Ian Thompson’s book, The Sun King’s Garden, presents a cultural, social, and political history of the times that surround the creation of the gardens of Versailles. He shows how the gardens reflected not only the wants and needs of the King Louis XIV but also the traditions of the past as well as the talents and insight of landscape architect Andre Le Notre. Thompson’s story focuses on the triangular relationship between Louis XIV, Le Notre, and the gardens within the context of 17th century France.
Known as the Sun King, Louis XIV epitomizes absolutism and his gardens reflect his need for complete control. The book shows how Louis XIV created life at Versailles as a theatrical production to enhance his position and control the nobility with the help of Le Notre and others but had a love for the garden that was more than just political gain, staying involved with garden activities even while away on military campaigns. Although Louis XIV was self-centered, demanding, and ruthless, Le Notre managed to become quite close to the king and played the courtly game better than any of his peers or social superiors, expressing his displeasure with courtly wit. The intimate relationship between king and gardener to create a great garden is one of the most engrossing features of the book.
Entwined in the text are many other fascinating features like the descriptions of the many fetes held at Versailles, the horticultural techniques used at Versailles, and Le Notre’s design strategy that could cope with the constant changes that were demanded by the king’s love of innovation and need to surpass anything that existed anywhere. And then there is the more personal side of these characters and readers learn that Louis XIV liked to participate in ballets, that he could be easily manipulated by his architect Manart, and that Le Notre chose three snails and a cabbage for his coat of arms. Then to, there are wonderful anecdotes of court intrigues and gossip that are legendary and lend a lighter note to the text. Color and black and white reproductions of historic al artworks are included to give a sense of the times, gardens, and characters but are more ornamental that educational.
The Sun King’s Garden gives an overall picture of the court at Versailles during the time it was rising in prominence. Although little is known about Le Notre except through his garden design, Thompson has done well capturing the spark that existed between him and is king. Of interest to lovers of French history as well as of gardens, especially Versailles, this book is a very enjoyable read.
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