Hercules strength is legendary, as a god playing in a human world, his might was beyond compare. This figure of Hercules played an important role in the iconography of 17th-18th-century France. The French accepted the legend that the Trojan Hercules had been the tenth king of the Gaul. A Gallic Hercules – who was also the god of eloquence – was celebrated in honor of François I. Furthermore, Henri IV and Louis XIII lent their features to the hero.
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At Vaux le Vicomte, his image, a once-gilded, full scale copy of the Farnese Hercules, sits resolute against the horizon as a representation of the thought of man´s ability to conquer and shape nature during this age. This was a project of such grandeur and scope, it involved and reflected the height of architecture, art, critical thought, and technology, while exhibiting a balance between the brute force required to reshape the land at this scale and the delicacy, articulation and placement of the finished elements in such a refined manner. “Masters at play” is how I reflect on the composition as a whole, where the architect, garden designer, and artists have all come together to create a cohesive masterpiece. Le Vau´s powerful design is displayed in the presence of the chateau while the painter Charles Le Brun, who would come to specialize in images of Hercules, decorated with these images on the ceiling of the Salon d’Hercule at the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte in honor of the wealthy finance minister Nicolas Fouquet.
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All of this is reinforced by Le Notre’s ability to shape perspective and a play a game of optical gymnastics in his manipulation of the grounds and gardens. This sense of control is seen though the representation of a garden that was the embodiment of “Devine Reason”.
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Subtle tricks are being played on your eyes, guiding your procession through space from entry, past the Hermes standing guard at the gate …
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… up to and visually throughout the ground floor of the estate, across the terraced levels of gardens and walks, above the surprise of the cascade and canal to the manifestation of Hercules in the distance.
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As I walk along these gravel paths, my mind wanders back to an age when Moliere’s comedy ballet Les Facheux was making its debut in the garden as a gift in honor of King Louis XIV’s visit and when this infamous grand fete and sumptuous feast ultimately the undoing of its owner a mere three weeks after.
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It is rare when a sculptural object can command the landscape. One might imagine the mounted statue of the Marcus Aurelius at the Piazza del Campidoglio, but this is contained by the surrounding architecture, allowing their forms and detailing to shape the space and focus on the monument. At Vaux – Hercules, frozen in bronze in a rare moment of repose, leaning on his knobby club and basking in the comfort of labors success – draped with the pelt of the Nemean Lion, and holding the apples of the Hesperides, but concealing them behind his back cradled in his right hand. Atop his pedestal, he purveys the surrounding composition of gardens and their shaping walls, allees and paths, fountains and natural water features, as though it has all been laid at his feet.
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He is both the focus and foil, a god as man with equal stature to the chateau and the world beyond.