The Versailles Orangerie (French: L′Orangerie du Château de Versailles) was built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart between 1684 and 1686, replacing Le Vaus design from 1663 - that is to say, before work on the palace had even begun. It is an example of many such prestigious extensions of grand gardens in Europe designed both to shelter tender plants and impress visitors. In the winter, the Versailles Orangerie houses more than a thousand trees in boxes. Most are citrus trees, but there are many tender Mediterranean plants including oleanders, olive, pomegranate, and palm trees. From May to October, they are put outdoors in the Parterre Bas.
The allure of citrus
The sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) was introduced to Europe by the fifteenth or sixteenth century. At first, they were an expensive food item. Medieval cookbooks tell exactly how many orange slices a visiting dignitary was entitled to. Citrus soon became the fashion of the nobility and rich merchants. By the sixteenth century, sweet oranges had become well-established and had assumed commercial importance in Europe.
In France, the first orangerie was built and stocked by Charles VIII of France at the Château of Amboise. There is general agreement that the arrival of the sweet orange in Europe was linked with the activities of the Portuguese during the fifteenth century, and particularly by Vasco de Gama's voyages to the East. Although the Romans had been acquainted with lemons and probably sour oranges as well as citrons, the different types - sour oranges, lemons and sweet oranges - reached Europe centuries apart. By withholding water and nutrients, and by using pruning techniques, French gardeners were able to make citrus trees bloom throughout the year, to the delight of Louis XIV. Citrus motifs formed themes in sculpture, mosaics, embroidery, weaving, paintings, poems, and songs throughout history, and orange blossoms remain prized as floral ornaments at weddings.
Location in the garden
The Versailles Orangerie is under the flowerbed known as "parterre du midi". Its central gallery is 155 metres in length, and its frontage is directed towards the south. The “Parterre Bas” is bordered on its south side by a balustrade overlooking the Saint-Cyr-l'École. This separates it from the Swiss Pond.
The central gallery is framed by two side galleries located under the “Escaliers des Cent Marches”. The whole is lit by large arched windows, which enclose the lower bed or the 'bed de l'orangerie'. In the centre of the Orangerie is a large circular pool, surrounded by six fields of grass. From May to October, the orange trees and other trees are exposed in the lower bed.
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