Absolute Animals: The Royal Menagerie and the Royal Labyrinth at Versailles

This article is a part of our “Revolutionary Animals” series, which examines the roles of animals in revolution, representations of revolutionary animals, and the intersections between representation and the lived experiences of animals.

By Peter Sahlins

In the first decade of his long reign, and well before the court was installed at Versailles in 1682, Louis XIV established two distinctive animal collections in the palace gardens. The first was the Royal Menagerie, a pavilion designed by the architect Louis Le Vau in 1663 at the edge of the park on the road to Saint-Cyr, with its seven courtyards populated by 1668 with thousands of exotic and domestic animals, mostly birds. The second was the Royal Labyrinth, designed by André le Nôtre. An irregular garden maze also planted in 1663, the Labyrinth was populated between 1672 and 1674 with 39 fountains and some 330 polychromatic lead sculptures of animals enacting fables “drawn from Aesop.” The history of these two animal collections has hardly been ignored, but they are rarely considered together, especially in the context of Louis XIV’s early efforts to construct a model of absolute authority in the gardens of Versailles.[1]

Literary descriptions and visual culture represented the Menagerie as an animal palace, a resplendent collection of living, peaceable, exotic, and graceful birds—even if in real life it was a crowded place of noisy strife. The Labyrinth’s fountain-sculptures, by contrast, portrayed violent, competitive, and predatory acts of animals—even if the Labyrinth was a giant parlor game in the gardens that became, for a while, a fashionable, gallant diversion within court culture. The sculptors of the painted lead animals in the Labyrinth based their realistic figures on the living animals of the Royal Menagerie and no doubt on the drawings of the Flemish animalier Pieter Boel. But they imposed an altogether different vision of the animal world: if the Menagerie contained civilized animals, the Labyrinth was an anti-Menagerie. Taken together, the two models of animal spectatorship in the royal gardens, like other manifestations of the animal moment in around 1668—what I have called  “The Year of the Animal”—offer a unique expression of the shifting claims to absolute authority at a critical moment of its formulation. 

Figure 1. Map of Versailles (1664) credit: BNF

Today, intrepid visitors can visit the unexcavated remains of the Royal Menagerie, destroyed during the French Revolution. But the Bosquet de la Reine, which replaced the Royal Labyrinth in 1778 (long after it fell out of favor), contains no apparent traces of the Labyrinth.[2] Despite their absence today, both were central elements of the court culture that took shape in the gardens of Versailles at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV, after his prise de pouvoir in 1661, following the death of Cardinal Mazarin. Both sites showed up on a 1664 map of the gardens, the Menagerie already constructed (although its waterworks awaited completion), the Labyrinth, in the Petit Parc, with its hedges already planted in a maze (Fig. 1). After the young Louis XIV laid claim to the sole exercise of power in 1661, he sought to justify his rule in his two animal collections, which served as distinct models of  absolute authority. 

Figure 2: Antoine Desgondetz, Vincennes Menagerie (1694) – Image Works

First, in a striking pivot, when the young Louis XIV ordered the Royal Menagerie to be built, he turned his back on a long royal and princely tradition in France and elsewhere of keeping wild animals at court, especially for combat. Ever since Pepin the Short, and especially during the Renaissance, French kings laid claim to their strength and legitimate authority through their collections of ferocious and violent beasts—lions, tigers, bears—and the staging of animal fights. Spectacles of violent animal combat lost favor with the advent of the Bourbon dynasty with Henry IV in 1594, amidst the horrors of religious war. This remained the case under Louis XIII, who had himself already taken the avian turn (especially with the bird collection at Fontainebleau, and his passion for falconry).[3] Though the great cats all but vanished, Cardinal Mazarin and the young Jean-Baptiste Colbert, later chief minister of the king, nonetheless built a special kind of menagerie at the chateau of Vincennes. Begun in 1654, the menagerie was used to satisfy the carnivorous appetites of the court.  But in 1658, under Mazarin’s direction, the architect Louis Le Vau—after some trial and error—eventually added an adaptation of the Florentine model of a seraglio of wild beasts (Fig. 2: Vincennes).[4]

Figure 3: Pierre Aveline, View and Perspective of the Salon of the Versailles Menagerie (1689) (BNF Est).

