Monday, September 2, 2013

A Stroll Through Marie Antoinette's Garden (From Marie Antoinette's Garden by Elisabeth de Feydeu)

A spellbound wilderness I saw
Painted as by Taste herself;
That celebrated garden fair
That work of Art, and Nature's glass,
Her work surpass'd by hand of Man
O' Trianon, may winter's chill
and icy blasts your beauty spare!
Sweet Trianon, what transports of delight
In lovers souls your sight inspires!
--Antoine de Berin, 'Elegie XIV: Les jardins du Petit Trianon," Les Amours, 1780

No place is more associated with Marie Antoinette than her private domain of the Petit Trianon. Marie Antoinette set a precedent with her estates, where everything--from the rights of entry to the tilt of the trees--was done "on the queen's orders." Here, the queen could shrug off the rigorous formality of the court and reenact the private, country life that she had enjoyed as a child in the more relaxed Austrian court. 

The gardens that she desired for the Petit Trianon were in stark contrast to the rigid, French-style gardens carefully designed by Le Notre for the gardens of Versailles. Marie Antoinette cultivated a wilder, more natural garden that was more reminiscent of a stroll through a delightful, enchanting forest than the straight-laced, formal palace landscape. Little "surprises," such as grottos and man-made "natural" streams, were intended to delight visitors through their natural beauty and charm.

credit: p.207: Cabbage rose. © Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Dist. RMN / image du MNHN, bibliothèque centrale, Redouté Pierre Joseph (1759-1840)

From Marie Antoinette's Garden by Elisabeth de Feydeau takes readers on an imaginary stroll through the ever-charming, delightful and beautiful world of Marie Antoinette's gardens. The book is divided into sections, based on six areas in the estates of the queen; each section contains numerous plant "entries," which feature a gorgeous watercolor illustration accompanied by practical and historical information about the specific plant.

Readers will walk through the French Gardens, where fragrant irises--a favorite of Marie Antoinette--perfumed the air; to the winding, natural paths of the English Garden; to the Belvedere, where Marie Antoinette, surrounded by blooms of jasmine, could view her estates; to the wild Wood of Solitude, filled with wildflowers and wild plants; and through the Queen's Hamlet, dotted with berries and flowers, all the way to the Temple of Love, perfumed by an endless variety of Marie Antoinette's beloved roses. The end result is a memorable, wistful walk through the gardens of the last queen of France.

The album is not only a collection of contemporary drawings of the many plants enjoyed by queen; it is also filled with historical accounts of the gardens, such as letters written by Marie Antoinette herself, memoirs written by visiting contemporaries, and musings on this magnificent landscape written by later historians. 

Other tidbits, such as medicinal and symbolic trivia, are also worthy of note. Did you know that cornflowers, found in the Queen's Hamlet, were also used to treat eye infections? Or that the Chinese-imported Japanese camellia, found in Marie Antoinette's English garden, was considered a bad omen in China? In Chinese lore, it was said that if a woman wore a flowering camellia in her hair, she would take many years to conceive a child. 

From Marie Antoinette's Garden by Elisabeth de Feydeu is a well-crafted, delightful look at one of the grandest gardens of the 18th century. I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Marie Antoinette, gardens and flowers, or French history. The book, which is being distributed by Rizzoli New York via Random House, is set for release on September 3rd, 2013. 

[A review copy of this publication was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

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