Voltaire and the gardens of Versailles

Voltaire had known the Palace of Versailles since his thirties, when he prepared a divertissement there to celebrate Louis XV’s marriage in 1725. Some twenty years later he was a frequent visitor as Royal Historiographer. Yet when one consults Michel Baridon’s definitive Histoire des jardins de Versailles (Arles, 2003), one finds surprisingly few references to the philosophe.

The reason is not far to seek. Voltaire’s view of the Palace, particularly during his time as Historiographer, is highly ambivalent, often verging on distaste or worse. Despite (or even because of) the emoluments he was receiving from the King, he felt himself ‘enfourné dans une bouffonnerie’,[1] where, as ‘bouffon du roi à cinquante ans’, he is involved in futile occupations ‘avec les musiciens, les comédiens, les comédiennes, les chanteurs, les danseurs’, or otherwise rushing to and fro between the capital and the Château. ‘Je cours à Paris pour une répétition, je reviens pour une décoration’.[2] Many a modern-day commuter would sympathise. Though the fêtes are sometimes even more spectacular than in Louis XIV’s time,[3] it all amounts simply to ‘des feux d’artifice dont il ne reste rien quand ils sont tirés’.[4] In the Italian language that he reserves for many of his intimate letters with Madame Denis, he expresses himself unreservedly; Versailles is ‘un paese che io abhorrisco. La corte, il mundo, i grandi, mi fanno noia’ (‘un pays que j’abhorre. La cour, le monde, les grands m’ennuient’).[5]

But, more relevant to our enquiry here, what did Voltaire feel about the gardens themselves? Did he sometimes gaze in wonderment upon, say, the Grand Canal or the two Trianons? If he did, he seems not to have left any record. Perhaps the closest we can get to an answer is what he tells his friend Cideville about how he spends his time journeying between Versailles and Paris: ‘je fais des vers en chaise de poste’.[6] No trace of ‘recueillement’ there! Versailles meant nothing but work, with the occasional theatre or spectacle as diversions. Specific mentions of these gardens are rare in his works. Comment upon the Ingénu’s walk there, ‘où il s’ennuya’,[7] is trenchant. A letter to Thiriot includes them, but only metaphorically, when he comments in relation to the tragedy Sémiramis that ‘ses jardins [the heroine’s] valaient bien ceux de Versailles’.[8]

But in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, where Voltaire seeks to encompass every aspect of the reign, he cannot afford to omit any reference to the Versailles gardens. However, details here too are scarce. The architect Jules-Hardouin Mansard ‘ne put déployer tous ses talents’ at Versailles, for ‘il fut gêné par le terrain, et par la disposition du petit château’.[9] In a generic conclusion about ‘l’art des jardins’, nothing is said about Versailles, though the designer Le Nôtre is cited ‘pour l’agréable’ as too is La Quintinie ‘pour l’utile’.[10] The antithesis appears to be set up for aesthetic rather than objective purposes. Earlier, discussing the 1680s, he links up Versailles with Marly in a broadly dismissive comment: ‘la nature forcée dans tous ces lieux de délices, et des jardins où l’art était épuisé’.[11]

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

But are there any conceivable allusions to Versailles in any discussion of gardens in general? Here too material is scanty, even in the ‘contes’. But one work stands out: Candide, exceptional in this as in so many other ways. The tale contains no fewer than five different gardens:[12] Thunder-ten Tronckh; Eldorado; Pococurante’s palace and the old Turk’s ‘vingt arpents’, leading up to Candide’s ‘petite métairie’. For our purposes, most of these can be quickly disposed of. The Westphalian château is an ‘anti-jardin’, based on spurious concepts. Pococurante’s domain is an exercise in disillusion; a garden does exist, but it contains no more than ‘des colifichets’. Tomorrow its owner plans to start work on it, but prospects do not sound auspicious, as Martin realises; its ‘lendemain’ belongs to the same perspective as Godot.

But the other three are somewhat less skeletal. The Turk’s domain is purely pragmatic, and capable of delicious luxuries. Candide’s ‘petite terre’ copies these principles with apparent success, though the ending is shot through with irony. But neither of these evokes any suggestion of Versailles. Only with Eldorado may one discern some recollections of the great Château. Much emphasis is laid upon wealth and abundance of many kinds, some of this stress on luxury recalling similar accounts in Le Mondain. More piquantly, the King is intelligent, witty and socially adept; memories of Versailles hover. But once again, physical details are remarkable by their scarcity. While we know that the size of the Palace portal is precisely 220 x 100 feet, we know nothing about its substance: ‘il est impossible d’exprimer quelle en était la matière’. Irony predominates here, as everywhere else in Candide. Physical description is no more than its handservant.

– Haydn Mason

[1] Voltaire to the d’Argentals, 18 January 1745.

[2] Voltaire to Cideville, 31 January 1745.

[3] Voltaire to Mme Denis, 2 December 1745.

[4] Voltaire à Podewils, 8 March 1745.

[5] December 1745.

[6] See note 2, above.

[7] L’Ingénu, chap.9 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, vol.63c, p.247-48).

[8] 10 August 1746.

[9] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in Œuvres historiques, ed. R. Pomeau (Paris, 1957), p.1219-20. Baridon makes no mention of this.

[10] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.1220.

[11] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.930-31.

[12] A useful article has appeared on this topic: P. Henry: ‘Sacred and profane gardens in Candide’, SVEC 176 (1979), p.133-52. The present study addresses a more limited aspect.

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