Inside the Labyrinth at Versailles

The Labyrinth of Versailles (1693) images courtesy of the Getty Research Institute, via archive.org

Amongst the boundless literature concerning the gardens at Versailles, this book from 1693 (first published in 1677) documents the labyrinth from a time when it housed a series of hydraulic statues, illustrating stories from Aesop’s fables.  As visitors followed pathways bordered by high hedges, at intervals they encountered fountains containing brightly painted representations of Aesop’s animal characters.  Jets of water spurting out from their mouths were intended to suggest conversations between the animals.

In the 17th century Aesop’s fables became popular across Europe as educational and moral stories for children.  As the English philosopher John Locke observed, they are ‘apt to delight and entertain a child, yet afford useful reflection to a grown man.’  Locke also observed that children responded to books of these fables better if they contained pictures.

The thirty nine Aesop themed fountains were the project of Louis XIV, installed in the early 1670s for the entertainment of his six year old son, who is said to have learned to read from inscriptions of the stories that accompanied each of the scenes.  Eventually falling into disrepair, they were removed in 1778 by Louis XVI to be replaced by a fashionable ‘jardin Anglais’.

Sebastien Le Clerc’s engravings for the Labarinte de Versailles are remarkable for their architectural precision, visible in the proportions of the hedges and trellis, and the elaborate stonework of the fountains, giving a real sense of what the garden looked like.  Trained as an engineer, Le Clerc (1637 – 1714) was considered such an excellent draughtsman he was persuaded to become a full time commercial artist.  An outline of each story is provided by Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), pioneer of the modern fairy tale, and a poetic version of the fable by Isaac de Benserade.

Visitors to the labyrinth are also depicted by Le Clerc, (together with their many dogs), but as a gardener myself I was intrigued to see that several engravings include gardeners as they go about their work maintaining the attraction.  A foreman appears to be directing them as they use various tools to trim the hedges including a sickle and a pair of shears, while the clippings are raked up into wheelbarrows to be taken away.  It’s a reminder, also, that in today’s photographs of grand gardens, people are almost always absent.

One of the interesting qualities of rare books like this one is that they sometimes bear the marks of their users – and this example from the Getty Research Institute has certainly seen some rough treatment from a child at some point in the past.  Some pages show pencil scribbles and one of the pages appears to have been torn out.  But was this book intended for children?  Just as Aesop’s fables appeal to both adults and children, perhaps it served a dual purpose – as a souvenir for adults, and as entertainment for children of very wealthy parents.

This plan shows the location of the Aesop themed fountains in the labyrinth.

This list of the thirty nine fables shown in the labyrinth has been embellished with a child’s scribbles in pencil.

Here follow some details of the gardeners at work in the labyrinth:

An axe and short handled mallet are being used here.

Does this little dog belong to the gardeners?

Here a gardener rakes around the feet of a visitor who seems reluctant to get out of the way. What is the gardener next to the wheelbarrow saying to him?

A gardener uses the wheelbarrow as a seat from which to rake the pathway.

One gardener uses a long handled sickle to cut the hedge.

Here the gardening team is out in force, one sweeping the gravel while another cuts the hedge with shears. Meanwhile a dog drinks from the fountain.

Further reading:

Labyrinte de Versailles from the Getty Research Institute, available via archive.org  The stories have been recorded in French, if you wish to listen to them.

The artist and engraver Sebastien le Clerc 1637 – 1714

Wikipedia the Labyrinth of Versailles

The Wikipedia page about Aesop’s Fables is well worth reading Aesop’s Fables

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