September 28, 2023

The perfume gardens of Versailles transport the public back in time

VERSAILLES, France (AP) — Once a symbol of the French king’s expeditionary force, the flower gardens of Versailles helped water-poor courtiers perfume their skin. Now they’ve been redesigned to give today’s audiences a glimpse—and a sniff—of the Gilded Palace’s olfactory past.

Secrets to the original concept of flower power, scents of Bulgarian rose, mint and citrus from hundreds of vibrantly colored historical flowers unveiled this week float in the nostrils of paying visitors to Grand Trianon’s Chateauneuf Orangery, transporting them back into the time to be transported.

“Those who discover the gardens will understand, from flower to flower, what we loved throughout history,” said Catherine Pegard, president of the Palace of Versailles. “Many are the original scents.”

The aim of the Perfumer’s Garden is to unravel the mysteries and meaning behind the fragrant flowers of the 17th century French court – but also to remind us that it was no coincidence that the Palace of Versailles was the place where the profession of perfumer was actually invented during that century.

Stretching out in four sections, the gardens reflect the vision of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who wanted his grounds to overflow with the scents of orange blossom, hyacinth, tuberose and jasmine. The king had a practical reason for his obsessions: after the plague that killed tens of millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages, people feared that hot water could spread an infection. Courtiers instead washed themselves with alcoholic rubbing and used fragrances to mask body odors.

But there was also a diplomatic explanation for these flower obsessions: the king’s flower collection served as a means of exuding strength as France became the greatest power in the world in that century.

“Versailles was all about olfactory diplomacy at that time. Flower meant strength. Dignitaries were impressed by the exotic flowers because only the king – who was now very powerful – had the money to fund expeditions to bring back exotic flowers,” says Giovanni Delu, one of the garden’s designers. “It’s a plant-based cabinet of curiosities.”

Delu said court-funded expeditions brought back fashionable plants — many of which are found in the new perfumer’s gardens — from faraway South Asia, which were “grown” or acclimatized on the French soil of Brittany, before being displayed at Versailles. planted. Any French nobleman wishing to replant the prized flowers on his property first had to obtain a royal charter. Or face punishment.

The stories of the modern gardeners of Versailles convey the hidden intrigue, humor, lore and mystery once contained within the flowers. Vivid historical anecdotes flow freely from their mouths, revealing an infinite wealth of historical color. According to legend, Louis XIV loved the orange blossom, as seen in the garden, so much that his courtiers dipped into it to gain favor, causing the king to pass out at one point. The scents of some of the flowers were so intense that the bulbs had to be placed geographically segregated in the gardens during this latest venture so that they didn’t conspire to produce an undesirable — or equally intoxicating — nasal mix.

There were unexpected twists in the conception. A “secret garden” – featuring four brick walls – was only recently properly discovered and renovated on the site, sparking excitement among Versailles garden staff. Now a shrine, it is adorned with plant species so delicate only the head gardener has the right to handle them. A 17th-century plant now growing there called the firethorn – which leaves a wonderful citrus scent on the fingers when rubbed – is prized and feared because it literally catches fire at the slightest heat.

Another flower holds secrets in the petals of the love story of Louis XV, an obsessive botanist, and his mistress Madame de Pompadour.

“Louis XV sent botanical ‘hunters’ around the world to bring back species because he and his mistress expressed their love through a shared passion for flowers,” said gardener Fulvia Grandizio.

Grandizio claimed that Louis XV used one of the world’s very first prototype greenhouses here to tend his plants – a version of which is now on display. Lovingly caressing the flower with wavy rose-red petals called the calycanthus, Grandizio said nostalgically that it was Madame de Pompadour’s favourite.

Still, the garden has its villains. Grandizio narrowed her eyes when she spoke of Marie Antoinette. It was bad, she said, that the Franco-Austrian queen was not interested in continuing the scientific work of the previous king, Louis XV, in exotic flowers – and was instead taken with the impetuous ideas of the thinkers of the Enlightenment and the Unbridled Nature.

“It’s a real pity that Marie Antoinette, when she arrived at Versailles, had turned what Louis XV had built, the great greenhouse and the plant nursery, into a wild English garden,” said Grandizio, with a hint of sadness.

Despite that claim, Marie Antoinette loved flowers and was central to the development of perfume.

‘She’s not that bad. History has been unkind to her,” Grandizio added.

The Versailles Perfumer’s Garden opened on May 30, in partnership with high-end perfume company Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

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