Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Beautiful Fall

In this autumn of our discontent, when today's Washington Post lead headline reads "United in anger, 'Occupy' protests go global," it seems a fitting moment to discuss the garden architecture of pre-revolutionary France. You may smile—indeed we hope you do—but also do recognize that the two subjects are far from being non sequiturs and in fact the garden buildings erected for the aristocracy during the reign of Louis XVI foreshadow later events as presciently as any scandals or political machinations of the period.

Lest we forget, in 1663 Colbert had advised the young Louis XIV (well before he had done anything of serious note) that nothing would increase a monarch's reputation more than glorious exploits in war and building impressive monuments. War and building were uttered in the same breath and indeed were twin pillars of the Sun King's reign: architecture held the highest strategic importance and building was a tool second only to war in the state's policy arsenal. (Below: Versailles, what Louis XIV built to amuse himself.)

As Louis XIV's legacy played out, his successor, Louis XV, naturally timid and reclusive, built intimate pavilions rather than palaces, the pendulum swinging in the mid 18th century to its opposite apogee. In part this was because his predecessor had bankrupted France with his wars and his monuments—to which Louis XV was obliged to add his own, without ever undertaking the necessary reforms to support them. The perpetual, unstated bankruptcy of the state, thrown to a crisis pitch after the disaster of the Seven Years' War, would mean that bills simply were not paid—not that expenses were seriously curtailed. Royal architects, clerks and draftsmen worked years without pay; gardeners starved and finally deserted; maintenance was deferred and broken windows were replaced by oiled paper. The king would most famously say, "Après moi le déluge," and he could not have been more correct, or more cynical. (Below: the Petit Trianon, what Louis XV built to amuse himself.)

Louis XVI, even more timid and maladroit than his predecessor, built next to nothing. (The Sun King's great legacy and burden had run to ground, perfectly illustrating the old adage of "Clogs to clogs in three generations," but in this instance the fortune built and squandered by the Bourbons was that of Europe's richest and most populous nation.) It was Louis XVI's queen, Marie-Antoinette, who commissioned nearly all royal building during the reign, to the extent that she provoked scandal by creating the position of first architect to the queen. (Below: the Marlborough Tower at the hameau, what Louis XVI's wife built to amuse herself while the king amused himself with clockworks.)

The manifest decadence of her elaborate farmers' hamlet at Trianon, le hameau, whose rustic stucco walls were cracked and aged by artisans, provoked the scorn and ire of her subjects, who rightly saw a queen playing milkmaid with Sevres jugs at Versailles while there were bread riots in Paris as contempt for their plight. Likewise, the hameau was taken as certain proof that consideration of the people's opinion did not even cross their rulers' minds; even hypocrisy would have been preferred to having simply been forgotten—or in the queen's case, to having never entered her consciousness at all. It is safe to say that the hameau, along with the infamous diamond necklace scandal, cost the queen her head exactly 218 years ago today. (Below: a Sevres milk bowl and stand, commissioned by Marie-Antoinette for the dairy at Rambouillet.)

More broadly, though, the last decade before the revolution witnesses the French aristocracy—or more accurately that portion of it attached to the court—building ever more elaborate gardens and shoehorning onto them ever more and ever more exotic follies. The competition was fierce and a desperate rage for exoticism gripped the players. Here we quote from our first book, Pleasure Pavilions and Follies:

These late follies offered a boundless repertoire of imagery: pagodas evoked the Orient, innumerable thatched huts hearkened to Edenic idylls, farm villages presented a supremely false vision of peasant life, temples and rotundas echoed the Ancients. All the world and all its cultures were plundered to provide adornments for a nobleman's garden, leading the prince de Ligne to bemoan in 1781 that "Chinese buildings reek of the boulevards and sideshow fairs," and that "Gothic houses, too, are becoming too common." He proposed instead the hitherto untapped ornamental possibilities of Moldavian huts and allowed that Arab and Turkish styles had not yet been exhausted.

(Below: the mosque at Armainvilliers, built for the princesse de Lamballe, intimate of the queen, by an indulgent father who also happened to be the richest man in France.)

De Ligne, another intimate of the queen and someone for whom the oxymoron "profoundly frivolous" could have been coined, had captured the zeitgeist perfectly; in fact, he incarnated it, bragging that he ordered all his follies and suits on credit.

This decadence also expressed itself financially, as it always does. De Ligne, like the baron de Saint-James, the duc de Choiseul and others, bankrupted himself on his gardens, just as, in the late 1780s, the French state was borrowing against projected tax receipts decades hence. If one stops to ponder, it is simply extraordinary that someone like the duc de Choiseul, who ruled France for over a decade as de facto Prime Minister for Louis XV, could bankrupt himself at all, and that he had done so upon a garden. All these élites throwing all their money into gardens, their progeny be damned—quite the spectacle. And what is a garden in the end but a useless fantasy, a cipher for Eden, for paradise, an escape?

(Below: the Lake Pagoda at the Folie Saint-James, which, as its name indicates, stood on wooden pilings sunk into an artificial lake, and was reached by a fretwork Chinoiserie skiff.)

These bankruptcies showed great determination, since the élite had abandoned both traditional stone construction and the cheaper but inferior method of rubble-fill and stucco as well. They had also abandoned the formal French garden of Le Nôtre for Anglo-Chinese folly gardens and also for Masonic gardens, since they had also abandoned the Church and freemasonry was rampant. They built for novelty and effect, not permanence. They erected literally hundreds of flimsy stick-and-lathe structures, crass bastardizations of the world's native cultures, from pagodas to teepees, most of which would not survive the next decade let alone the next century. Or they squandered immense sums on absurdities such as an enormous boulder destined for a grotto in the baron de Saint-James' garden—a stone that required 40 draft horses to drag from the forest of Fontainebleau to Neuilly. (Louis XVI came upon the Sisyphean scene while hunting and, flabbergasted, inquired about the owner, and thereafter referred to Saint-James—who died a pauper in the Bastille—as "the man with the rock.")

Fake tombs and real hermits were also much in vogue. The princesse de Monaco, mistress of the prince de Condé, commissioned an entire "Valley of the Tombs" for her estate of Betz and also kept a hermit, who was forbidden to speak, to animate her thatch-roofed ermitage. The marquis de Girardin also kept a hermit, whose ermitage was praised in a guide for its Spartan furnishings, and moreover the marquis had the great good fortune that his most famous guest, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, died while visiting Ermenonville, permitting him to inter the great writer in a pseudo-antique sarcophagus on a small island in the lake fronting his château, making Rousseau's corpse the ultimate in morbid garden ornaments-cum-prizes. (Above: Girardin's Spartan-chic ermitage at Ermenonville; below: Rousseau's tomb.)

The list of instances of wretched excess and breathtaking decadence, of abandoned traditions and frivolous dilettantism, of willful blindness and stunning naïveté, of callous inhumanity and ostentatious self-gratification could go on for volumes, and this is only history as told through garden follies. The revolution, when it came, swept over France with unparalleled fury; hideous vengeance was exacted and it required well over a century for the country to settle finally into stable democratic rule. We'll leave it at that.

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