Marie Antoinette Would Be Proud

After years of deliberation, Versailles has begun to replant the Queen’s Grove.

An area of linear design in the Queen’s Grove at Versailles, pictured before renovations began this year.
Credit...C Fouin/EPV

VERSAILLES, France — In 1775, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were living at the Palace of Versailles, its nearly 2,000 acres of gardens were open to the public, as they are today. So the queen wanted an area she could enjoy privately, with her children and friends.

In the last few years, the palace has called on skilled designers, historians, botanists and gardeners to apply their expertise to the complicated work of restoring that spot, called Le Bosquet de la Reine, or the Queen’s Grove.

It is an area of about four acres where Louis’s great-great-great grandfather, Louis XIV, planted a labyrinth, or maze, in 1665-66. But by the young queen’s time, a maze was no longer “plus à la mode,” Jacques Moulin, the chief architect of historic monuments at Versailles, said in late February as he sat in his office overlooking the palace’s expansive forecourt. (On March 13 Versailles closed to visitors indefinitely as part of France’s efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.)

In the late 1700s, he said, “the garden had to be in the image of man: an educated, aristocratic man versus a peasant. Trees had to be straight” and linear designs were favored. The gardens were, after all, he said, “a symbol of royalty.”

But Marie Antoinette, always up on the latest fashions, also was fond of the English landscape gardens of the time, the kind created by Capability Brown, with romantic meandering paths and beautiful vistas.

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So, in the end, the plan for her private garden replaced the maze with a France-meets-England compromise, designed by Michel-Barthélémy Hazon, an architect. There was a central square planted with tulip trees in straight rows, like soldiers at attention. But the space between it and the rectangular perimeter was packed with fruit trees, flowering shrubs and beds bursting with pansies, tulips, roses, jasmine and chrysanthemums — chosen because they would bloom at different levels and so there would be blossoms throughout the growing season. And the area was interwoven with benches and rambling paths.

The plan offered both sun and shade, and so many paths that “a person could walk for two hours without taking the same path,” Mr. Moulin said. Bronze statuary that would develop a patina he described as “a discreet shade of green,” unlike the painted white-marble statuary that had dotted the maze, was chosen to delight the eye.

It took three years, to 1778, to complete the grove. More than a decade later, French revolutionaries captured, and later killed, the royal couple and took over the palace and its grounds.

“The garden of Marie Antoinette experienced the same fate as Marie Antoinette,” Mr. Moulin said. Lacking proper care, the grove became overgrown. Flowers withered away and trees died. Much of the statuary was stolen or shipped to the Louvre.

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By 1830, when Louis Philippe assumed the throne, Versailles had been abandoned and was in such disrepair that there was talk of tearing it down. But the king wanted it restored, and the costly, ever-evolving process has been continuing at the 2,300-room palace ever since.

The Queen’s Grove had long been on the list of needed renovations when, in December 1999, a fierce storm with hurricane-force winds that killed more than 60 people across Europe also devastated the palace grounds. About 15,000 trees, including many in the grove, were uprooted.

Versailles’ caretakers prepared a recovery plan that, again, included restoration of the grove. But should it be recreated in its original plan, with the maze? Or as it was in Marie Antoinette’s day? Discussions continued for years, until the queen’s design triumphed. And the project, estimated to cost 1.8 million euros ($2 million), finally began early this year.

Anyone looking left out the windows of Versailles’ glittering Hall of Mirrors can see the wooden trellises and shrubbery of one corner of the Queen’s Grove. The trellises enclose what now seems more like an overgrown vacant lot than a proud monument to French patrimoine. But its appearance has been improving.

During my visit in late February, Véronique Ciampini, a horticultural and landscape engineer who is the grove’s construction manager, waited for me next to a gate of black wrought-iron poles, tipped in gold. In Marie Antoinette’s time, guards were posted there so only those with invitations from the queen could enter. Today, the gate bears a sign identifying “Le Bosquet de la Reine.”

Wearing a hard hat and rubber boots and clutching a roll of blueprints showing the garden plans, Ms. Ciampini walked along a muddy path lined with overgrown bushes to a clearing. There, in the center of the grove, a bulldozer and four workers, also in hard hats and boots, were planting tulip trees.

