French Garden Design
Traditional French gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries were about formality and power: an expression of man’s power over nature and a demonstration of power over other men. Natural gardens were “out” and constructed, man-made landscaping was “in”: parterres, trimmed and sculpted box hedging, pleached trees, pools, paths, exotic plants such as orange trees and palm trees, ornate fountains, and vistas created by allées and marble statuary.
To start, the landscaping site had to be cleared of bogs, marshes, and existing trees for a French garden design to be created. Yet the whole had to remain restrained and dignified, a product of The Enlightenment: rational thought and the power of man. The predominant forms in 17th century gardens were lines, circles, squares, and triangles—all artificial forms in nature.
The garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte, designed in 1647 by France’s preeminent landscape designer, André Le Nôtre (1613–1700), for Louis XIV's Finance Minister, Nicolas Fourquet.
Two of the most famous French gardens were the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte and at Versailles, both created by garden designer André Le Nôtre. Nicolas Fouquet, minister of finance under Louis XIV, spent £16 million to build Vaux-le-Vicomte. Even more alarming: it took a whopping 18,000 workers and over 20 years to create its stunning landscaping! At Versailles, 37,000 acres of marshland were drained to provide water for the garden’s 1,400 fountains.
When Louix XIV saw the gardens that Le Nôtre built at Vaux-le-Vicomte, he assumed that his finance minister must have embezzled the money from the King’s own coffers. He threw Le Nôtre in jail [who died there 19 years later] and then proceeded to pillage Vaux-le-Vicomte of its 1,000 orange trees and marble statues, which were moved to Versailles. Apparently, the smell of orange blossoms was a favourite of Louis XIV; the extract, known as neroli, is widely used in perfumes.
Unsurprisingly, landscaping on this scale was very expensive and completely unsustainable. Many of these elaborate and sprawling gardens including Versailles fell into disrepair, bankrupting their owners and seeded (pun intended!) the French Revolution as signs of a corrupt monarchy.
The famous Orangerie at Versailles, commissioned by King Louis XIV of France, was the master work of landscape designer André Le Nôtre. The grounds at Versailles are vast, some 800 hectares to the west of the palace. CREDIT: Urban
King Louis XIV of France loved the smell of orange blossoms so much, he had orange trees in his bedroom in large, silver tubs. CREDIT: Ellen Levy Finch
Key elements of French garden design:
Allées – An avenue, bordered on either or both sides by trees, or a pruned hedge.
Bosquet – Sheltered, outdoor “rooms” where Louix XIV entertained hundreds of guests at lavish banquets.
Espalier – A time-consuming technique of training vines and fruit trees in elaborate, artificial shapes using severe pruning techniques, wire and string, proving that man could control nature.
Perspective – Le Nôtre was particularly skilled at mastering perspective—he was the Leonardo Da Vinci of garden design. The landscaper applied tricks called “anamorphosis” and “collimation”, perspectival ways of making distant objects in landscaping appear big and allowing levels and features to unfold as the observer moves forwards from specific viewing points in their foreground. These were concepts learned from artists and applied to gardens.
Parterre - Elaborate flower beds, outlined in trimmed boxwood, designed to be seen from above, from the upper levels of a grand house. Labour-intensive parterres play with form, colour and texture.
Potager – A kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs grown together, along with flowers. Smaller gardens that belonged to the middle class or to peasants were called jardin de curé were all about putting food on the table, medicinal herbs, and flowers for the church altar.
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