In 1682, the French court moved from Paris to the former royal hunting lodge of Versailles, which had been transformed under the supervision of Louis XIV into Europe’s most splendid palace, one which moreover was set in a stunning park that stretched all the way to the horizon. Versailles established a fashion for palaces surrounded by ample gardens that most major European courts would soon imitate. These parks provided appropriate backdrops for elaborately spectacles staged to impress visiting diplomats hunts as well as secluded settings for flirting.
There were important Italian and Spanish precedents for the garden setting of Versailles, of which Louis XIV, whose mother was a Spanish princess and whose grandmother was a Medici, would have been well aware. Moreover Louis appropriated key members of the team that had just completed Vaux-le-Vicomte for his superintendent of finance Nicolas Fouquet. But the garden palace was by no means an exclusively European phenomenon. Courts well to the east (and in the case of Nasrid Spain, to the south) had long favored garden palaces. Many of the splendid Asian examples of garden palaces predate Versailles, which was novel in a global context only for its scale. Significant differences remain, however, between the Islamic and East Asian examples, in which a series of relatively modest buildings are typically surrounded by gardens, and the larger, more enclosed European buildings, designed for the most part for cooler climates, although smaller, outlying pavilions soon became common here, too.
The similarities between these palaces demonstrate the importance in early modern Asia as well as Europe of the absolutist ruler who controlled an increasingly centralized state and of the rituals, conducted in carefully controlled settings, that both symbolized and cemented that rule. At the same time gardens often also offered a welcome escape from the stiff etiquette that controlled behavior at these courts.
Featured image: Changdeok Palace (창덕궁) Seoul, South Korea, by Anne Dirkse (CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)