The arena, designed exclusively for animal combat, was underused, and proved unpopular. The first two spectacles staged in March and July 1663 for Marie Therese and the king of Denmark’s son involved the combat of an exotic and a native species.[5] But the message it sent was too Baroque, too Italian, too violent, brutal, and bloody—even if the violence was contained in a specialized, enclosed arena. Louis XIV instead sought to send a different message, restyling French absolute authority based on an opposite principle: instead of the conquest and containment of violence, the king shifted the model of animal spectatorship towards the peaceful contemplation of civilized animals (Fig. 3).

Louis XIV’s collection of exotic, graceful, and peaceable birds (and some mammals) in the Royal Menagerie can be situated within a broader cultural transformation from medieval to modern Europe that the German sociologist Norbert Elias famously called in 1939 Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, or the “civilizing process,” that linked the growth of the absolute state and the evolution of elite behavioral norms. Taking his cue in part from Max Weber and Sigmund Freud, Elias argued that the long history of the repression of violent behaviors and the regulation of bodily functions under the aegis of an emerging absolutist state produced a psychic structure of internalized self-restraint (driven by shame, repugnance, and the rejection of violence and all bestial behaviors). At court, regulated by strict etiquette codes in a system of ceremonial precedence, the king balanced the conflicting interests of factions and classes. Elias promised that “it will be shown in the course of the civilizing process, how people seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal,’” yet he failed to engage with the question of animality and did not consider the uses and significance of animals in court society as part of the civilizing process.[6]

Yet the Royal Menagerie was a critical element of the civilizing process. It was a site of pomp and courtly display, part of the “glory machine” to amaze and seduce courtiers and foreign dignitaries, the privileged of whom might enjoy a royal dinner in the octagonal salon on the second floor—where no doubt some of its denizens found their way onto the table.  For the menagerie housed two kinds of animals, those of the cour (the “court”) and of the “courtyard.” As a source of foodstuffs for the king’s table, the utilitarian menagerie included chickens, ducks, turkeys, and magpies. As a site of pomp, it also housed animals to be seen and admired, including peacocks and pheasants, ostriches and cassowaries, as well as dozens of species of graceful aquatic birds (flamingo, heron, stork, egret), some of which had been found on the royal table during the previous century. Both groups were immobilized, for the most part, with different techniques of flight restraint, including wing-clipping. Of course, there were mammals in both groups—Persian goats, deer, wild boar, Barbary sheep, antelope, camels, and an elephant, only some of them edible. But the vast majority of the animals and species were birds, more often graceful aquatic birds and songbirds than owls, eagles, or birds of prey. 

Figure 4: Pieter Boel, Study of the Royal Bird, Demoiselles Crane, and Bustard – Art Resource

The charismatic stars of the animal collection were the graceful and enticing Demoiselles of Numidia (the crown-crested crane), posed in a tableau by Pieter Boel with the “royal bird” (the crown-crested crane) and the (male-coded) bustard, almost like a scene at court (Fig. 4). The crane also drew the attention of Jean de La Fontaine (who wrote of their “good grace and beauty” in Les Amours de Psyché et Cupidon) and Madeleine de Scudery (who called them “Egyptian chickens” in La Promenade de Versailles), on theircontemporaneous (narrative) visits to the gardens of Versailles in 1669. The Royal Academy of Sciences, which since its founding in 1667 performed regular dissections of the animals of the Menagerie, paused to note the beguiling attentiveness of the birds to human interaction, before diving deep into anatomical descriptions of six specimens:

All those who have seen the birds in the Park of Versailles have much commented on how their gait, their gestures, and their leaps, have much in common with those of Gypsy women [bohémiennes], whose dance they seem to imitate. One could say that they are pleased to show off their grace and skillful jumps and that they follow people, not to have food thrown at them, but to be noticed; for when they see that they are watched, they begin to dance and to sing.[7]   

Although compared to Gypsy women, the Demoiselles were equally meaningful as instantiations—as living metaphors—of the courtier herself. The metaphoric identity was motivated by the fact that Louis XIV’s Royal Menagerie belonged to the world of what I have named Renaissance humanimalism, a worldview where animals were “brethren and companions” (Montaigne) who lived in “proximity and kinship” (Charron). More, in what philosopher George Boas called “theriophilia,” animals were elevated as models of virtue and civilized behavior, paragons to be admired and imitated.[8] The Royal Menagerie partook of this tradition, encouraging the identification of courtiers and birds. 

