‘Kings, who are the sovereign arbiters of the fortune and the conduct of men, are always themselves the most severely judged and the most curiously observed.’ Louis XIV complained in his memoirs (addressed to his son) about the public gaze in which monarchs lived, and the malicious gossip to which they were always therefore subject:
The slightest suspicion conceived of them passes immediately from one ear to another as a piece of news which it is fun to gabble about: the one who talks always wants to show that he knows more than everyone else, and he therefore exaggerates matters instead of playing them down, while the one who listens, taking a malignant pleasure in seeing a man demeaned whose superior position he resents, does all he can to persuade himself that what he is being told is true.
Louis’s apparent resentment at his lack of privacy is odd in view of the fact that, more than any other king in history, his name is associated with the public exercise of power. The bizarre public ceremonies in the royal bedchamber, the lever and the coucher, are well known; but when we are reminded that the Sun King would also dance ballets for his court, dressed in magnificent and fantastical costumes, and that these performances would cause the enmities of the courtiers to dissipate as their attention was absorbed by the monarch’s graceful leaping, then we realise that visual effects and public spectacles were as much a key to the maintenance of political power in the age of absolutism as television is in the age of mass media.
It was through ostentatious and glorious displays of glory that Louis achieved the unification and pacification of a country previously riven by religious wars. His dedication to show lives on in the gardens he spent decades creating at Versailles. The relentless imposition of geometrical order on 37,000 acres of swampy land was not only a superb feat of engineering and a magnificent work of art, but also a grand microcosm of the monarch’s policies themselves. Just as whole villages like Trianon and Clagny were razed, and just as thousands of soldiers died in the construction of the reservoirs and aqueducts which fed the gardens’ hundreds of fountains, so Louis remorselessly expanded France’s territory and imposed on that enormous and disparate country the uniform rationalism of state administration.
The king was obsessed with the principle of reflection — from the Galeries des Glaces inside the palace to the effect created by the smooth waters of the Grand Canal in the gardens outside — and Versailles was therefore conceived and executed as a mirror for his rule over France as a whole. Just as Colbert, Louis XIV’s rather Gradgrind-like finance minister, built both the ceremonial canals at Versailles and also the commercial ones across the country as a whole, while promoting France’s power abroad by creating a navy (the French had only nine ships in 1660 but 112 by 1683), so the new fleet’s vessels were ceremonially launched on the waterways of the gardens of Versailles.
Ian Thompson, a landscape architect himself (with a degree in philosophy), has produced a superb account of the life of André Le Nôtre, the king’s gardener and the man who created the gardens which inspired the layout of everything from the Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland to Washington DC in the New World. The book is as delightful and masterly as the project it describes. Of all its delectations perhaps none is sweeter than the description of the various ceremonial fêtes for which the gardens at Versailles were designed as the stage: in 1674, for instance, a vast two-day celebration was organised for the annexation of the Franche-Comté. The king and queen stepped aboard decorated gondolas on the Grand Canal, surrounded by 650 illuminated statues and an assortment of fishes lit up by coloured lights; Neptune appeared, pulled by marine horses and Apollo rose into the air on his sun chariot; at the end of the canal was a palace floating on the water which seemed to have been built out of crystal, rubies and emeralds. As the display drew to a triumphal close, their majesties were paddled slowly back up the canal to the accompaniment of violins.
Louis surrounded himself with another ‘flower garden’ too, the bevy of France’s most beautiful girls, and this is Antonia Fraser’s main focus. More interested in the king’s private life than in his public one, and therefore somewhat like the gossip- mongers Louis himself excoriated, Fraser is fascinated (like Madonna) by the inter- action between religion and sex: she devotes considerable attention to the way in which flagrant royal adultery was condemned by the prelates of the day. If, according to Evelyn Waugh, Henry James was always peering over the garden fence to catch a snippet of the conversation at the tea-party on the lawn beyond, Antonia Fraser by contrast recounts the vicissitudes and intrigues of life at Versailles like a woman to the palace born, as if she were a senior courtier present at the events themselves. It is only a shame that she falls into the English trap of depicting priests as little but mean-minded peddlers of oral strictures, for it was precisely the glory of 17th-century Europe that the Church — emboldened by the imperatives of the Counter-Reformation, and having abandoned the stony and infertile path of Jansenism — adorned itself and its gloriously transcendent message with the same baroque magnificence as did the Most Christian King.