While Gobert, Picard and their successors were establishing a chain of canals and reservoirs, Louis XIV and his ministers continued to entertain hopes of a more spectacular water supply, and it appears that town criers throughout the country invited individuals to submit their ideas and inventions. It may have been in answer to such an advertisement that Baron Arnold de Ville, alderman of Liège, brought before Louis his project for 'raising the waters of the Seine to the summit of the high ground round Louveciennes by means of a gigantic pump. He had already installed one on his own estate at Modaves, and he brought with him to St. Germain Rennequin Sualem) carpenter) also of Liège, who was the constructor, if not the deviser, of this machine.
A working model was made and tried out in the presence of the King towards the end of 1680; it successfully raised the water to the level of the terrace at St. Germain. A site was selected near Bougival, where a chain of islands divided the waters of the Seine, and in 1681 Arnold de Ville and Rennequin Sualem started the construction of the celebrated Machine de Marly. Fourteen gigantic waterwheels, each thirty-six feet in diameter, communicated their movement to two hundred and twenty-one pumps working in relays up the hillside, which raised the water to a height of a hundred and sixty-two metres above the river. It sometimes produced as much as five thousand cubic meters of water a day (twenty-four hours). By the 13th of June 1684 the mechanism was completed and tried out, again in the presence of the King. The result being satisfactory, work was started on the aqueduct which was to carry the water to the big reservoirs of Louveciennes and Le Trou d'Enfer, whence it could be conveyed to the gardens of Marly, or of Versailles or Trianon as occasion demanded.
The aqueduct at Marly, 1874
The total cost was between three and four million livres, but there was also a heavy annual bill for maintenance, for, as Nicodemus Tessin noted, it was "un ouvrage toujours à refaire" [alway a chore to do again]. The wear and tear of the chains which relayed the power of the waterwheels to the upper pumps required a constant supply of spare parts, and soon caused a falling off in the efficiency of the machine; nevertheless it was one of the wonders of its age. Contemporary writers noted with astonishment the complexity of its mechanism, and the perpetual grinding of its wheels and crankshafts, but it was claimed that, apart from the constructors, Vauban was the only man who had fully understood it.
Vauban, one of the ablest engineers of his age, was mostly employed on designing the fortifications necessitated by Louis' expanding frontiers, but in 1685 Louvois gave him the task of planning the most gigantic project for obtaining water that was ever actually put into operation. Although a considerable quantity was already available from the sources just described, it must be remembered that there were some fourteen hundred fountains to be supplied, and their use still had to be rationed. Normally only the basins lying nearest to the Chateau displayed daily, from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. On a special occasion, such as a fête, or the visit of an ambassador or other celebrity, the Grandes Eaux were only in full play for three hours at a time. Although on a far more ambitious scale, the fountains at Versailles were still a long way behind those of the Prince de Condé at Chantilly "qui ne se taissaient ni jour ni nuit" [which, day or night, were never quiet].
Riquet's original idea, however, for bringing the Loire to Versailles had not, it seems, been completely forgotten, and the extension of Gobert's network of reservoirs to the vicinity of Maintenon suggested the possibility of bringing the waters of the river Eure instead. In 1684 La Hire was sent by Louvois to survey the prospect, and reported that the gradients were possible. The most spectacular portion of the works necessitated by this scheme, from Berchères to Maintenon, was put in hand. It consisted of a great embankment, sixty feet high, leading to the aqueduct, where the canal was to recross its own valley within sight of the Château de Maintenon. This aqueduct, most of which can still be seen today, was over five thousand meters long- some seventy meters high, and was to have had three tiers of arcading.
The Aqueduct at Maintenon
Remnants of the Aqueduct at Maintenon
Return to La Machine de Marly