It was precisely this model of animal-human relations that the animal fountain-sculptures installed in the Royal Labyrinth between 1672 and 1674 disrupted. These polychrome figures, their settings laden with elaborate stone and shellwork and often installed in miniature pavilions, have for the most part been lost. But even the surviving fragments reveal a consistent theme, evoking not the peaceable and engaging beauty of birds found in the Royal Menagerie, but the violence and terror of a familiar animal world—a world where “the ferocity of birds could equal that of wolves and foxes,” wrote Aurélia Gaillard. [9] In the logic of the fable, the Labyrinth told the story of the disorder and bestiality of the human condition.  

Figure 5: Charles Perrault, Le Labyrinthe de Versailles (Paris, 1677) — BNF

Like the Royal Menagerie, the Royal Labyrinth was deeply embedded in court culture. Even before Louis XIV commissioned the statuary, and before the first waterworks in 1666, the Labyrinth was a site of gallant festivities, as during the Plaisirs de l’ile enchantée in June 1665. Then between 1672 and 1674, the crown commissioner hired more than three dozen fountain engineers (including the erstwhile poet of the Menagerie and the Labyrinth, Claude Denis) to lay the waterworks for the fountains, and more than a score of talented sculptors (including Jacques Houzeau, Pierre Le Gros, Jean-Baptiste Tuby, Antoine Masson, and Etienne Le Hongre) to produce the fabled animals for the 39 fountains installed at the alley’s intersections. The animals, arranged in scenes of confrontation, each spouted variable streams of water that expressed “their passions and their thoughts,” according to Charles Perrault, to whom the official guidebook to the Royal Labyrinth is universally attributed. Printed by the Royal Press, the guide included a map and key, an unadorned description of the fountains, their engravings by Sébastien Leclerc, and the morals of the fables, quatrains authored by the court lyricist Isaac de Benserade, which were also inscribed in gold on black painted marble plaques at the foot of each fountain. The guide went through two editions and countless pirated versions for those who wished to play at home (Fig. 5).

What was the meaning of the Royal Labyrinth? Charles Perrault, in the tradition of a certain preciosity, had imagined a Renaissance “labyrinth of love” where the choice of paths and stations elaborated a moral universe of precepts about love—a set of gallant texts in the moral language of the fable.[10] After all, did not the anthropomorphic statue of Cupid, facing the lifelike (and ugly) Aesop, stand at the entrance to the Labyrinth itself? But Louis XIV insisted on Aesop not Cupid, and he chose to eliminate all of Perrault’s references to the arts of love in the morals of the fable fountains: in the king’s royal miniatures by Jacques Bailly, the preface only makes reference to the wisdom of animals, and Benserade’s verse was bereft of love.[11]

What then were the lessons of the animal fables? Some scholars insist that it is impossible to interpret the Royal Labyrinth, unlike the rest of the gardens, as part of a royal program: no royal message was possible in the unstable world of the fable. Other critics, in a conspiratorial theory of the Labyrinth, thought there was only one true (and hidden) path through the stations of the Labyrinth, a moral path that taught “how to become an Honest Man”—and that formed an “impudent” and “bourgeois” critique of the aristocratic court.[12] But there was no one path through the Labyrinth (especially with the addition of three exits by the 1690s); and its meaning is disclosed instead in its fundamental opposition to the cosmological paradigm of the garden groves and landscapes. 

Figure 6: Anon. Serpent with Several Heads (ca 1690s) — BNF

The gardens were built around a “a vanishing point, an overture to infinity,” while the Labyrinth was a confused maze of irregular allies.[13] In the gardens, the world of the “Great Fable” of ancient mythology, the marbled sculptures of animals and monsters were largely mythological; in the Labyrinth, the lead statues were modeled on real animals. The Apollonian mythological program of garden decoration, built around the sun, and ultimately the Olympus of the Versailles palace itself stood in sharp contrast to the Royal Labyrinth, which harbored (for the most part) familiar animals, domestic and wild, all hidden in the shadows. For while the sun shone brightly on the other groves and fountains of the Versailles garden—including the iconic emblem of the Sun King himself—the Labyrinth, as visitors were to note often, was plunged in darkness and shadow all day (Fig. 6: Fountain 31). 

