Saturday, March 3, 2012


We are awash with work at the moment and so are adapting a chapter from our first book, Pleasure Pavilions and Follies, so as not to linger too long without posting. We devoted a chapter of Palaces of the Sun King to Marly as well.

When Louis XIV decided that Versailles would be the seat of his government, he began looking for "someplace small and solitary" to serve as a royal retreat. "Behind Louveciennes he found a deep, narrow valley, completely shut in, swampy and inaccessible and without any view, but with a wretched village called Marly clinging to the hillside... a haunt of snakes, frogs and toads."

The king was overjoyed, continued Saint-Simon incredulously, and "the hermitage was made. At first it was for sleeping from Wednesday to Saturday, two or three times a year, with a dozen courtiers. But slowly it grew. Hills were leveled to make room for buildings, and at the end [of the valley] they were paired to create the semblance of a view."

Marly became the aging king's obsession. He tinkered endlessly with its gardens and a dizzying succession of bosquets and basins, fountains and allées appeared and disappeared like so many stage sets. Hundreds worked through the night by torchlight to carry out extraordinary transformations between visits and one Swedish visitor remarked that there a half-year's work was completed in a week.

These extravagances led Saint-Simon to claim, "It is a modest estimate to say that Versailles did not cost as much as Marly," but the result of all these labours was to him "A fairies' palace, unique in Europe." The otherworldly metaphor was invoked repeatedly to describe Marly: "Everything there seemed to have been created by the magic of a fairy's wand," wrote Madame Campan; "Fauns and sylphs people its shadows," wrote Abbé Jacques Delille. For Madame, the king's sister-in-law, fairies worked in its gardens; for Diderot, who visited during the reign of Louis XVI, Marly seemed a monument to a great, departed race.

The compound (above, an engraved view of the entry axis), which we attribute to the king's First Painter and master allegorist, Charles Le Brun, inverts everything about the French château. Marly is built in a valley, not on a promontory; it is embowered in greenery, not dominating its landscape; it is frescoed, not built of limestone; and its elements are atomized and dispersed about its site, not unified to project power and grandeur. Frankly, such sophistication was simply beyond the knowledge and capacities of Marly's traditionally recognized architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, though he did act as the estate's executing architect but used this position to claim authorship after Le Brun's disgrace and death.

Marly's plan, inspired by Michelangelo's Campidoglio in Rome (above), places the foursquare, Palladian Royal Pavilion (our watercolor reconstruction appears at top) as the centerpiece of a self-consciously theatrical perspective, dominating the parallel ranks of the Courtiers' Pavilions, ranged six to a side before the central reflecting basins. (Jefferson visited Marly while ambassador to France and in turn adapted its plan for the University of Virginia, below.)

The pavilions sat amid trellised bowers trained with honeysuckle and clematis, small guest cottages with one upstairs and one downstairs apartment, notorious for their smoking fireplaces, for the king did not wish chimneys disfiguring their silhouettes. Caught midway between the intimate bosquets and arbors and the open vista of the Piece d'Eau, the Courtiers' Pavilions were a metaphor for Marly itself, suspended between worlds: "These pavilions, isolated and almost embowered in a forest, seem to be the dwellings of subaltern spirits," wrote Diderot.

(Below, our watercolor elevation of Le Brun's first scheme for the Pavilion of Abundance.)

Charles Le Brun's extensive and innovative use of Italianate fresco made Marly unique: the facades of all main buildings were richly decorated with trompe-l'œil architecture. Exterior frescoes were extremely rare in France but at Marly, at an unprecedented scale, illusionistic skill replaced architectural elements and paint mimicked lavish materials. It was an extravagant and unprecedented gesture that cemented Louis XIV's position as a bold, confident patron and taste-maker, and all of Europe took notice.

