During the 17th and 18th centuries in France, when the nation was still ruled by kings, architecture began to evolve, starting with the country’s châteaux and their surrounding monuments. The small-windowed turrets and battlements of the Middle Ages, looming above dank dungeons, gave way to late-Renaissance castles built on open plains, their layouts axial, symmetrical, and rational. The paired guard pavilions—positioned above the main entrance and visible to the public—were decorated, even gilded, with the utmost attention.

No longer focused on defense, these buildings were embodiments of wealth, stature, and influence during a time of unprecedented leisure. When Louis XV exiled the Duc de Choiseul to a country estate called Chanteloup, the banishment was described by Madame du Deffand, in a 1711 letter to Voltaire: “Never has disgrace been accompanied by such glory.” Chanteloup was magnificent.

The celebrated architectural historian Bernd H. Dams and the architectural writer and illustrator Andrew Zega examine the greatest estates of the era in their latest book, Visions of Arcadia: Pavilions and Follies of the Ancien Régime. There’s Château de Rosay, a handsome castle in Louis XIII style that’s made magical by its long-preserved Anglo-Chinois park, and, of course, Versailles, where Louis XIV presided over extravagant fêtes and ballets.

There’s also the fascinating story of the gardens of Chantilly. As Madame de Lafayette once wrote to Madame de Sévigné, “Of all the places that the sun illuminates, there are none comparable to this.” Illustrated with exquisite watercolors by Zega, the book is the result of 30 years of travels through France, where Dams and Zega, despite their initially rudimentary French, navigated encounters with brittle academics. —Elena Clavarino

Visions of Arcadia: Pavilions and Follies of the Ancien Régime is out now from Rizzoli

Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor at AIR MAIL