In this dark world, beyond the gaze of the Sun King, most of the animals were engaged in a predatory struggle for survival; it was “an aggressive world ruled by desire without breaks and aflame with ambition.”[14] On the one hand, the royal message supposed a renewed anthropocentrism: the moral superiority of man over animals—a position in direct contradiction to the theriophilia of La Fontaine, whose Fables Choisies Mises en Vers (1668) annoyed and angered the king—and likely motivated the decision to create the fountain fables of the Royal Labyrinth. Apart from Aesop himself, at the entrance, there were no humans present in the maze, and all the animals that tried to act like humans (the parakeet, the monkey, and the dolphin) could not escape their inferior animal nature. On the other hand, the royal message was more complex.  For one, the lion was absent from the Labyrinth along with other conventional animal emblems of kingship, replaced instead with weak symbols of the king: the Peacock (Fountain 9), the Monkey (23), the Serpent (31), and the Stork (26). The first two were usurpers, while only the serpent (a mythic animal) contained the message of the legitimate and indivisible authority of the king. The other messengers were poor substitutes for the more robust traditional emblems of rulership, the lion, the eagle, and the bear—all largely absent from the Versailles Labyrinth.  Nor was the rooster turned into an emblem of royalty, as it was in Louis XIV’s animal politics more generally. Instead, in the absence of kingship, animals waged a true war of each against all. 

Figure 7: Jacques Bailly, Battle of the Animals (Fountain 12) (1673-74) – Art Resource

The metaphors of battle and warfare were omnipresent throughout the Royal Labyrinth, whichever path one took. Most spectacular and specific were the two premier fountain sculptures depicting universal “wars” among mammals and birds. The first was Fountain I, The Owl and the Birds,” the fable of a horned owl who was beaten “because of his awful song and his ugly feathers.” The fountain was set in a great dome with an elaborated vaulted trellis ornamented with pilasters and cornices and an archivolt (only finished in 1677), with dozens of birds perched or suspended in flight “who spurt water in a thousand different ways,” all “animated by rage,” as described in the official guidebook. A similar “state of war” was depicted in Fountain 12, The Battle of the Animals, as close to the center of the asymmetrical maze as possible. A giant “cage” containing more than forty birds and mammals, each spitting water “to represent naively a war,” the fountain fable told the story of the bat who betrayed the mammals (Fig. 7: Jacques Bailly, The Battle of the Animals).

Note that the owl and the bat were anomalous and nocturnal animals who came alive when the sun did not shine. Outside the rays and gaze of the king was a world of animal warfare—the antithesis of the civilizing process. The vision was not altogether foreign to Aesop or La Fontaine, especially in the 1668 engravings of the latter by François Chauveau that emphasized (more than the fables themselves) “a world of heightened anxiety, aggression, and terror,” according to critic R.G. Le Page.[15] But the political message of the Labyrinth seems more derived from Thomas Hobbes, for whom the sovereign was the ultimate protection against bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. Only the king, largely absent in the Labyrinth (but omnipresently figured in the gardens as Apollo in all his iterations), could assure the visibility of an order that repressed aggression and violence. Only absolute authority could discipline and contain the animality of the human, the bestial passions of human nature where homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man. Apologists for absolutism (reviving an ancient tradition) claimed that strong government was necessary to control the bestial passions, and from Plato to Augustine to Hobbes, the role of the state was to repress, violently at times, the animal nature of the human condition.[16] Louis XIV reprised this tradition, perhaps superseding the civilizing model of absolute authority laid out in the animal collection of the Menagerie. 

But it is important to conclude that the historical passage from the civilizing animals of the Royal Menagerie to the vicious beasts of the Royal Labyrinth was never complete.  For the path from the Menagerie to the Labyrinth was not just a historical passage from one model to another, but an actual path to be taken. After 1674, following customary and official itineraries, visitors would first visit the Labyrinth in the Petit Parc, only ending their visit at the Menagerie. The path from the Royal Labyrinth to the Royal Menagerie went in fact from the bestial to the civilized: predation and violence in the struggle to survive gave way to harmony, beauty, and grace under the panoptical gaze of the Sun King. Louis XIV was not purely a Hobbesian after all: the two animal collections together told the story not simply about an absolutist state that repressed the animality of its subjects, but about a state founded on the civilizing process, turning competitive and violent animals that lurked in the shadows into peaceable and graceful models of civilized behavior basking in the glory of the Sun King.

Peter Sahlins taught French and European for more than thirty years in the History Department at the University of California, Berkeley.  A specialist of early modern France, he has published five books on a wide variety of topics, all touching on questions of identity and difference.  His most recent book is 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (New York: Zone Books, 2017). 