Credit...Antoine Roucher/EPV

The trees — their botanical name is Liriodendron tulipifera were saplings, from seven to 10 years old and all around 10 feet tall, their skinny trunks extending from root balls being dropped into holes. Fifteen were being planted each day, in strict straight lines. By early March, 147 had been placed, joining four trees that have survived more than two centuries. One, a Corsican pine, is believed to have been planted during the early 1800s. The others are tulip trees from Marie Antoinette’s day, the stars of the grove, their delicate bare branches forming a lace-like tracery against the gray winter sky.

The queen was especially fond of tulip trees, and likely only knew about the North American native thanks to Louis XV, her grandfather-in-law. He was a keen botanist, and in the spirit of the day, as explorers from throughout Europe roamed the globe, he was captivated by exotic plants and had about 4,000 different ones at Versailles.

He also built nurseries around the world — including one in New York and one in Virginia, Mr. Moulin said, although he did not know specific locations — to propagate such specimens as cedars from Lebanon, cherry trees from Japan, Ginkgo biloba from China and tulip trees.

In 1732 Louis XV planted the first of the tulip trees at Versailles. “Trees don’t usually have flowers,” Mr. Moulin said. But not only did the tulipier, the tree’s name in French, produce flowers, but they are great big, beautiful, white or yellow tulip-shaped ones that perfume the air with a delicious scent in spring. (Ms. Ciampini said it will be several years before the newly planted trees start to bloom.)

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The tree can grow nearly 200 feet tall, and its leaves turn a burnished gold come autumn. “Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were beneficiaries of Louis XV’s efforts,” Mr. Moulin said. But the couple did not share his passion and shipped off some of his exotics to the Jardin des Plantes, the national botanical garden in Paris, where their descendants flourish today.

Final planting lists are still being determined. But next winter, when temperatures cool again, the second phase of the restoration will include planting flowering trees like the white fringetree and laburnum; bulbs, including tulips; and perennials. Then, to complete the project, reproductions of the queen’s statuary will be installed (the originals, in the Louvre, are considered too fragile to move outdoors again).

Not too far from the grove stands the Orangery. About 900 bitter orange trees, planted in square metal boxes faced with oak, are sheltered in winter under its vaulted ceiling and used in summer to decorate its parterre as well as the Élysée Palace, the French president’s residence in Paris. But they also are helping to revive the grove.

When any of the trees at Versailles bear fruit, the oranges are composted using a recipe that is “handed down from gardener to gardener,” said Nicolas Aubailly, one of the gardeners. “There are no books. You listen, you learn and then you pass it on to others.”

And where is the compost used? “Right now in the planting of the tulipier in the Queen’s Grove.”

Credit...2BDM Architecture et Patrimoine, Jacques Moulin ACMH

But that interplay of nature, a natural rhythm we might call sustainability or ecological awareness, still needs constant maintenance. And the gardens, like the palace itself, are always in need of attention, according to Versailles’s president, Catherine Pégard.

Ms. Pégard — a former editor in chief of the weekly French newsmagazine Le Point, as evidenced by the books stacked on her office floor in what once had been servant’s quarters, down the street from the palace — said her mission is “to open Versailles to the world.”

During her seven years as its top executive, the palace has opened 65 rooms that had not been public or were used only occasionally for events, including such special places as the Queen’s House in the Hamlet, the rustic retreat where Marie Antoinette entertained friends. Renovating the grove, Ms. Pégard said, is no different from “restoring a room of the queen’s in the palace.”

As support from the government has declined in recent years, luxury giants like Dior and Rolex as well as French brands like the building materials manufacturer Saint-Gobain have helped finance continuing restoration at locations like the Royal Chapel and the king’s private chamber. But, for the grove, individuals are being asked to donate from €1,500 for a tulip tree to as much as €150,000 for the cherry tree arbor — and earlier this year Versailles administrators had hoped that Americans would step up.

After all, Americans — including John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1920s — have provided millions over the years for the palace’s restoration. And “Americans were the first and the biggest foreign contributors after the storm of 1999,” said Sophie Lemonnier, director of patrimony and the gardens at Versailles.

But, “we could not imagine that a few months later a global health crisis would close the doors of this castle,” Ms. Pégard said. “Today our two countries are affected by the same drama. But we want to look at the Queen’s Grove as the symbol of the reunion that we are sure to experience. As we have always experienced after the tragedies.”