Grove of Venus–the Mise-en-Scene

The gardens of Versailles in the late 17th c. The Grove of Venus is still “le labirinth”. From Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at the guide book I bought at Versailles (admittedly not the most comprehensive/expensive one available), you would be forgiven for being confused about where, exactly, the Grove of Venus is. It includes some rather nice maps of the gardens and the first two floors of the Chateau (they’re good mostly because almost everything is labeled).

Yet, if you had learned about the Grove of Venus (where the prostitute Nicole d’Oliva was paid to fool Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan into thinking he was meeting with Marie-Antoinette), you would look in vain to find it on the map. The book fails altogether to mention the important and titillating episode, which I will write about in some detail in a later post.

Looking online at the official site of the Chateau de Versailles, you will find a description of the Queen’s Grove. Originally, it was a labyrinth built in 1669. It was old already when it was destroyed in a makeover of the gardens, to be replaced with the Queen’s Grove. The interactive map finally gives a quick summary of what happened in the Queen’s Grove: it bBecame famous because of the celebrated scandal of the queen’s necklace which discredited Marie-Antoinette.”

Why exactly did Madame de La Motte choose this as the setting for the farce that was meant to trick Cardinal Rohan? (For the story of why all of this was happening in the first place, look above and click on “The Short Story”.) First of all, Her Majesty had a habit of staying up late and taking night-time strolls in the grand surroundings of the Versailles gardens. These romps were innocent enough, but the public had come to have a rather low opinion of their queen’s doings. Amongst those who must have known about her nocturnal meanderings and her not-so-perfect reputation were Madame de La Motte and Cardinal Rohan. The Cardinal thought that it was reasonable to believe that Her Majesty might just choose to meet with him on one of those nighttime walks, that she might grant him her favor–and, perhaps he even thought it was reasonable to expect this to be the beginning of an illicit relationship with the queen. It certainly seems that he was thinking along these lines.

The setting could not have suited the play any better. It was midnight, and ergo very dark; in the modern age, we often forget how very dim it would be at night without electric lights glaring from every window. The Grove of Venus was heavily planted with trees and shrubbery. It was still something of a labyrinth, meaning a person could carry on a clandestine meeting–or hide in the bushes and watch just such a rendezvous. This is what Madame de La Motte claims was the Queen’s role: spectator. This farce was, Madame claimed, the queen’s plan to humiliate the Cardinal. If she was there (I find it highly unlikely the Queen had any knowledge whatsoever about all of these goings-on), then it was quite a nasty plan. The Cardinal basically melted when the whore d’Oliva, playing the part of Marie-Antoinette, handed him a rose and said, “You know what this means.” And, as it was so dark, he wasn’t able to see the face of the woman in front of him.

The Grove of Venus offered something else to aid Madame de La Motte. At any moment, someone could come near the Grove and disrupt the meeting between “Her Majesty” and Monseigneur. So, the moment that the false queen said her line, Madame de La Motte cried out that someone was coming. Everyone scattered and the mysterious little scene succeeded in duping the Cardinal into believing he had reconciled with Marie-Antoinette.

Madame de La Motte described the Grove as “surrounded by a maze of charmilles [arbors or bowers]; these trellises of greenery fanned out every three feet, so that to penetrate the labyrinth into the grove itself one must go all the way around to reach the one path that leads into it” (Mossiker 181). In my opinion, this sounds like she had scoped the place out very thoroughly in preparation for her little production.

The name now is usually given on maps as the Queen’s Grove (le bosque de La Reine), though it was actually named the Grove of Venus after the statue at is center. The name alone must have been just as suggestive to the Cardinal as the fact that the Queen had deigned to see him–they would be presided over by the goddess of love. In connection with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, it is almost always referred to as the Grove of Venus, probably because it lends some mystique to the story. Otherwise, it is generally known as the Queen’s Grove.

The Grove lies just beside the Orangery and below the South Paterre. Standing on the stairs leading down to the Orangery, you can look over the railings down into the Grove of Venus. I did so, without even realizing I was looking at the correct spot; I had come to Versailles hoping to find the Grove of Venus, expecting it to be evident on the maps, but alas, its second, less famous name is printed on the maps.

Today, you will find Victorian sculpture in the Queen’s Grove. Nothing against the Victorians, but it seems their tastes weren’t always up to snuff, so though I haven’t personally seen the sculpture there, I don’t hold out great hopes for world-class pieces of art. I could be wrong, though.

By the by, I highly suggest the Chateau de Versailles website. They’ve recently upgraded and I like it a lot. There is plenty of information there, which goes into pretty good depth and seems to cover all the areas of the Chateau, gardens, and Trianons.

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