The Global Roots of Marie Antoinette’s Secret Garden
The Palace of Versailles in France was designed to make jaws drop. It wasn’t just its colossal size, tons of marble, and painted frescoes that stunned 17th-century visitors (and continues to impress eight million annual visitors today). The gardens were also a symbol of the power of Louis XIV, bearing witness to the orderly magic and wonder that made designer André Le Nôtre gardens a the Frenchor French garden, widely copied in Europe.
But less than 220 meters from the palace, the discreet Bosquet de la Reine contrasts completely with the geometric precision of Le Nôtre. Here, Marie Antoinette called on the best botanists, architects and horticulturists to create a secret refuge from the prying eyes and rigid rules of the 18th century royal court.
While Le Nôtre’s symmetrical grandeur set the stage for theatrical evenings and parties fueled by fireworks, the grove was a place to hide behind a curtain of greenery. Bordered by thick wooded areas, the rectangular plot is inspired by English gardens. It was dotted with winding shrub-lined paths that connected arbors and flower-lined paths interspersed with benches for quiet rest.
The plot lasted more than two centuries. Then, in 1999, Storm Lothar, one of the “storms of the century” in France, devastated the gardens of Versailles, felling a total of 53 trees in the Queen’s grove. After years of funding and research, the two-year restoration unveiled last summer has faithfully replanted the grove with the same rich variety of species from Marie Antoinette’s time.
Walking through the grove is like stepping back to that time, when naturalists joined maritime adventures to hunt down specimens of rare species. These voyages were not only a means of creating new trade routes and expanding colonial empires; they were also an attempt to unlock the mysteries of the natural world in the Age of Enlightenment. The Queen’s Grove was planted with the fruits of these efforts, its valuable collection of plants today encapsulating an 18th-century zeitgeist.
“The Queen’s Bosquet is unique in Versailles,” explains Véronique Ciampini, manager of the gardens, who supervised the restoration. “At the time, this new trend of the English landscape garden was a complete break with the Versailles style. Marie Antoinette was seduced by this garden design, which created an emotional connection with the natural world, based on Rousseau’s philosophy and new ideas about the relationship between man and nature. This grove was the first in Versailles to celebrate plants.
A showcase of global biodiversity
Located next to the Orangerie, the Bosquet de la Reine once housed a maze of fountains depicting animals from Aesop’s fables that Louis XIV commissioned for the education of his son the Dauphin. Too expensive to maintain, the maze was eventually abandoned. A little over a century later, in the 1770s, Marie-Antoinette seized the opportunity to impose her own tastes on the coveted five-acre plot.
(This 17th century marvel fed the many fountains of Versailles.)
Its dream landscaping team, led by architect Michel-Barthélemy Hazon, was inspired by foreign species harvested during maritime expeditions around the world. Seeds were grown and plant cuttings were acclimatized at Versailles, both in the Trianon (now Grand Trianon) and in the Bosquet de la Reine. A showcase for global biodiversity, the Queen’s Grove was designed as a succession of open-air green spaces or “chambers”, each devoted to a different plant species.
The Queen’s horticulturists, Abbé Nolin and André Thouin, correspond with the best botanists in the world to exchange seeds and advice. The flourishing of this international scientific exchange has benefited Queen’s Grove. The original Judas tree came from the Middle East; cherry trees come from Japan. An abundant variety of plants came from the New World, since the Americas were in fashion. Among these were white fringe, chokeberry, chokecherry, and catalpa.
Virginia Tulip Poplar quickly became the Queen’s favorite and enhanced the main room, where she gathered with her children and close company. “It had first arrived at Versailles in 1732, and there was great hope for its potential size, not to mention the beautiful tulip-shaped flowers which were remarkably large for an ornamental tree,” says Ciampini. . The square-shaped area blossomed as expected. In the 1824 book Description of the surroundings of ParisAlexis Donnet wrote: “The Bosquet de la Reine, rich in foreign trees, offers the finest known arbor of tulip poplars.
(Here are five things you didn’t know about Marie Antoinette.)
“These plants weren’t just chosen for their provenance, but for the beauty and fragrance of their flowers,” adds Ciampini. “It was revolutionary at Versailles. Le Nôtre’s gardens were very green, like a giant green tapestry, punctuated with sculptures and fountain shows, but the flowers were not present.
Marie-Antoinette was a flower fanatic. In addition to her indulgence in sweets and fashion (nicknamed “Madame Deficit” for her expensive tastes, she reportedly had 170 dresses made each year), she was obsessed with roses. His collection was so famous that travelers from all over the world came to admire it.
Archive detective work
To restore the grove with historical accuracy, palace historians dug deep into the archives. Letters detailed the design of the grove in 1775. Thouin wrote that the space required “an artistic variety in the forms of the trees and their leaves, the color of their flowers, the period of flowering, the different shades of foliage”.
The Comte d’Angiviller, the director of the King’s Buildings responsible for the king’s building projects, described to Hazon how paths crossed ornamental shrubs, “sometimes in straight lines”, sometimes in curves. Equally helpful to the restoration team were the plant orders placed by 18th-century gardeners when replenishing the grove each season.
(These are some of the best places to see flowering plants.)
“Research has become serious detective work,” says Ciampini. “Sometimes the names of plants changed over time. For example, tulip poplar was sometimes referred to as “white wood” or “yellow wood” – these names came directly from translations by early botanical explorers of Native American words. »
For the restoration, a team of five gardeners (10 at peak times) replanted 650 trees (21 species and varieties), 6,000 flowering shrubs (46 species and varieties), 147 tulip poplars (each sponsored by a donor), and 600 bush roses. Because many varieties of Marie Antoinette’s roses no longer exist, the team chose 38 based on the delicate colors, full petals and scents the queen preferred.
The arboreal heritage is on display in the few old trees that survived the 1999 storm, including three 18th century tulip poplars and a magnificent Corsican laricio pine. The latter is one of the estate’s 30 trees listed on the “Admirable Trees” trail, which visitors can explore using the free audioguide of the Palace of Versailles app.
(Read all about what trees can teach us about life.)
Although the grove provided a source of peace for Marie Antoinette, it would also contribute to her demise with the so-called Affair of the Diamond Necklace. In 1784, an illicit encounter took place in the Queen’s Grove between a disgraced cardinal, hoping to regain the queen’s favor, and a woman posing as the queen.
In February 1785, the cardinal bought an exorbitantly expensive diamond necklace intended for the unwitting queen and gave it to a countess acting as an intermediary. Shortly after receiving it, the cunning Countess sold it off in pieces to fund her own extravagant lifestyle. When news of the scandal broke, the Queen’s reputation was irreparably tarnished, tied to subterfuge and debauched tastes. The incident fanned the flames of long-standing discontent that ultimately brought down the regime.
But before her forced expulsion from Versailles in 1789, the unfortunate queen was able to take refuge here in the plant world. Tucked away behind wrought-iron gates, the Queen’s Grove was a place to stroll in contemplative wonder along winding paths, through lush vegetation.
“This botanical palette was designed to inspire emotion and appeal to all the senses throughout the seasons,” says Ciampini. “We hope to create that same sense of surprise for today’s visitor.”