Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Porcelain Trianon

With war and building and his own gloire, flowers were one of Louis XIV’s abiding passions, and he indulged in them with characteristic immoderation. Year in and year out, the royal accounts note stupendous payments for flowering bulbs and plants, purchased by the millions from the world over. Colbert bore the brunt of this obsession, receiving notes like the following, sent before a visit to Trianon in the fall of 1673: “I expect to find many flowers, late or forced. My brother said that the garden isn’t as full as usual and that Le Bouteux (the head gardener) was holding things in reserve; I hope this is the reason. Look into it.“

Missives from the Sun King's glorious battlefronts invariably open with his most pressing concerns, orange trees and gardens. “Madame de Montespan has informed me that you have given an order to buy orange trees,“ begins a letter to Colbert from the camp at Gembloux during the spring campaign of 1675. Le Nôtre, who disliked flower gardens, nevertheless designed a flower parterre for Versailles at the royal behest—it was in fact among the first work undertaken there—and Saint-Simon tells of the court fleeing Trianon one fine spring day, overcome by the perfume of tuberose hanging in the still air.

(At top: our watercolor elevation of the main pavilion, and below: an engraving of the garden elevation, with the Château of Versailles seen distant in the upper left corner.)

As the sober neoclassical Enveloppe finally rose about the king’s gilded house of cards at Versailles, a little Orientalist fantasy also rose at Trianon, a village of such inconsequence that to raze it required less than a tenth of the sum subsequently spent for the compound’s entrance grille. The Porcelain Trianon stood a mere sixteen years and has been cloaked in legend since 1687, when renovation work began that eventually led to the compound’s destruction and replacement by the Marble, or Grand Trianon. The small compound was conceived as a royal pleasure ground, a retreat dedicated to indulging the senses: to tasting delicacies, smelling rare flowers, listening to the songs of exotic birds, savoring privacy, and of course to making love.

Its enduring renown is surely warranted: Trianon’s five pavilions, profusely decorated in a fantastic, Chinoiserie style and arranged about two oval forecourts paved with faience tile, stood amid parterres set out with flowering plants grown in clay pots—by the early 1690s over a million pots were in constant use—allowing gardeners to change the beds while the king dined, offering the surprise of a fresh color scheme for his afternoon promenade.

The original name of the Porcelain Trianon was "le pavillon de Flore," indicating that the impetus for the compound sprang from this passion, perhaps even more so than the king’s passion for the Marquise de Montespan, and the king's love of flowers would endure long after Olympe, the ingratiating name given her by La Fontaine, had in her turn taken up exile, piety and expiatory good works. The reasons that impelled the Porcelain Trianon into being are simple to surmise and follow a familiar pattern, driven as always by the king’s desire to recycle beloved elements of the early Versailles, amplifying them until they were distorted beyond recognition.

Construction of the Enveloppe entrained the loss of the king’s favorite spot in the park of Versailles, the Parterre des Fleurs, a flower garden on the south terrace of the Old Château. The Parterre was enclosed by a gilded balustrade lined by cypress and other evergreens, with tole vases holding orange trees, painted to resemble porcelain, set out at intervals against them, the intricate tracery of beds within “filled with a thousand sorts of flowers.“ (Below, our watercolor recreation of one of the painted-tole Chinoiserie vases at Trianon.)

The site for the new compound was fore-ordained: the vast Latin Cross of the Grand Canal was in the midst of being excavated and the Ménagerie, sited at the end of the Canal’s southern cross-arm, begged for a northern pendant. (In the twilight of the reign, Madame de Maintenon once blurted out, for no apparent reason, “Symmetry! I’ll die from symmetry!“) And finally the prospect of the greatly enlarged château, brimming with indolent courtiers, was undoubtedly judged by both participants as a looming impediment to the king's deepening involvement with Madame de Montespan (below).

In stylistic terms, the Trianon de Porcelaine, like the king's earliest campaign of gilded embellishments at Versailles, ultimately reflects the influence of the opulent interiors in which Louis XIV spent his youth. It was a crammed, intimate splendor, defined by the taste of his mother and Mazarin—a style that confounded the regal taste of the Spanish Habsburgs with the Cardinal’s fondness for the Italianate baroque. (Below: the family of Louis XIV by Jean Nocret. Few images exist of the interiors of the king's youth, but this painting gives us a good idea of what they would have been like.)

Likewise, this same touchstone of displaced parental affection, transmuted by the alchemy of the Sun King’s insatiable appetites—in 1670 a note from the king exhorted Colbert to “Press (the gardener) Le Bouteux and don’t let him lose a single moment“—engendered horticultural feats at Trianon repealing the natural law and that even today appear wantonly extravagant: jasmine and orange trees grown directly in the earth, protected in winter by demountable greenhouse structures, and parterres that were daily replanted with potted, greenhouse-forced flowers, even through the winter months.

