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"André Le Nôtre"

by Erik Orsenna , Moishe Black (Translator)

Braziller, George Inc, 2001

 

The story of André Le Nôtre, the creator of the Versailles gardens, and the most influent gardener in the history of Europe, is fascinating enough for any garden lover. Son and grandson of royal gardeners, Le Nôtre has risen, through a superior technical and esthetical mastery of the art of “beautifying” royal gardens, much above his original condition, achieving the post of “Contrôleur Général” of Royal Buildings, and of Arts and Manufactures of France in the time of the Sun King. These functions bear witness to knowledge and capacities which largely exceeded the limited field which gave him a place in history.

His innovations and inventions changed the green landscape of Europe. They made gardening an autonomous art, separating it from agriculture of which it was until then a simple component, and even making use of several areas of engineering, namely hydraulics. However, the main interest of this book resides, beyond his life as a gardener, in a profound analysis of the man Le Nôtre, and in the revelation of his special and life-long relationship with Louis XIV.

Erik Orsenna, member of the French Academy, former cultural counsellor of François Mitterrand, former president of the Higher National College of the Versailles Landscape, and an `habitué` of the behind-the-scenes of French politics, describes that relationship – also political, because helping the manifestation of royal power – in an original and somewhat accomplice way, resorting to own thoughts and sayings carved in the best style of the French Grand Siècle, among which the least surprising will certainly not be “gardeners please women” (warning to garden amateurs, mainly the married ones).

The simplicity which characterised his whole life and the recognised loyalty in his personal relations (he was, together with Mr. de la Fontaine, the only of the former protégés of Fouquet, the creator of Vaux-le-Vicomte, fallen in disgrace, that did neither reject nor forget him) made André Le Nôtre an intimate acquaintance of the king, who constantly showed him his friendship and esteem, causing scandal and envy among a part of the French royal court. As a matter of fact, the original title of the book in french, “Portrait d’un homme heureux", comes from a phrase uttered by the king while addressing him publicly, “Vous êtes un homme heureux, Le Nôtre”.

It is from this simplicity that arose one of the incidents narrated in the book, the papal kiss. While visiting Rome, Le Nôtre, a devout catholic, whose reputation as a great gardener had preceded him, had the honour to be received in audience by the Pope Innocence XI, a garden lover. The audience, which was supposed to be brief, lasted hours, because the Pope wanted to know everything about the Versailles gardens. At the end, Le Nôtre, touched by the papal goodness, instead of kissing the outstretched hand, kisses the Pope in the face, to the (protocol) horror of those present. When the story of this incident reached Versailles, told by the royal gardener itself in letters to his friends, it caused a furore. The Court was preparing to bet on its veracity, but the King intervened and advised to give up the betting, by saying “Don’t bet. Each time I return from a military campaign, Le Nôtre kisses me”.

 

A book about gardens is, above all, a book about the men that make them and the relations they establish around them.

 

(A choice by André Dourado)

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