Lost Labyrinth

Versailles’ labyrinth, which we’ve reconstructed for your virtual pleasure.

I happened on a gem of a find the other day. I was in the library at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum studying for my final exams on French furnishings for my master's in the history of decorative arts. I have the privilege to use this remarkable collection because of a joint program between the Cooper-Hewitt and my school, the Parsons School of Design.

On that afternoon, I was rather wearily focused on the minute details concerning the furnishing changes in Versailles that had occurred when the Sun King's successors took over.

My tired eyes were suddenly drawn to a brilliant red leather-bound book trimmed in the gold and elegant interlaced L's of Louis XIV. It bore the title Labrinte de Versailles and had been printed in 1679. My heart leaped—the word "labyrinth" has thrilled me since I was a child, conjuring up a maze of mythical proportion into which one could get very lost. And here in my hands was a guidebook to that long gone labyrinth at Versailles that was built in 1664 by Louis XIV, a man who never did anything halfway. 

I paged eagerly through the rich rag pages, still supple as though untouched by age. This little volume, it turns out, is one of only 18 known copies in the United States, an original artifact from the Sun King's court. Its gorgeous inked endpapers gave me a sense of the elaborate creation of this maze, which Louis XIV had built for his son the Dauphin and the future king of France. Incredibly, the hedge-lined alleys of the maze contained a series of highly decorative fountains, which were organized as a kind of teaching tool for the young boy. Each of the fountains represented an Aesop fable, those timeless tales that teach moral lessons on, among other things, jealousy, ignorance and deception—moral lessons that the king wished to teach to his young son.

And much to my delight, the red volume presented "The Tortoise and the Hare" and 38 other of the tales as poetry, quatrains written by court poet Isaac de Benserade. Accompanying each poem was a lovely illustration by Sébastien Le Clerc, the court-authorized engraver.

Unfortunately, while the labyrinth was widely admired—even by the British who had translated this little volume in 1768—the garden maze was considered unfashionable under Louis XVI's reign and was destroyed in 1774 to make way for the classical Bosquet de la Reine. Still, if you go to Versailles, you can see where the labyrinth was located, on the south side of the garden just west of the Orangerie; if you are looking southwest from the terrace, its lush verdant paths would have been visible on the far left.

Evidently, the labyrinth was quite popular not only with the Dauphin but also with the public. The book's publisher, Charles Perrault, who also printed pamphlets of fairy tales, such as "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Sleeping Beauty," may have also been involved in the creation of the labyrinth itself. The labyrinth quickly became an international attraction; guidebooks were published in three languages—English, Dutch and German. Perrault's introduction warned that although the reader might get lost in the labyrinth, he should not panic, because he was pleasantly lost, surrounded by the beauties of nature and wise old fables from antiquity. But to be on the safe side, the book revealed the path to exit the labyrinth.

When a Smithsonian Journeys web editor approached me about writing a story about Versailles, it occurred to me that we could create a virtual tour of the maze using the illustrations from the book and a 1768 English translation. Now, for the first time since 1774, you can wander Versailles' labyrinth. Click on the entrance gate at bottom right and, remember, don't be afraid to get lost.

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