"Sire, Marly!" echoed hundreds of times as Louis XIV passed through Versailles. An invitation to Marly was the most coveted honor at court and yet another instrument with which the king controlled the aristocracy. Bontemps, the royal valet (who could as well have been named by Dickens), announced the chosen few a day before each journey, and the voyages, during which the king paid all expenses, were so exclusive that Madame remarked: "Not even ambassadors or envoys are allowed there." Obsessed by rank, she fretted that "there was nothing resembling a court" at Marly: men were permitted to don their hats during the royal promenade and everyone was allowed to sit in the king's presence.

For Madame, anarchy reigned, but Marly's relaxed atmosphere gave rise to many of the reign's lightest moments. It was there that the king actually sang, accompanied by one of his daughters, and where little Marie-Adelaide surreptitiously sewed a seventy-year-old duchess to her tabouret, then lit firecrackers beneath her.

The gardens offered more profound pleasures, described by Diderot:
Countless yews clipped a hundred-thousand ways border a parterre of the grandest simplicity, leading to bowers of indescribable lightness and elegance. They rise up the hillsides, leading the eye into the depths of the forest; only the closest trees are clipped, the rest are left rustic and wild... this progression from nature to art, and of art to nature, creates a veritable enchantment. leave the parterre, where the hand and mind of man are used so exquisitely, and go to the hillside above—it is silence, wilderness, the horror of Solitude. It is simply sublime. What a mind conceived these gardens!

To balance the sublime there was also the ridiculous. La Ramasse, a roller coaster on wooden tracks, ran for nearly a half-kilometre through the upper gardens; dukes and duchesses sat in the blue-and-gold wagon while the king stood at the back, a royal trolley conductor. Another bosquet held a large communal swing, and there were also the quieter diversions of admiring the flowerbeds—replanted daily, which absorbed 18 million bulbs in four years—or enjoying twilight concerts as musicians played to one another from hiding places throughout the gardens.

Madame de Maintenon wrote: "We act at Marly like idlers. All day long the king of France plants and the king of Spain hunts, and all night long they play games in my room." Madame found only praise for Marly, where she thought fairies worked: "Where I left a lake, I find a grove and a bosquet; where I left a forest, I find a large basin, into which some thirty admirably beautiful carp will be released this evening."

The Royal Carp

"I built Versailles for the court, Marly for my friends and Trianon for myself," Louis XIV once declared. But this is not quite true, unless one understands that when the king spoke of his friends, he was referring to his carp, kept in porcelain-tiled basins near the château. His mania began at the turn of the eighteenth century and as word spread of the old king's new passion, barrels of carp arrived from across France. The Dauphin sent blue carp from Meudon, the duc de La Rochefoucauld pink carp from the moats of Liancourt, and green-and-gold carp arrived from Fontainebleau.

The king was so obsessed by their beauty that Saint-Simon quipped he would soon order the royal painters to freshen their scales. The fish were constantly shifted from basin to basin as their master carried on an obsessive quest for the perfect carp pond, while a baker spent his days baking biscuits, their only food, thereby increasing their staggering mortality rate, despite the fact that carp are the hardiest of fish.

The king often described himself as the shepherd of his aquatic herd and his favorite of all was a golden carp he named La Dorée. He always stopped to talk to it during his daily promenade but one day he could not spy the fish and ordered the basin emptied, only to find La Dorée dead.

When the queen had died he had been merely inconvenienced; Madame de Montespan's death passed almost unnoticed and Louise de La Vallière had died for him the day she took the veil, but La Dorée's demise was a terrible blow. He would not speak for the remainder of the day and refused even to see the diplomatic courier.

That the king was mourning the death of a fish did not escape Parisian wags, and a verse soon began to make the rounds:
A courier arrived at Marly
That one had better see,
But the Hussar who guards the door
Told him, "Take yourself away!
The favorite carp is no more
And no one will be received today!"


  1. Wonderfully informative post and the bit about the carp gave me a good laugh! Really enjoyed the inspiration train, for lack of better words, of Rome to Marly to UVA. And the small carnival rides, fascinating! Thanks!

  2. Really enjoyed this post. The images are wonderful. We visited Marly in 2009 (did a blog post on it) but I must say your commentary is beautifully done. Thanks for bringing back this beautiful place. Bob