Ovid tells the story of Latona, the mother by Jupiter of Apollo and Diana. In her flight from the jealous Juno, she arrives faint and parched on the coast of Asia Minor. Kneeling to sip from a pond, Latona is met by the local peasants, who not only deny her effort but muddy the water in pure malice. Enraged, Latona calls a curse down upon the stingy peasants, turning them to frogs.
In his masterful study, Thomas F. Hedin reveals how and why a fountain of this strange legend was installed in the heart of Versailles in the 1660s, the inaugural decade of Louis XIV’s patronage there. The natural supply of water was scarce and unwieldy, and it took the genius of the king’s hydraulic engineers, working in partnership with the landscape architect André Le Nôtre, to exploit it. If Ovid’s peasants were punished for their stubborn denial of water, so too the obstacles of coarse nature at Versailles were conquered; the aquatic iconography of the fountain was equivalent to the aquatic reality of the gardens.
Latona was designed by Charles Le Brun, the most powerful artist at the court of Louis XIV, and carried out by Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy. The 1660s were rich in artistic theory in France, and the artists of the fountain delivered substantial lectures at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture on subjects of central concern to their current work. What they professed was what they were visualizing in the gardens. As such, the fountain is an insider’s guide to the leading artistic ideals of the moment.
Louis XIV was viewed as the reincarnation of Apollo, the god of creativity, the inspiration of artists and scientists. Hedin’s original argument is that Latona was a double declaration: a glorification of the king and a proud manifesto by artists.
Thomas F. Hedin is Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is the author, with Robert W. Berger, of Diplomatic Tours in the Gardens of Versailles, also published by University of Pennsylvania Press.