France / Garden and Landscapes / History / International

French Formal Gardens

Garden Installment – France

While Italian Renaissance gardens seem to have dedicated significant time to symmetry within their plans, the french took a more asymmetrical view.

This seems to be a similarity between the Italian gardens of the time. It would not be far-fetched to say that France gather many of their gardening aspects from Italians when they conquered their lands and took spoils with them – such as tapestries, paintings, sculpture, and even Italian craftsmen. But what then sets a French Renaissance garden apart from those in Italy?

King Louis XII had married his cousin’s widow, Anne of Brittany and they both shared a love for plants and gardens. Naturally they collaborated to bring one of the most recognized plant indentification books of the period, Book of Hours. The book is also quite popular for it’s beautiful pages, decorated by Jean Bourdichon.

Some french gardens were filled with fuit and flowers while others contained box, rosemary topiaries formed into shapes of horses, ships, birds. And they were surrounded by galleries with wooden vaults covered with trellis.

While many Italian principles were brought over to France, they had to acclimate these principles to the topography and climate of different land. France had a more flatter and densely wooded area that was difficult for cultivation – commissioners pushed through these natural woods for their garden to occupy full landscapes.

Jacques Androuet du Cerceau

Fontainebleau, Jacques Androuet de Cerceau 1570

Cerceau’s engraving have been used for years by great architects from the baroque period till current day. He was both an architect and engraving. Some of his publications displayed a collection of knot designs, called entrelacs in French.

His best know work was Les Plus Excellents Bâtiments de France (two volumes 1567 and 1579) was dedicated to Catherine de’Medici and presents the architectural evolution of France in the 16th century (Gothic to Renaissance forms)

From his illustrations we learn that the gardens eventually became linked to the chateaux (the equivalent of an Italian villa). And showed the future of trellis work in the upcoming years, which would leave a lasting influence for the gardens around the world.

Arcade or Pergola at Montargis, du Cerceau

  • palissades – hedges clipped like walls, sometime containing arches
  • berceaux – arching arbours (often of hornbeam, beech and lime)
  • parterres – formal garden construction on a level surface consisting of planting beds, edged in stone or tightly clipped hedging, and gravel paths arranged to form a pleasing, usually symmetrical patter
  • tableaux – French diminutive of “table”, sometimes meaning “picture”
  • allées – a walkway lined with trees or tall shrubs

The french were fascinated with manipulating nature as consequently became masters of topiary and pruning and training of all plants. One thing that had significant difficulty in manipulating was water, due to their flat lands as oppose to the rolling hillsides of Italy that made water move at a continuous pace. As a solution, still water became a continuous theme in France, particularly with their invention of the moat. The moat was used as a defensive means for estates but was also considered an ornamental canal.

Catherine De’ Medici

When her husband, Henri II, passed away in 1560, Catherine De’Medici acquired Chenonceaux (land that her husband had obtained from his mistress). To celebrate her arrival, she erected a triumphal entrance arch of ivy and ornamented the entire park with tunnels, green rooms (little theaters made of turf) and other fantasizes of hers.  She hosted displays of fireworks, water fetes, and masques within the garden.  She spent a great sum of money on the gardens at Fontainebleau – surrounded the entire grounds with a moat, installed a painted gallery and added parterres and statuary.

Bayonne Water Festival

These included work on châteaux at Montceaux-en-Brie,Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, and Chenonceau. Catherine built two new palaces in Paris: the Tuileries and the Hôtel de la Reine. She was closely involved in the planning and supervising of all her architectural schemes.

Philibert de l’Orme

In 1597, l’Orme had adjusted classical architecture to the topography of France and decided it was the buildings that needed to adapt to the environment, creating new building would not solve the problem.

He founded his ideas on principles using a delicacy of invention and harmony which was to be the fountain of French classical architecture up-to the 18th century. He was later placed as head of all royal buildings and gardens by Henri II. And with this relationship l’Orme designed both Anet and Chenonceaux for Henri II’s mistress Diane.

Chateaux Anet, Centre,France

The Mollet Family

Claude Mollet

Four generations of outstanding gardeners produced developments in planting styles of parterres, works in the royal parks, and gardens in and near Paris.

  • Jacques Mollet. – Worked at Anet.
  • Claude Mollet – Worked at Anet, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and other royal gardens. He created sophisticated swirling patterns and flowing lines with dwarf box (Buxus semprvirens).
  • André Mollet – Discussed theory and perspective to garden in addition to focusing on practicalities of growing plants.

“The Garden of Pleasure consists in ground works, Wildernesses, choice trees, Palissades and Alleys or Walks, as also in Fountains. Grotto’s and Statues, perspectives, and other such like Ornaments.” – André Mollet

Le Nôtre

Le Nôtre

One of the main characteristics of French landscaping is the exploitation of aerial perpective to carry the observer’s eye out to the infinite lands.Ordered rows of trees followed pre-described patterns assisted in giving the garden another dimension, an optical illusion.

Descartes said that perspective view would vary according to where they were viewed from, confirming any perception of reality is an illusion based on the idea of a fixed viewpoint. Le Nôtre took this idea and made an already exaggerated garden and make it seem larger from every viewpoint; not simply by the entrance of from the chateaux. Modern landscaping architects have studied Le Nôtre’s work for decades and one of his most known examples is his masterpiece, Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Vaux was completed by 1661 and soon after neglected until about the 20th century when it was restored by Achille Duchêne. The topography of the land was a gently sloping and allowed Le Nôtre to create his idea of deception. He studied not only Descartes, but Euclid’s Optics and the general laws of linear perspective.

Versailles and Vaux seem to be the epitome of French gardening for the century, both of which are vast grounds with a central axis and horizon-al vanishing; both designs of Le Nôtre.

Versailles, France


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