Cultivated Power: Flowers, Culture, and Politics in the Reign of Louis XIV

Cultivated Power: Flowers, Culture, and Politics in the Reign of Louis XIV

Cultivated Power: Flowers, Culture, and Politics in the Reign of Louis XIV

Cultivated Power: Flowers, Culture, and Politics in the Reign of Louis XIV


Cultivated Power explores the collection, cultivation, and display of flowers in early modern France at the historical moment when flowering plants, many of which were becoming known in Europe for the first time, piqued the curiosity of European gardeners and botanists, merchants and ministers, dukes and kings. Elizabeth Hyde reveals how flowers became uniquely capable of revealing the curiosity, reason, and taste of those elite men who engaged in their cultivation. The cultural and increasingly political value of such qualities was not lost on royal panegyrists, who seized on the new meanings of flowers in celebrating the glory of Louis XIV. Using previously unexplored archival sources, Hyde recovers the extent of floral plantations in the gardens of Versailles and the sophisticated system of nurseries created to fulfill the demands of the king's gardeners. She further examines how the successful cultivation of those flowers made it possible for Louis XIV to demonstrate that his reign was a golden era surpassing even that of antiquity.

Cultivated Power expands our knowledge of flowers in European history beyond the Dutch tulip mania and restores our understanding of the importance of flowers in the French classical garden. The book also develops a fuller perspective on the roles of gender, rank, and material goods in the age of the baroque. Using flowers to analyze the movement of culture in early modern society, Cultivated Power ultimately highlights the influence of curious florists on the taste of the king and the extension of the cultural into the realm of the political.


In 1688 Jean Donneau de Visé presented to King Louis XIV an exquisite manuscript entitled History of Louis le Grand, contained in the rapport that [is] found between his actions, & the qualities, & virtues of flowers, & of plants (see plate 1). The manuscript was a magnificent object. Its nearly one hundred pages were elaborately bound in a cover of tortoiseshell with brass inlay crafted by Louis Boulle, the French master of marquetry. The pages within were covered with delicately rendered, gold-framed watercolor portraits of flowers, herbs, and trees. Each plant addressed the king in accompanying texts, celebrating his accomplishments by comparing his deeds to its own botanical features and medicinal properties. The book was a masterpiece of late seventeenth-century flower painting, calligraphy, and marquetry and therefore was a gift suitable for presentation to a king. It was also a tour de force in courtly flattery. For Donneau de Visé, publisher of the seventeenth-century Parisian periodical Le Mercure Galant, was seeking to be named an official historian to Louis XIV, and the manuscript was his plea for patronage. Yet why would Donneau de Visé have sought an appointment by comparing the king to flowers, symbols most often identified with ephemerality and femininity, not everlasting royal power?

Fending off the ephemerality of political goodwill born of short-lived memory was, of course, Donneau de Visé’s goal in writing the history of Louis XIV’s reign. Several floral species included in the text outlined the benefits of such an endeavor on Donneau de Visé’s behalf. In boasting of its own exquisite fragrance, the tuberose said that it perfumed the air long after the plant began to flower. The publication of the king’s works in an official historical account would have the same effect on his posterity as the lingering perfume of the tuberose. Said the flower to the king:

As soon as one begins to publish [reports of] the great projects that you often make
for the tranquility of the Earth, and for the advantage and the glory of France,
one is surprised … at the first noise that spreads from these projects, which [is no
longer heard as time passes]. But when one comes to examine them in succession,
and as they begin to produce results for which they were conceived, it is then that
they appear more extraordinary, and that one discovers with pleasure the grandeur
and the beauty, and that as the good that arises from them is of long duration, one
can with justice compare them to my flowers, which are born in one season and
last into another.

The iris, too, made the case for a comprehensive history of the king’s reign. After explaining that it existed in an infinite number of colors and vari-

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