By Lauren G. Close
Title: Labyrinte de Versailles
Artist: Written by Isaac de Benserade (French, 1613-1691) and Claude Perrault (French, 1613-1688); etched by Sébastien Leclerc I (French, Metz 1637–1714 Paris); published by L’Imprimerie Royale, Paris
Dimensions: 8 7/16 x 5 13/16 x 3/4 in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Credit Line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1931
MMA Accession Number: 31.77.30
Published in 1677, Labyrinte de Versailles by Claude Perrault is a visitor’s guide to one of Versailles’ most remarkable garden attractions: the Bosquet du Labyrinthe. Begun in 1665 under the guidance of Louis XIV’s landscape architect André Le Nôtre, the Versailles Labyrinth was an intricate hedge maze situated in the Petit Parc. In 1669, Claude’s brother Charles Perrault, the French author and member of the Académie française (who was known for his stories Le Petit Chaperon rouge, Cendrillon and La Belle au bois dormant, written in the tradition of European folk tales) suggested to Louis XIV that Le Nôtre’s maze could be improved upon with the addition of thirty-nine hydraulic statues depicting the most popular of Aesop’s Fables. Perrault’s plan for the Labyrinth was approved and executed shortly thereafter in 1677.
Upon its completion, painted metal fountain sculptures by the French artists Jean-Baptiste Tuby, Étienne Le Hongre, Pierre Le Gros, and Gaspard and Balthazard Marsy were installed at key points in the Labyrinth’s maze. Each fountain was adorned with a marble plaque which named the fable portrayed and provided a summarizing quatrain of the story’s moral by the court poet Isaac de Benserade. Charles Perrault emphasized to his colleagues the importance of water as a metaphorical device for his fountain designs, suggesting that the streams emanating from the mouths of the animals symbolized the narrative interaction amongst the fables’ characters. Visitors to Versailles in the late eighteenth century admired above all the fountain that sat at the center of the Labyrinth, a work representing the fable of Le Combat des oiseaux, pictured here. In this fable, the beasts of the sky and the earth go to war so that the Bat, caught between the two camps, aligns himself with the terrestrial animals. When the Bat and his allies are defeated in decisive battle with the Birds, he is so ashamed that he can no longer fly during the day, becoming a creature of the night.
The Labyrinte de Versailles, an early publication representing the Labyrinth’s sculptures and their accompanying poems by de Benserade, was first released in 1675. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pocket-sized text, suitable for visitors wishing to wander the gardens of Versailles, dates to 1677 and features engravings by Sebastien Leclerc I. A later, third edition of the tourist guide featured colored versions of Leclerc’s etchings by the artist Jacques Bailly and was printed in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The Labyrinth proved a subject of international interest in the eighteenth century, and as such, English versions of the Labyrinte de Versailles were produced during the reigns of Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) and Louis XVI (r. 1774-1791).
The Labyrinth was a notable addition to the Versailles gardens not only for its complex arrangement of pathways and sightlines but also because the maze lacked, geometrically speaking, a central focal point or destination. The maze’s distinctiveness in this regard has led historians to question Le Nôtre and Perrault’s intentions for this structure, although some scholars contend that the Labyrinth’s physical arrangement allowed the visitor to metaphorically reenact mankind’s quest for “hidden wisdom.” Indeed, two statues located at the southern entrance to the maze (nearest the Orangerie) depicted the poet Aesop and the god Cupid holding a ball of twine. The presence of these two figures at the entrance to the Labyrinth referenced the maze’s dual symbolism: man’s search for wisdom (as personified by Aesop), and the mythological origins of the labyrinth itself (for Cupid and his string represent the myth of Theseus, the Athenian hero who navigated the Minotaur’s labyrinth with the help of his love, Ariadne).
Part of the Labyrinth’s appeal in the late seventeenth century stemmed from its supposed role in the education of the young Dauphin, Louis of France (1661-1711). According to Perrault’s guidebook, Louis XIV approved his plan to transform Le Nôtre’s Labyrinth once it had been established that the hydraulic fountains and their accompanying plaques would assist the Dauphin in his reading lessons. Certainly, Louis XIV was actively involved in the popularization of this garden “storybook.” In the tour guides which the king famously drafted for esteemed visitors to his palace in the late 1600s (including the Manière de Montrer les Jardins de Versailles of 1704), a scheme for navigating the Labyrinth was included. Yet it was the grand expense required to maintain and repair the Labyrinth’s hydraulic sculptures that eventually led to the closure of this ornamental garden feature in 1774. That year, Louis XVI began transforming the maze into an arboretum of exotic trees called the Bosquet de Venus, later retitled the Bosquet de la Reine.
[1. Robert Berger, In the Garden of the Sun King: Studies on the Park of Versailles under Louis XIV (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1985), 30.
[2. Stéphane Pincas and Maryvonne Rocher-Gilotte, Versailles: The History of the Gardens and Their Sculpture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 185.]
[3. Pincas and Rocher-Gilotte, Versailles, 29.]
[4. John Bowles, Versailles Illustrated, Or, Divers Views of the Several Parts of the Royal Palace of Versailles (London : Printed & sold by John Bowles, 1726). http://archive.org/details/gri_33125008463420.]
[5. Michel Conan, “The Conundrum of Le Nôtre’s Labyrinthe,” in Garden History: Issues, Approaches, Methods, ed. John Dixon Hunt (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1992), 122; Berger, In the Garden of the Sun King, 36.]
[6. Berger, In the Garden of the Sun King, 36.]
[7. Charles Perrault, Le Labyrinthe de Versailles, 1677 (Paris: Éditions du Moniteur, 1982).]
[8. Conan, “The Conundrum of Le Nôtre’s Labyrinthe,” 124.]
[9. Pincas and Rocher-Gilotte, Versailles, 182.]