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The Fountain of Latona: Louis ⅩⅣ and the Premier Versailles

Thomas F. Hedin, University of Minnesota, Duluth, Fellow 2006–2007, Fall

Versailles in the 1660s was a modest house in the country, a retreat to which the young Louis ⅩⅣ could travel to enjoy his favorite pastimes: riding, shooting, and hunting in the wilds surrounding the chateau, taking light meals in the gardens, attending musical and theatrical events, entertaining members of his family and court, and dallying with his mistresses. The earliest art of Versailles reflects the festive, rustic nature of the place. The rural estate of the 1660s is often called the Premier Versailles.

I am at work on a book on the Premier Versailles. The Fountain of Latona is at the heart of it, but the other sculptures and fountains in the gardens, including those lying along the two major perspectives, will bear heavily on my argument. Thanks to a set of unpublished papers that I recently discovered in the Archives Nationales, our understanding of the chronology of the fountains will be significantly altered, and that, in turn, throws a new light on their relationships, and, ultimately, on the ways in which they were viewed by the King, his court, and a circle of enlightened contemporaries.

The prevailing wisdom is that the Latona fountain, together with the Dragon fountain, is an allegory of the Fronde, the civil uprisings that jolted Paris during the King's minority. At the conclusion of an article on the Petite Commande (a suite of burlesque statues from 1664), I questioned the validity of the Fronde thesis, finding it alien in spirit to the gardens in the 1660s. I have been pursuing an alternate thesis at Dumbarton Oaks: namely, that the Latona and Dragon fountains allude, not to the historically distant Fronde, but rather to the current triumph of the King's artists and scientists in bringing order and culture to a threatening, disobedient world. The Latona fountain is a panegyric written in lead, marble, and water, a declaration of the King's glorious patronage of the arts and sciences. Only by viewing the Latona fountain as a manifesto of the most current artistic and scientific ideas can we hope to unravel the mystery of the Premier Versailles, a subject that has intrigued historians for more than a century.