Title image: Pierre Aveline, View and Perspective of the Salon of the Versailles Menagerie (1689) (BNF Est).

Further reading:

Baratay, Éric, and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, trans. Oliver Welsh (London: Reaktion Books, 2002).

Hengerer, Mark, and Nadir Weber (eds.), Animals and Courts: Europe, c. 1200–1800 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2019).

Pieragnoli, Joan, La Cour de France et ses animaux, XVII-XVIIe siècles (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2016).

Quinet, Grégory, Versailles: Une Histoire Naturelle (Paris: La Découverte, 2016).

Sahlins, Peter, 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (New York: Zone Books, 2017).

Les Animaux à Versailles, Exhibition at the Château de Versailles, October 12th, 2021 – February  22nd, 2022. Catalogue forthcoming in September 2021. 


[1] A fully-documented account of these two animal collections, in the context of other animal manifestations around 1668, may be found in my book, 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (Zone Books: New York, 2017).  See also the recreation by G. Mabille et J. Pieragnoli, La Ménagerie de Versailles (Editions Honoré Claire, 2010); and the collected studies edited Elisabeth Maisonnier and Alexandre Maral, Le Labyrinthe de Versailles: Du mythe au jeu (Versailles: Ville de Versailles and Magellan, 2013). 

[2] But see the “Sondages dans le Bosquet de la Reine, http://www.chateauversailles.fr/resources/pdf/fr/archeologie/bosquet_reine.pdf (accessed 5.4.2021).

[3] See the second volume of the still useful study by G. Loisel, Histoire des Ménageries de l’Antiquité à nos jours, 3 vols. (Paris, 1912).

[4] Sahlins, 1668, ch. 1; see also Alexandre Cojannot, “Un sérail pour le cardinal Mazarin: Louis Le Vau et l’adaptation du Serraglio de’ Leoni de Florence . Vincennes,” Annali di architettura 21 (2009), 151–66.

[5] Loisel, Histoire des ménageries, vol. 2, 97–98, and Masume Iriye, “Le Vau’s Menagerie

and the Rise of the Animalier: Enclosing, Dissecting, and Representing the Animal in Early Modern France,” Ph.D. diss, University of Michigan, 1994, 28–30). 

[6] Norbert Elias, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation [1939], published in English in two volumes The Civilizing Process, Vol.I. The History of Manners) Oxford: Blackwell, 1969); Vol.II. State Formation and Civilization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).

[7] Mémoires pour une histoire naturelle des animaux (Paris: Imprimérie Royale, 1676), 157.

[8] G. Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (New York:

Octagon Books, 1966); Sahlins, 1668, 38-43 et. seq. 

[9] Aurélia Gaillard, “Bestiaire réel, bestiaire enchanté: Les animaux à Versailles sous Louis XIV,” in Charles Mazouer (ed.), L’animal au XVIIe siècle: Actes de la 1ère journée d’études (21 novembre 2001) du Centre de recherches sur le XVIIe siècle européen (1600–1700) (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2003), 185–98; 187.

[10] [Charles Perrault], “Le Labyrinth de Versailles,” in[Jean Le Laboureur], Recueil de divers ouvrages en prose et en vers (Paris: J.-B. Coignard, 1675). 

[11] “Entrée du Labyrinthe,” Musée du Petit Palais (Paris), MS Dutuit 1675, fol. 1.

[12] Michael Conan, “The Conundrum of Le Nôtre’s Labyrinthe,” in John Dixon Hunt (ed.), Garden History: Issues, Approaches, Methods (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks

Research Library and Collection, 1992), 119–50; Alain-Marie Bassy, “Les Fables

de la Fontaine et le labyrinthe de Versailles,” Revue française d’histoire du livre 12 (1976), 367–426.

[13] Allen S. Weiss, Mirrors of Infinity: The French Formal Garden and 17th-Century Metaphysics (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995), 72.

[14] Marie-Claude Canova-Green, “D’une culture à l’autre: Charles Perrault et le Labyrinthe de Versailles,” Seventeenth-Century French Studies 34.2 (2012), 143–57.

[15] R. G. Le Page, “The 1668 Edition of the Fables: An Iconographic Interpretation,” L’Esprit Créateur 21.4 (1981), 66-77, quote p. 66.

[16] Marshall Sahlins, The Western Illusion of Human Nature (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2008).

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