In the spring of 2023, an enchanting and fragrant oasis emerged within the historic walls of the Palace of Versailles in France, setting the stage for a sensory journey back in time. The Perfumer’s Garden, a lavish homage to the opulent history of fragrances in the French court, now graces the grounds of the Palace, in the centre of Marie Antoinette’s former estate, the Grand Trianon. This scent garden is a tribute to the traditions and allure of what was known as “the perfumed court,” of Louis XIV, while offering visitors a glimpse into the remarkable world of flowers that captivated the senses of nobles and monarchs for centuries.
A FRAGRANT HISTORY
To understand the significance of the Perfumer’s Garden, one must first delve into the rich history of fragrance at Versailles. Perfume has played an integral role in the cultural and social life of the palace, said to be the cradle of Western perfumery, where the use of scent was elevated to an art form and a symbol of luxury and power.
Versailles' fascination with fragrance began in earnest during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, whose nickname was “le doux fleurant,” meaning “the sweet flowery one.” His fascination with perfume was such that he established the profession of "Maitre Parfumeur" at the royal court in 1656. These master perfumers were tasked with creating signature fragrances for the nobility and the King himself, (one for every day of the week, in fact) fostering an environment where scent was integral to status. Everything was scented: the fountains, the fans, the furniture, even, it is said, the horses.
The perfumed court of Versailles flourished under the reign of Queen consort Marie Antoinette, who took great pride in her personal fragrance and was known to have a significant influence on the popularity of floral scents during her time. She even had her own signature fragrance, known as "Eau de Bouquet," which combined floral and oriental notes and was as beloved as her exquisite gowns.
A GARDEN OF FRAGRANCE
The Perfumer’s Garden was conceived as a tribute to this glorious history of perfume, designed to take visitors on a fragrant journey through time. A collaboration between its patron, the French perfumery Maison Francis Kurkdjian and the Trianon gardeners, it features a carefully curated selection of flowers, herbs, and flowering trees that not only delight the senses but were also used in the production of perfumes during the reign of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.
Among the 300 scented plants, the garden boasts a plethora of blossoms, each with its unique olfactory charm. Here, you'll find the heady fragrance of jasmine, a symbol of sensuality and attraction, intermingling with the sweet and romantic scent of roses, and the ever-popular orange blossom. Lavender's calming aroma fills the air, while iris and violets add a touch of powdery elegance. Exotic plants like ylang-ylang and tuberose transport visitors to distant lands, infusing the atmosphere with their alluring charm.
MUTE FLOWERS: THE ENIGMATIC BEAUTIES
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Perfumers Garden is the inclusion of "mute flowers," so named because, while beautifully fragrant, their scents cannot be distilled, forcing the perfumer to replicate them synthetically. The most important mute or silent flowers in perfumery are:
Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis): These small, bell-shaped flowers were Marie Antoinette's favorite and featured prominently in her personal fragrances. Their gentle, fresh scent exudes understated elegance and grace.
Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus): Carnations are known for their spicy, clove-like scent. While they may not be the most fragrant flowers, they have long been used as a base note in many classic perfumes.
Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis): The hyacinth's aroma is subtle yet enchanting, making it a popular choice for floral arrangements. Its fragrance is reminiscent of spring and rebirth.
Peony (Paeonia): The peony's gentle, rosy scent has a calming effect and has been utilized in perfumes for centuries. Its sweet, floral notes add depth to fragrance compositions.
Violet (Viola): Violets have a soft, powdery scent that is very romantic and feminine and is central to the perfumer’s palette.
These "mute flowers" may not compete with the bold and intoxicating scents of jasmine or tuberose, but their unique subtlety and understated charm make them invaluable in the realm of perfumery, allowing master perfumers to craft complex and layered fragrances by recreating their scents by hand.
A FEAST FOR THE SENSES
The Perfumer’s Garden is not just about the olfactory experience; it's a symphony of the senses. As visitors wander through this fragrant paradise, they are treated to a visual feast of colour, with blooms ranging from pristine white to vibrant reds and purples. The garden's design mirrors the formal, geometric parterres (which translates to “on the ground,”) favored by French landscape architects of the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasizing the intricate interplay between art, architecture, and nature.
Incorporating elements like walkways, secluded corners, and a secret garden where the most precious plants are grown, the garden allows visitors to immerse themselves in the ambiance of Versailles' heyday, with its aura of extravagance and elegance.
A LEGACY PERFUMED WITH TRADITION
As the Perfumers Garden enchants visitors with its fragrant symphony, it stands as a tribute to the time when scent was art and an essential part of courtly life. This splendid garden is not just a homage to the past but a revival of scent’s legacy and a reminder of the eternal appeal of fragrance in our lives.
It is also a celebration of the often-overlooked "mute flowers," which, like the whispered secrets of the past, hold a quiet charm that enriches our world. Their delicate scents, like the history of Versailles, may not always be the loudest, but they contribute immeasurably to the intricate tapestry of life and culture.
Tours of the Perfumer’s Garden are 10 Euros through the Palace of Versailles website.