The Beauty of Versailles with the Gardener-in-Chief

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

Alain Baraton, the gardener-in-chief at the Palace of Versailles, shares in his memoir, The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World's Grandest Garden (public library) how he came to work in the palace gardens and the many changes and people he has experienced since he started working at Versailles in 1976.

Many books have been written on the palace of Versailles, but Baraton sets out to tell a different story, one that focuses on the art and beauty of the gardens rather than the chateau:

The story I want to tell is one of a simple, intimate, and, I think, unknown Versailles - a gardener's Versailles (67).

Le Notre Gardens - photo credit: Guillaume Speurt

The Queen's Garden and Hamlet - photo credit: Mkonikkara

Through his work, Baraton reflects on the qualities of a good gardener:

The essential ingredient can be reduced to a single word: joy.  Our work may be tiring, but it is also extremely gratifying.  First of all, and not least of all, our surroundings are beautiful.  While the modern man leaves his car or commuter train to work in the cramped quarters often misleadingly called "open space," we spend our days in the fresh air, among flowers and trees.  In what other profession does the lunch break take place in a garden?  I think of my happy lunches each time I see an unfortunate man or woman who has escaped from the cafeteria to enjoy a sandwhich (perhaps even a bad one) on one of the first sunny days in April.  Gardens are calming.  It is revealing to see how fast people walk down the street on Paris's Rue de Rivoli, and then slow down to take their time as soon as they set foot in the Tuilieries's gardens.  This is a sign of a garden's marvelous capacity to give us, if not happiness, then at least rest (166).

Of course serving as the gardener-in-chief involves tasks that may not be as lovely yet contribute just as much to the beauty of the gardens and the experience of those who work and visit there:

Administrating the park of Versailles is somewhat like being at the head of a company.  With its 2,100 acres of terrain and more than a hundred employees, it's a veritable dominion.  The grounds require an enormous amount of care and cause no end of worries. Every day I have to make decisions about new projects and delegate work to a large number of personnel from different walks of life: team leaders, gardeners, apprentices, citizens sentenced to community service, and employees hired by our subcontractors.  My duty is to ensure that the park remains presentable, respecting the needs of both the tourist and the soul of the place (59).

Baraton also interweaves some of the history of Versailles into his memoir:

 Louis XIV built Versailles as a place for dreaming, materializing the images of his imagination.  He who had been raised steeped in the classics and who loved Italian dancing and paintings wanted to give life to the beauty in which he had been educated.  This was the reason he favored mythological scenes above all others.  The woods and gardens are the theater of ancient legends, and the statues their actors.  As a child, I often transformed my grandfather's garden into a fictional Death Valley, which I triumphed over some five hundred Comanches.  The little Louis must have seen himself as Hercules defeating the Lapiths - just a translation of era and upbringing.  But the monarch had the will, and above all else, the means to bring the fruits of his imagination into being.  Thus, his passion for Louise de la Valliere becomes the Grotto of Thetis - Apollo, served by nymphs and conquering the versatile and changing Galetea - how better to give expression to the royal fantasy?  This is where the megalomania begins, the king morphed from an aesthete into a creative force.  His daydreams became material marvels and Versailles was transformed from a peaceful retreat into the imposing palace that we know today (77).

The Bassin de Neptune - photo credit: Mkonikkara

The Fountain of Apollo - photo credit: Moonik