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Année : 2022

Between Imagination and Reality : Charles Perrault’s Parallel between Ancient and Modern Gardens

In his Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes published in four volumes between 1688 and 1697, which accompanied the "quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns", Charles Perrault, a leading cultural figure during the first half of the reign of Louis XIV, set out to compare the achievements of antiquity and the society in which he lived in all areas of the arts, sciences and techniques. The work takes the form of a dialogue between three characters professing different opinions, following a literary technique usual at the time. The dialogue takes place during a walk in the castle and the gardens of Versailles. The two Parisian characters, who are well aware of the latest developments in all the arts and sciences encouraged by the king, invite their provincial and Antiquity-loving friend, returning after twenty years in Italy, to experience the very site that is emblematic, in their eyes, of the superiority of modernity. The experience of the castle and the garden is proposed as the most irrefutable of arguments. Thus, while most discussions are about literature or science in abstracto, the dialogues about architecture and the art of gardens, on the other hand, also involve the characters’ lived experience : this gives these two related arts a distinctive role in the overall argument.
The dialogue on architecture is based on the themes of Vitruvius’ treatise, such as the origin of architecture, proportions, distortions of perspective, ornamentation, and statuary. Through these themes, the protagonists compare the ancient treatise and its modern interpretations with the ancient buildings known by their ruins and the most emblematic recent constructions, such as the façades of the Louvre and of Versailles. But concerning garden art, the modern gardens can only be compared to ancient gardens attested by classical literature, but hardly known at all in reality. The characters mention the villas of Maecenas at Tivoli (today identified as the sanctuary of Hercules victorious), of Cicero and of Pliny the Younger, the garden of Alcinoos in Homer’s Odyssey, the modest gardens of the Roman consuls, as well as the luxurious ones of Lucullus and Semiramis. They are mentioned as much for what is known about them, as for what is not. Oddly enough (for us ?) the comparisons do not mention the abundant presence of antique statues or copied from antiques in the gardens, but insist on technical aspects (fountains, aqueducts, plants, fireworks). However, they reflect the strong presence of these antique gardens in the imaginary of the Grand Siècle.
In my presentation, I will study the relationship, both peremptory and hesitant, between ancient gardens, so little known and yet so present, and the unanimously admired modern gardens of Le Nôtre. In particular, I will look at the articulation between imagination, technical knowledge and spatial experience that appears in these dialogues and defines the lived aesthetic experience of a garden.