The king is dead, but the molecatcher lives on.
He even signs SMS messages: “Molecatcher to the king.” It’s been over two centuries since Louis XVI was guillotined on Paris’ Place de la Concorde, but the job of hunting the underground pest that so troubled French monarchs on the grounds of the Versailles palace still exists.
Its current holder carries on, business as usual, with a task that hasn’t changed in centuries.
“It might sound funny, but it’s serious work. My job is to make sure molehills don’t deface Europe’s finest gardens,” says 36-year-old Jerome Dormion, the latest in an unbroken 330-year line of mole-killers in the royal palace and gardens visited by six million people a year. “We still have visiting dignitaries too. Imagine if they were to see them!“
Dormion — who started out as a regular gardener before noticing a niche in the molecatching market — keeps the roughly 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of magnificent horticulture mole-free. The grounds include fountains, an orangery, glistening landscaped grass, Marie Antoinette’s cherished farm and famed gardener Andre Le Notre’s Royal Path and Grand Canal.
He takes the work very seriously — but there’s the odd flash of humor.
“I’m known as the king’s molecatcher because Versailles is still the palace,” he says. “The king might be gone, but the palace still has moles, loads of them.” He smiles: “Which is good, as it keeps me in work!“
Versailles is a veritable hotbed for moles, unlike some other European palaces, since it lies in the verdant countryside some 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) outside the Paris city walls. Across the channel, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II need not furrow her regal brow, as her palace, within London, is protected by city foundations that prevent moles from digging through to the royal residence.
At Versailles, large mounds of earth mark out the path of the mole’s underground kingdom, in which Dormion sets dozens of archaic-looking traps featuring two metal prongs that smash together to break the neck.
“It resembles a guillotine,” says Dormion with a wry smile. He tried poison for a while, but decided the contraption invented in the 1600s was the best, not to mention most faithful to the historic role.
For their part, moles, solitary underground creatures with giant paws for digging, outdate even the oldest kings of France.
They first burrowed into Europe some 40 million years ago, and over the centuries have been the enduring bane of royal gardens in and around France. In fact, it’s a small miracle that a myopic, near-deaf worm-eater that can die of stress if it goes above ground has survived so long.
Zoologists say their against-all-odds success is due to a decline in natural predators like wild cats and weasels — and the mole population is now booming. One single mole can make 30 molehills a day, which multiplied a hundred-fold can see entire estates pockmarked within weeks.
The royal molecatcher was first hired by Louis XIV, the Bourbon king who moved the court to Versailles in the late 1600s. Historians say that the spendthrift monarch lavished so much money on the upkeep of his beloved residence that it plunged the entire country into debt.
“Versailles was the greatest symbol of France. After everything (Louis) spent on the gardens, imagine if the moles had been allowed to run riot? All this money would have been squandered, wasted,” says Versailles’ head gardener Alan Baraton.
“For the king, of course, it was one of the most important functions at the palace.”
So vital was the molecatcher to preserving the beauty of the costly gardens, he was rewarded with his own residence at Versailles. From the 1600s, the molecatchers all came from the same family — the Liards — until in 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte put a stop to the father-to-son succession.
Being a good molecatcher can also save lives. In 1702, William III of England died from injuries he sustained after his horse tripped on a molehill. “If the king had been more careful about the upkeep of his grass, he would not have been dead at 52 years old,” says Baraton wisely.
Dormion, too, doesn’t underestimate his prey.
“Moles are exceptionally clever. That’s why the majority of gardeners can’t catch them. One of the wiliest I have ever encountered outsmarted my traps for three months. ... Eventually, it got lazy and I got it.”
He calls it one of his proudest professional moments.
Dormion also highlights how versatile the mole is. On a scorching summer day, he once stood aghast at a strange sight in one of the royal fountains: a mole swimming around the basin.
“In my job,” says Dormion, “I never fail to be surprised.”
The ‘royal molecatcher’ outlives Versailles king
The ‘royal molecatcher’ outlives Versailles king
The king is dead, but the molecatcher lives on.
Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes
- The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
- Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion
VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades.
Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.
It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.
At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.
The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.
With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.
“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.
The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.
While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable.
“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.
Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.
This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.
Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.
These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.
Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.
Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.
“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.
The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.
Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.
In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.
“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”
Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.
“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.
In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.
The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.
“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”
“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.
“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”
For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”
The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.
The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.