Versailles has never been the object of universal admiration. Horace Walpole called it ‘a garden for a great child’. The waspish Duke Saint-Simon – notably unfriendly toward Louis XIV, the founder and proprietor of this vast assemblage of fountains, allées, palaces, lakes, statuary and assorted horticultural splendours on the outskirts of Paris – objected more specifically. ‘The violence everywhere done to nature repels and wearies us,’ he complained, before calling it ‘The saddest and most ungrateful of all places’. Yet of all the great gardens ever created in the world, Versailles has at least a fair claim to be the greatest, given its scale, its originality, its influence, and – perhaps above all else – its absolutely empyrean cost. Besides, many find it beautiful.
Ian Thompson clearly falls into the latter category, but he is more discriminating than most: his comprehensive and sumptuous study is far too sophisticated merely to retail praise. What he sets out to do – and succeeds brilliantly in doing – is to tell the complicated story of the making