Oranges
Other people's gardens

Eating oranges at Versailles

Versailles is so overwhelming that visitors feel exhausted as soon as they arrive. They take one look at those long vistas (not actually as long as they look, courtesy of a perspective trick managed by designer Andre le Notre) and start hunting for the ice cream concession. The only way to manage the vastness is to narrow your focus. It seems like a good approach to writing about the blockbuster exhibition Versailles: Treasures from the Palace, which opens this weekend [December 9, 2016] at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

So let me tell you about oranges at Versailles and the role of four large bronze vases that are part of the exhibition.

vase

Vase with boars and ‘Janus’ heads, 1665 © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

The vases also feature in a painting in the show, ‘Still Life with Orange tree’, by Jean-Baptiste Monnover. They show the vases holding small, standardised orange trees in blossom and fruit. Siamese ambassadors to the court of Louis XIV reported that the Hall of Mirrors was filled with these vases of orange trees, perfuming the air. Visitors to the exhibition will experience the effect as orange blossom fragrance is wafted through the room.

vase-and-blossom

Jean‐Baptiste Monnoyer, Still life with orange tree, c. 1671–75 © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

The oranges, like so much at Versailles, came originally from Vaux le Vicomte, the house and garden built by Louis’ finance minister Nicholas Fouquet. Fouquet’s brother had built up the citrus collection in travels through Italy and Spain, and they grew at Vaux in the wooden planter boxes we now know as Versailles tubs. Following the imprisonment of Fouquet and the dismantling of Vaux, the oranges were moved to the Orangerie at Versailles.

The NGA exhibition includes a topographical oil painting by Etienne Allegrain, ‘View of Versailles from the Orangerie’, c 1695, which shows the Orangerie parterre and the glasshouse in which the plants were protected from the extremes of a northern winter and nurtured into flower. The man responsible for this effort and the rest of Louis XIV’s amazing edible production was the lawyer-turned-plantsman Jean-Baptiste Le Quintinie, who, like the oranges he grew, had originally been at Vaux.

orangerie

Étienne Allegrain, View of Versailles from the Orangerie, c. 1695 © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Franck Raux

The Orangerie, with its great panes of glass, was a triumph of French technical skills, and the trees it protected carried a heavy symbolic meaning. The orange trees grew in planters featuring Louis XIV’s ubiquitous Sun King motif, and the fruit itself made the Sun King claim reality. These emblems of the sunny south fruiting in the cold swampy north operated as the physical manifestation of Louis XIV’s divine identity. When ambassadors and powerful guests visited Versailles they were presented with early peas, strawberries and oranges, foods that were magical in this part of France. They were literally eating the fruits of Louis XIV’s mastery and power.

Which makes the big bronze vases, with their boar heads and Janus decorations, indicative of the way in which Louis XIV announced his understanding of absolute monarchy at Versailles, and expressed it through a combination of style, science, art and gardening.

It’s time to

Trim lavender
Lightly trim lavender after each flush of flowers to promote another flush.

Give seaweed
Use a seaweed solution regularly to boost plant health and help them cope with extreme weather.

Prune shrubs
Spring-flowering shrubs, such as abutilon, brunsfelsia and Mackaya bella can be trimmed to shape now they have finished flowering, or at least slowed down in the case of abutilon.

Enjoy hydrangeas
When picking for the vase choose only the fully-opened mature flower heads. Fresh new heads will quickly droop.

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