The intersection of two area projects offers the invitation to an exclusive type of garden party, French Garden to be exact.
“Versailles on Paper: A Graphic Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Louis XIV” is the Princeton University Library exhibition on view through July 19. Organizers say that it shows Versailles through prints, books, maps, medals, and manuscripts and highlights elements that survive only on paper. That includes “fragile groves and fountains too costly to maintain and once celebrated masterpieces of architecture.”
The Saturday, April 11, archaeology tour of Point Breeze, the site of the Bordentown home of another French aristocrat, Joseph Bonaparte, points out design elements that the brother of the French emperor Napoleon and the once King of Spain had used to landscape the grounds of the New Jersey mansion he occupied from 1815 to 1839. The tour is part of the annual Friends of the Marshlands tour of his historic buildings.
While one connection between the two offerings is that Versailles has served as a depository for the designs of both Louis XIV and Joseph Bonaparte’s buildings, the other is that two places represent contrasting thoughts about landscape design.
Versailles represents the formal French garden, one that emphasizes patterns, symmetry, and clear architecture. Point Breeze reflects a romantic, flowing, and “natural” spirit. Both are idealistic and idyllic in their use of copses, groves, and waterways.
The designer for the Versailles garden was Andre Le Norte, born into a family of gardeners and who trained in the Tuileries garden in Paris. Louis XIV brought him to Versailles in 1662 and charged him to redesign the property where a palace had been created in 1564 by French queen Catherine de Medici. Le Norte’s work reflects the Cartesian idea of the universe as a geometric order, with Louis XIV (the Sun King) playing his earthly role.
Le Norte’s formal, orderly, and symbolic approach was influential and became a form in itself, even serving as a guide for French-born designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C. Yet the style’s rigidity and subjugation of nature to conform to a hierarchal order waned with the advancement of ideas about the nobility of nature.
That concept was espoused by 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and explored in landscape by designer Marquis Rene-Louis Girardin — who studied with Rousseau and became a proponent of the French Landscape Garden. Also called Jardin a l’anglaise (or English garden), it takes its name from a landscape movement popular in England — one inspired by French painters Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.
Monmouth University archaeologist Richard Veit — who has been excavating Point Breeze and will lead the April 11 tour — notes in a published study that the site was influenced by Girardin, whose “interpretation of the picturesque garden was founded on the notion that landscapes should flow organically and be embellished only with agreeable, natural scenery and vernacular building styles. Nevertheless, Girardin did tastefully incorporate classical architecture, particularly temple ruins and villas, as well as altars, memorials, mills, a village, a tower, and even an obelisk into his” famous garden in France, Ermenonville, later used as a model for the French estate Mortefontaine. Elements of both Ermenonville and Mortefontaine would come to New Jersey.
Veit writes that Joseph Bonaparte “was no stranger to garden art and design. While living in Europe, he used his wealth to create and improve vast gardens at Mortefontaine, his French estate. He also made extensive improvements at his Swiss estate, Prangins. The former was adjacent to Ermenonville. Girardin’s design at Ermenonville was used as a model by Mortefontaine’s initial owner, and Joseph likely continued to employ many of Girardin’s landscape theories at Mortefontaine and later at Point Breeze.”
The result, notes Viet, was “one of the first picturesque gardens in the United States,” one that seems to anticipates the spirit of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park rather than follow the line of the L’Enfant-inspired National Mall.
Versailles on Paper: A Graphic Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Louis XIV, Firestone Library. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., through July 19. Free. 609-258-3184 or library.princeton.edu.
Saturday, April 11: Walk at Point Breeze, home of Joseph Bonaparte, with Richard Veit, archaeologist, Monmouth University. Meet at Divine Word Missionaries, 101 Park Street, Bordentown, 1 to 3 p.m. Free.
Tour of the Isaac Pearson House, built in 1773 by Assemblyman Isaac Pearson, guided by past mayor Jack Rafferty. Hobson and Emeline avenues, Hamilton, 10 to 11:30 a.m. Free.
Sunday, April 12: The Watson House, 1708, is the oldest house in Mercer County, guided by Rita Kline and other Daughters of the American Revolution. 151 Westcott Avenue, Hamilton, 1 to 4 p.m. Free.
Bow Hill Mansion, built in 1790; National Register of Historic Places; and home of Annette Savage, Joseph Bonaparte’s mistress, guided by Roman Kuzyk, 477 Jeremiah Avenue, Hamilton, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Free.
More info: 732-821-8310.