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Book Review: The Gardener of Versailles

The Gardener of VersaillesThe Palace of Versailles with its garden has a certain mystic and conjures up visions of grandeur and an extravagant life style, but is that the true picture of the place? Alain Baraton’s book, The Gardener of Versailles, presents his impressions of Versailles from his personal point of view as Gardener-in-Chief. He lives and works on the grounds and shares his experiences, impressions, and knowledge gleaned from his long and intimate relationship with the gardens.

The book was written with the aim of telling a simple, intimate, and unknown story of Versailles and reads like a memoir recounting various aspects of the Gardener-in-Chief’s life from personal to administrative. It begins with a description of the terrible devastation by the storm in December 1999 and feelings that arose in Baraton as he experienced and surveyed the destruction of the gardens. We learn about his background and how he become a gardener, his respect for the aesthetics of days when the gardens were created, and his unquenchable quest for information about the garden throughout history. He shares with the reader many gems from his treasure trove of information as he goes through French history from the time of Louis XIV giving us a more intimate look at some of historical figures that dominated the scene: Louis XIV’s great interest in the gardens was so keen that he wrote detailed instructions for viewing the garden at different times so as to take advantage of the best lighting; Marie Antoinette had a kind heart especially in regard to children; and La Quintinie left us a greater legacy than Le Notre. Yes, there are a few mentions of the depraved behavior at Versailles but these play a very small role in the book. Perhaps most endearing are the candid opinions of Baraton on everyday events as he notes, for example, that most guides have a wealth of mis-information that they hand out to visitors, that the modern training of gardeners is faulty, and that the mechanization of gardening is a big loss to the park.

The Gardener of Versailles takes you beyond the traditional grandeur of the palace and grounds and allows you to see them in a different perspective. Whether you are interested in Versailles or history there is plenty of material to make it a good read and it is presented in a casual, friendly way as though you were strolling along with the author as he attends to chores, recalls his memories, and verbalizes is frustrations. The love of the author for his plants and garden come out everywhere but nowhere more poignantly than when muses “Often, I even chat with my trees.” Unfortunately, there is not a single picture or diagram of the gardens so if you have not been there you will probably be lost. Even if you have visited the site, a diagram and some photos would add immensely to the overall enjoyment of the book.

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