As it was Europe’s first chinoiserie building, predating its earliest successor by well over a half-century, the Porcelain Trianon has gathered something of the miraculous about it—as if, as the court chronicler Félibien phrased it, the buildings had sprung up overnight after a spring rain. Built in a few months in the spring of 1671, the compound did indeed seem miraculous, though its remarkable, densely ornamented roofs were created by a large team of sculptors and ornamental painters in a second campaign that began two years later. One of the enduring myths concerning the compound is that its roofs were covered in porcelain tiles; however, our research shows that they were actually sculpted lead sheets painted to represent porcelain.

Scholars, faced with the horror vaccui of no clearly discernible precedent for a building manifestly without precedent, have long attempted to identify influences and tendencies that informed its design, the majority of them perfectly justified. However, what is most intriguing about the Porcelain Trianon is not so much that it was the first building of its kind, but that it was so thoroughly naïve. As architecture Trianon is nearly pure ornament, the embodiment and the proof of the idea that the fêtes in Versailles’ park inspired the bosquets and structures later erected there.

The compound’s architecture is pure scenography, a dazzling tour-de-force of baroque excess. Its Orientalist ornament, on close inspection, is purely French, executed with unlimited resources but without the rigor imparted by knowledge or the fire of inspired invention. As the president of the Société des Amis de Versailles remarked upon first viewing our watercolor reconstruction, "Oh la la! Ça c'est du kitsch!" One hears the voice of Madame de Montespan, inventor of the garden bosquet with the literally weeping willow, behind it all. (Below: an engraved view the courtyard side of the compound.)

Mostly this flatness was the fault of ignorance; in 1670, one simply had no idea what Chinese buildings looked like, let alone their materials, detailing and planning. Partly it was due to the terrible time constraints imposed by the relentlessly impatient king and his haughty, spoiled mistress, who saw to it that the pavilions flew up in a moment; and partly it was due to the architect Louis Le Vau’s health: he died in the midst of construction and while alive could not possibly have devoted the time and energy necessary to create anything more than a piece of stage decor, if indeed he was architect at all. (We believe the compound was a collective work and that the First Architect Le Vau, the First Painter Charles Le Brun and the royal gardener André Le Nôtre each had a hand in aspects of the design.)

Bizarrely, though the compound is traditionally attributed to him, Le Vau is mentioned but once in the relevant royal accounts, having supervised the destruction of the village of Trianon in 1663. Otherwise, like all the other royal buildings of the period, the Porcelain Trianon's architect is undocumented, which is an absurd state of affairs for France in the 1670s and indicates that a policy was in place demanding anonymity of royal architects, the better to propagate the freshly formed construct of the omnipotent and omniscient Sun King. The only contemporary attribution is that of the royal chronicler, Félibien, who claimed that Trianon’s architects were actually cupids and sprites; how utterly charming.

The Porcelain Trianon’s exoticism nonetheless had deeper referents, most importantly its intimation of the king’s boundless dominion over even the most distant empires, as well as his ability to suspend the seasons, but assessing Trianon as a serious piece of architecture is ultimately misleading and it should rather be judged on its own terms, as an amusing bauble of a building that pretended to little more. (Below: a table conserved at the Getty Center in Malibu almost certainly created for the compound.)

On this account, it was an unparalleled success, the first true folly of Louis XIV’s reign and the spiritual prototype for all chinoiserie pavilions that followed, just as the estate itself was a precursor of the English-inspired folly parks of the late eighteenth century, in which the world and its cultures were abstracted to furnish a nobleman’s amusement.

Félibien captured the charmed essence of Trianon, the ineffable atmosphere of indulgence that erased all criticism, when he called it “a little palace in an extraordinary style, and the perfect place to pass the time on a summer’s day.“ This is the very definition of a folly, encompassing pleasure, idleness, fantasy and amusement, and judging by these criteria the Trianon was a resounding triumph.


  1. It's absolutely true. The Porcelain Trianon is mythical because it could never possibly be built today. It had to be the prettiest building ever like a marble jewel box which you could step inside. It doesn't surprise it stood for only a short time. It became just as elusive as the feelings of grandeur and beauty it meant to inspire. Those poor men who broke their backs and lost sleep constructing and maintaining it and now it's all gone. Aristocracy - thank God it's over.

  2. Wow Nelson Click, you sound like a shoot-from-the-hip communist. Straight from Bastile Day. (Interestingly, it appears it was the English who first had just earlier started the trend to execute their monach, to possibly inspire the seeds of incitement in their former-territory neighbours across the Channel, the French. And yet centuries later, the English monarchy arose to lead the worlds greatest empire where the sun never set). Instead of Aristocracy, the world now has dictators in all "glorious" forms. If it wasn't for the French Aristocracy, the world would be an asthetically poorer place. Alone, the incredible French contribution to the Renaissance, suppositioned with the French haute couture standard in all manner of lifestyle/ civility, the French Aristocracy has greatly enriched the western world/ humanity. And all this legacy-magnifience can be underlyingly attributed to those inspired artisans and master craftsmen/ women challenged with the quest to satisfy their heads-of-State of the time. Sure, things could have been better/ fairer, the path of history shows that there has always been quality, or maligned, leaders/ leadership systems. Is there a place for responsible royalty in the world today; Aristocracy has survived and for many people represents heritage and cultural identity continuity.