For the large formal gardens behind his palace at Versailles, King Louis XIV commissioned dozens of white marble statues showing healthy young women with good posture, many of them dressed in nothing more than a bed sheet wrapped around them in some suggestive way.
To avoid giving the impression that he just liked to ogle young women, he provided each of these statues with an allegorical meaning. The statue in my first photo, for instance, is not just a lovely young lady, as we literal-minded 21st century folks might tend to think, it is an allegory for L’Air (The Air), and to prove it she has an eagle sitting at her feet, gazing up at her in admiration. Eagles, after all, would not be able to fly (or even breathe) without air, so the eagle has every reason to be grateful. The statue L’Air was made by Étienne Le Hongre (1628-1690).
The lady in this statue is more modestly dressed, as befits someone symbolizing La Terre (The Earth). In her left hand she has a cornucopia, the traditional symbol of abundance and nourishment — not that Louis XIV’s subjects had much of either after the aristocrats and the tax-collectors had taken what they could get. Peeking out from behind the Earth’s bedsheet-skirt is a bedraggled-looking animal, perhaps a cross between a sheep and a lion. The statue is by Benoit Massu (1633-1684).
This white marble lady with vaguely African features has a pet lion licking her toes, to show that she symbolizes L’Afrique (Africa). The statue was begun by Georges Sibrayque, who died in 1682, and completed after his death by Jean Cornu (1650-1710). I hope the sculptors won some kind of prize for their lascivious lion.
This bellicose young lady representing Europe does not have an animal at her feet, only a shield with a bas-relief of a horse. The statue is by Pierre Mazeline (1632-1708). It’s revealing that the most war-like statue is the one representing Europe, since European countries in the seventeenth century were aggressively colonizing the rest of the world, as well as fighting countless wars among themselves for trivial reasons.
In another set of allegorical sculptures, gorgeous young women are presented as personifications of different times of day. This one is called L’heure de Midi (The Hour of Noon) by Gaspard Marsy (1624-1681). Here the lady has an angel by her side, a little boy with angel’s wings who is reaching up to her.
This one is Le Soir (evening), also known as Diana, the virgin goddess of hunting. She has some arrows in a quiver slung over her back, and is accompanied by some sort of animal, perhaps a hunting dog. In addition, she seems to be taking root like a tree, like her follower Daphne, a nymph who transformed herself into a tree to avoid losing her virginity. (In Frankfurt we recently had a beautiful production of the opera Daphne by Richard Strauss.) This sculpture is by Martin Desjardins (1637-1694).
This is La Nuit (The Night) by Jean Raon (1630-1707). The lady is carrying a torch, logically enough, and is accompanied by an owl, but it seems to be a warm night because she is not shivering at all and is very lightly dressed, as are most of her colleagues.
After a diligent search of the gardens, I found two statues that do not show healthy young women with good posture. (Just so you don’t get the impression that Louis XIV had a one-track mind.) This statue is of the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (436–338 BC), who is not at all identical with the philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.) as I had naively assumed. Isocrates was 33 years younger, and for a while Socrates was his teacher.
This one is supposed to be Ulysses aka Odysseus, who for some reason is holding a tulip complete with its bulb. Tulips were extremely valuable during the seventeenth century, so perhaps that is the reason. (See my post about the Tulip Girls in Karlsruhe, Germany.)
Most of these statues are copies, since the originals have been taken indoors in recent years to prevent further damage from the elements.
Unlike the marble statues of allegorical young women, the nymphs at Versailles tend to be made of bronze and are often seen lounging voluptuously by the sides of ponds. The one in this photo (above) is called “Nymph and young Triton” and is by Balthasar Keller (1638-1702) based on an earlier group by Pierre Legros (1629-1714). The nymph here is leaning on some sort of fish or eel, who does not look happy about the situation. The young Triton is a child with a tail like a mermaid.
This one is called “Nymph and Child” and is by the same sculptor, who was apparently kept quite busy in the 1680s making sculptures for the Versailles gardens. Both the nymph and the child are holding birds of some sort. The nymph this time is leaning on something that is no doubt highly symbolic — but what is it? Perhaps someone can tell me.
Here are some boys, who might also be Tritons, riding around the Dragon Fountain on swans and shooting at each other with bows and arrows, sort of like kids on go-karts at an amusement park. Or more likely they are trying to shoot the dragon, as young Apollo did in Greek mythology.
I was there on a day when the fountains were not turned on, so there was no water squirting around. Currently the fountains are turned on two or three times a week, and on those days there is an admission charge to get into the gardens. On other days the gardens are free.
Louis XIV would not have been happy with this solution, as he wanted the fountains to be running day and night, all year round, even when no one was there to see them. To this end he went to extreme lengths to bring more water to Versailles, for instance by building the Marly Machine, a sort of Rube Goldberg machine to bring water up from the Seine, and by investing huge amounts of money and manpower in the greatest boondoggle of the entire 17th century, the ill-fated aqueduct of Maintenon.
Location, aerial view and photos of the Versailles Palace on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.
See posts on the adjoining town of Saint-Cyr-l’École, France.