on the human ability to organize and subject nature to man. Another example of this idea can be seen through the incredible water features that play a central role in many Renaissance gardens. For example,  the Villa d’Este featured several water features that control and demonstrate the power of human innovation.

v Aside from the artistic recreation and innovation of the Renaissance, power relations played a dominant force throughout this time period. Gardens, as they have almost always been (at least partly), were a way to show off power and wealth. However, these new gardens were outwardly positioned. That is, they displayed ancient greek and roman epics and myths, which would often correspond to family history or lore. Educated visitors to the gardens would instantly recognize and understand the references. To take the example above of the Villa d’Este, one of the largest water features is the Dragon Fountain. This fountain was an allegory to the story of Hercules. It was said that there was a golden apple guarded by a ferocious dragon. Hercules defeated this dragon and took the golden apple. The d’Este family is coincidently said to be related to Hercules. These sorts of allegories were common in early Italian Renaissance Gardens. 
Overall, Renaissance gardens transformed in size and complexity. The focus on man’s abilities and values helped fuel this transition and renaissance innovations in science, art and technology made it possible for gardens like the Villa d’este and Villa Medici come to fruition. 

For more information on Renaissance gardens and their humanist influences check out some of these websites: