10 November 2011

If It Ain't Baroque....

I know, that one's as old as dirt, which is probably why the style of garden design during the Baroque era is more commonly referred to as French Formal Style (particularly by those in France!). It is, in fact, a style of garden design that originated in France and came to a glorious apogee during the reign of the Sun King, Louis the Fourteenth (or XIV for those of you who prefer Roman numerals). One thing's for sure, the man's taste in fashion was outrageous !

Louis XIV, the Sun King
Actually, the madness all started back in 1661 in a little chateau on the outskirts of Paris owned by an unfortunate man named Nicolas Fouquet. I say unfortunate because he was essentially a tax collector and we all know how popular they are, and also because he made one huge, foolish mistake (though his intentions were good).

Nicolas used his wealth to build a rather lavish home, and he hired the Three Musketeers of the design world to do it. Architect LeVau, painter LeBrun, and gardener LeNotre all conspired together to build what was then the most magnificent, most opulent, most exuberant, ostentatious, sumptuous, posh, recherché, très scandaleux, etcetera estate that a French noble ever clapped eyes on. It took almost 20 years from start to finish and by the time it was done, Fouquet was rightfully pleased and did what any house-proud member of the King's court would do: he threw a house-warming party! (oops!)

Back then it wasn't uncommon for a member of the nobility to dedicate a special room or wing of the house to the monarchy in the hopes that the royal chambers would be graced by the sovereign's presence. Fouquet was no different, and part of his little chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte was indeed intended for the King.

Well! You can imagine old Louis' response. After all, he was the King - Le Roi Soleil! - the center of the French universe around whom all else orbited, and all he had to show for his polestar position was a swampy old hunting lodge that his dad left him. So he did what any outraged, absolutist Sun King with stellar footwear would do: he had poor Fouquet arrested on trumped up charges and thrown in jail for the rest of his life, then took the design team and most of the interior and exterior decorations and ordered them to do it up one better at Versailles.

Versailles circa 1701
And thus the Baroque/French Formal Style/Louis XIV style of garden design was born. But Louis didn't stop there. He had a message to put across (as if parading all that wealth and grandeur around in the form of an amazing palace and seemingly infinite garden weren't enough). This is where I could bore you with all the elements of the Baroque style and discourse endlessly about axial symmetry, parterres de broderie, bosquets, fountains, canals, theatres, topiary, clipped hedges, and plants forced into corsets, all going to show the extent of Louis's power and control over nature, but, with your indulgence, I'd much rather talk about the frogs.

Closeup of the Latona Fountain, frogs and all
They're much more than a French delicacy (though I wasn't brave enough to try them when I was in country). I mentioned the water-spouting amphibians in my last post and alluded to the fact that they weren't just decorative. A kind reader with an enquiring mind asked what they were all about. I will tell you, mon ami!

One of the things that was en vogue in garden design of this time was the use of classical motifs in the form of statuary and ornament, a trend surviving from Italian Renaissance gardens. Louis had them all over his garden, from the Apollo fountain (Apollo was the Roman sun god) to the Latona Fountain, which represents an episode from Ovid's Metamorphosis. In that tale, Latona, the mother of Apollo and Diana, suffered indignities from the peasants at Lycia. She was so outraged that she turned them all into frogs. King Louis' mom, likewise, suffered the disrespect of the people and the fountain was his response. Basically, it's saying "Don't mess with this Apollo or bad things will happen to you". Fouquet's arrest and disgrace would have been clear in every one's memory, and Louis wasn't one to shy away from exercising his divine right as King and Absolute Monarch when it came to (mis)interpretations of the law. He was the law, and if you crossed him, you were in for it.

Thanks to the Renaissance's revival of classic literature and mythology, people would have understood this allusion pretty clearly. Sadly, I think, much of that understanding has been lost. But now you, mon cher, know the fountain's secrets and can go out into the world and dazzle them with your je ne sais quoi!

And that, mon loutre, is the significance behind the frogs. Which made me wonder, when I saw the same motif on the fountain in the Italian Water Garden at Longwood, who Mr. DuPont had a beef with, or was he just enjoying the joke?

That, mon petit chou, is for you to ponder. And with that, I bid you adieu!



b-a-g said...

je compris - except I can't figure out the statue between the single frog bottom left and the three frogs on the right. Is it half-frog half-human ?

Deb said...

Oui! The poor wretch is caught mid-transformation.

Chimeneas said...

Wonderful! Thanks so much for explaining that, they ought to tell things like that at Versailles as it would add a lot to the (already very enjoyable) experience.

Poor old Fouquet!!