Perrault, Charles
Leclerc, Sébastien (engraver)

Title Labyrinte de Versailles
Imprint Paris, Imprimerie Royale, 1677
Subject Garden, Fountains, Sculptures
Consult in image mode
Transcribed version of the text


     Known world-wide as the author of the Histoires ou contes du temps passé, published in 1697, Charles Perrault (Paris, 1628 – Paris, 1703) was probably the most illustrious member of an upper class Parisian family during the 17th century.  Among his five brothers, Pierre was principal tax collector of the city of Paris, Claude was a doctor and an architect and Nicolas was a theologian enticed by Jansenism.  Brilliant and intellectual, they all were part of the clan of the Moderns, one manifesto of which was precisely Charles' poem, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, read to the Académie française in 1687.  After a career as a civil servant in his brother Pierre's administration, Charles Perrault was placed by Colbert as Secretary of the Petite Académie, the future Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, an institution in charge of defining the iconography of the royal projects in the areas of edifices, tapestries and commemorative medals, and, more widely, in the arrangement of the decor in the royal residences.  In 1668, Charles Perrault was named senior civil servant in the Superintendance of the King's Buildings where he was called on to second Colbert until 1683, in implementing the artistic and scientific policy of Louis XIV.  He took advantage of this position to have his brother Claude named to the Academy of Sciences before he himself was elected to the Académie française in 1671.  It was part of his responsibility to supervise the progress of the work at Versailles.
Certified in a garden plan dated 1664, the bosquet of the Versailles labyrinth created by André Le Nôtre was then decorated with thirty-nine fountains which were animals made of multicolored lead.  The accounts of the King's Buildings certify that they were produced starting in 1672.  With a very few exceptions, each fountain created a scene of an episode from Aesop's fables, a text which had already inspired La Fontaine in 1668.  In any case, the disgraced fabulist was not the one who was asked to create the program of the Labyrinth fountains, but more probably Perrault himself, although he makes no claim for it in the Mémoires de ma vie.  This is what would explain the publication of the Labyrinte de Versailles in 1677, the date when the sculptured decor was practically finished. "On a choisi pour sujet de ces fontaines une partie des fables d'Æsope" of which several were not treated by La Fontaine.  The lead animals colored in natural tints "semblent dans l'action mesme qu'ils représentent, d'autant plus que l'eau qu'ils jettent imite en quelque sorte la parole que la fable leur a donnée".  By means of a inscription painted on a plate probably made out of lead, each fountain had a caption, a quatrain written by the poet Isaac Benserade, whose text was transcribed by Perrault.
As a sort of preface, at the beginning of the book, Perrault reveals the decorative repertory of the Labyrinth.  In fact the entrance was framed by two lead statues representing Esope and L'Amour: "Æsope tient un rouleau de papier et montre l'Amour qui tient un peloton de fil, comme pour faire connoître que si ce dieu engage les hommes dans de fâcheux labyrinthes, il n'a pas moins le secret de les en tirer lorsqu'il est accompagné de la sagesse, dont Æsope dans ses fables enseigne le chemin".  There follows a description of the thirty-nine fountains or fables (pp. 7-34), each one designated by a short title ("The duke and the birds", "The cock and the partridge", etc.), summarizing the action taking place and briefly described as such.  At the end of his text, Perrault indicates that his goal was but to give "quelque idée à ceux qui ne les ont jamais veues", even possibly "rafraischir la mémoire" of others.  The bosquet was in fact closed off by locked railings, and Perrault's book, rather exceptional as far as the bosquets of Versailles are concerned, was probably created in order to reveal to a wider public the beauties hidden because of royal magnificence.  The second part of the book, the object of new pagination, opens on a captioned plan of the bosquet indicating the route of a visit.  Next come forty engravings by Sebastien Leclerc of the entrance to the bosquet and the thirty-nine fountains.  Facing each engraving, the title of the fountain is taken from the first part, but accompanied this time by Benserade's quatrains.
Without being specifically designated, Perrault's book "dont le seul nom de l'autheur suffiroit pour la rendre recommandable", was announced starting in 1674, in the Description sommaire du chasteau de Versailles by André Félibien (Paris, Guillaume Desprez, p. 94).  As a matter of fact, in 1675, in the "Letter to Monsieur Bontemps" appearing at the beginning of his Recueil de divers ouvrages en prose et en vers from the presses of Jean-Baptiste Coignard in Paris, Charles Perrault indicated that he had imagined as early as 1673 the project of giving a description in verse of all the fountains at Versailles.  And on pages 225-268 of this same collection "Le Labirinte de Versailles" was a list of thirty-eight fountains (except for the one illustrating "The frogs of Jupiter"), accompanied by short poems, among which were those "pour mettre dans le piédestail de la figure d'Ésope" and on that of the statue of L'Amour.  For an unknown reason, the quatrains by Benserade, edited by Perrault himself in 1677, were preferred to these poems by Perrault. The text published in 1675 has no illustrations but it is also known by two versions in manuscript form (Versailles, Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, inv. Vms 22; Versailles, Bibliothèque municipale, manuscrit M 59), without dates, accompanied by engravings by Leclerc which correspond to the thirty-eight fountains.  Bound with royal arms and bearing the monogram of Louis XIV on the back of its binding, a third manuscript version, whose engravings by Leclerc were richly illuminated by Jacques Bailly, also have only thirty-eight fountains of the grove in its first state, but the text, without an introduction, is already Benserade's (Paris, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit-Palais, inv. Dutuit 724).
Reissued in 1679, the Labyrinte de Versailles by Charles Perrault is of capital importance in gaining precise knowledge of one of the most astonishing bosquets of the gardens of Versailles, destroyed when the gardens were replanted in 1775.  In the reserve collections of the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, there remain only thirty-four beautiful and moving fragments of the lead fountains, as well as the statues of L'Amour and Ésope, miraculously preserved.  It is to be regretted that Perrault made no mention of the artists who had collaborated in the creation of this ensemble; outside of the two statues mentioned, done by Tuby and Legros, and a few fragments, sources are lacking to attribute in all certainty a certain number of sculptured elements which have survived.

Alexandre Maral (Château de Versailles) – 2010

Critical bibliography

M. Conan, "Les jardins infinis", postface to the edition of the Labyrinthe de Versailles de C. Perrault, Paris, Éditions du Moniteur, 1982.

P. Hourcade, "Esope à Versailles", Le Fablier. Revue des Amis de Jean de La Fontaine, 1, 1989, pp. 53-61.

A. Maral, unpublished research conducted while preparing the catalogue raisonné of the sculpture in the gardens at Versailles.

M. Préaud, Département des Estampes, Inventaire du fonds français. Graveurs du XVIIe siècle, 9, Sébastien Leclerc, 2, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, 1980, pp. 211-221.