The Landscape Guide

St-Germain, Fontainebleau, Luxembourg, Ruel Gardens

As a fact, however, in Henry the Fourth’s reign things were still at sixes and sevens, especially when Maria de’ Medici brought her own country’s art over the Alps, for then we can see very clearly the fresh inspiration from Italy to France. Henry’s chief building was the new castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Francis I. had made a great palace on old foundations on the high bank of the Seine, a little inland. This was enlarged by Henry II. by the addition of a small central building from which one could enjoy the wonderful view from a broad terrace close to the river. The gardens at these old places seem to have been insignificant, for Du Cerceau does not mention them, and they are scarcely indicated on his plan. Henry IV. now put up a palace in place of the small theatre building, with fine pavilions at the corners, and raised high above the steep bank of the Seine (Fig. 336). The architect of the actual palace was a Frenchman; but for the garden, which had to slope down in steep terraces to the river, the king, acting on the advice of Maria de’ Medici, called in an Italian, Francini by name.  [Evelyn's description of St Germain is on the CD]
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The castle has disappeared except for one pavilion, and the gardens have vanished, leaving no trace. The place fell down after Henry’s death, perhaps because it was built too quickly, or perhaps because the French architect could not sufficiently master the difficulty of laying foundations on such a steep slope ; while as for the garden, a change in taste turned men’s thought to very different tasks. From the drawings and the descriptions we get a complete Italian garden, such as France had seldom seen : by great steps, set in a perfect line, the descent to the river is made in six terraces. The picture seen from below ends with an enormous palace façade, in the same style as the ascent to the Farnese Gardens. Below by the river is a parterre showing on our picture a geometrical plan, and armorial bearings, with hedges round it and ornaments of basins and fountains. The terraces are partly filled with figures cut out of shrubs, and the dividing walls have openings in them that lead to long rows of grotto rooms, repeating the Italian ideas of water-games. Orpheus is there, with trees and beasts moving about to the sound of his lyre ; also dragon-fountains, singing birds, and many other things. Beside the castle there are giardini secreti arranged two and two. The best thing of all is the lovely view from the upper terrace. The place where the cascades were, which Evelyn mentions, is not recognisable from the engravings. Later on Jacques Boyceau designed a series of parterres for this garden, which were made in those parts that lie at the foot of the hill. Next to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Henry especially loved Fontainebleau; and here we must look on him as the real creator of the gardens, though of course he found plan and site ready to his hand. The little parterre of Francis I. was altered and enlarged by Henry to make a specially charming enclosed garden (Fig. 337).
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On three sides of it there were galleries, and the fourth ended with a large aviary, imitating the Italian style, with tall trees and green shrubs below the copper wire which roofed it. The Diana of Francis was still the pride of the central fountain, around which lay the beds of the parterre with the terraces running round, high above, The chief adornment of this pretty little garden was a great number of choice statues, showing more than anything an Italian influence. Later on, when Louis XIV. substituted an orangery for the aviary, oranges were cultivated (as the drawing shows) in this garden, which otherwise remained unaltered. On the other side of the great pond, in the middle of which Henry had set a pavilion as a sort of retreat, he made a large parterre (Fig. 338), which in essentials is the same now, except that then there was a broad canal cutting through the square, and in the middle of it a colossal figure of Father Tiber reposing on a rock.

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At the corners of this parterre there were other fountains arranged in pairs. Henry IV. made another innovation, of paramount importance, in the situation of this canal, which starts from the parterre on a higher terrace above it, and unites this chief garden with the real park. We shall see later how exactly the plan fits in with the novel arrangement of gardens in the time of Louis XIV. Whether it was, as some have thought, also designed by Francini, is more a guess than a certainty. It was certainly a French artist who planned the castle and garden of the Luxembourg (Fig. 339).  [Evelyn's description of the Luxembourg is on the CD]

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Obedient to the wish of Maria de’ Medici, a piece of Italy rose On French soil in the place where she made her home after her husband’s death in 1615. She suggested models from her own country, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens, to the architect, Salomon de Brosse ; but in the castle itself he could not avoid French taste, however hard he may have tried to please the lady. In spite of the rustica façade which is reminiscent of the court of Ammanati, the French pavilion-building dominates the scene. In the garden the somewhat level grounds stood in the way of a complete likeness to the Boboli Gardens, but in the original lay-out (which is not much altered) there were many features to remind Maria of her gardens at home. The actual boundaries of the place at the beginning were different from what they now are ; they extended somewhat farther towards the south in length; and on a piece of ground, which at that time enclosed a Carthusian cloister, were shrubberies stretching to the west from the main axis. Now they are only half the size, while on the east also the garden has suffered somewhat.

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Round the parterre (Fig. 340) there was a depression which was like the Boboli amphitheatre, and there were terraces thrown up, also two steps, with vases and statues on the upper one. These ran straight, and not as they are now, on both sides, ending in a semicircular shape at the back, and leaving an open way through in the middle. Above there were hedges made of box and yew, and this gave a pleasing colour as background to the rest of the plantation, which was mostly of thick foliage. Any further likeness to the Boboli Gardens was disturbed by the deviating middle axis, and still more by the parterre de broderie, which a French garden could no longer do without. The ornamental garden was at first adorned with a triton squeezing a fish so that a powerful stream of water gushed out from its mouth. In the complicated patterns of the parterre (Fig. 334) flowers were found less and less. (Boyceau made a set of his very finest designs for the Luxembourg.) 

Evelyn, who saw the Luxembourg garden in 1644, and cannot sufficiently express the pleasure this “ sweet retirement “ gave him, notices especially that the parterre was entirely laid out with box, and that this had a wonderful effect as seen from the castle. The flowers, banished from here, were reared in a special walled part, a small garden “ on which the Duke spends many thousand pistoles.”

Maria made use of another resemblance to the Boboli Gardens (caused by an accidental enlargement of the boundaries through the extension of the shrubbery part) to construct a great crossway avenue at right angles with the main axis. The end of this may have suggested the Isolotto to her mind. Evelyn says that a large fish-pond was there, but it was not finished at that date, 1644. Close by was a medicinal garden, and a conservatory; and the other shrubberies, with their hedges, enclosed many a meadow or field. Evelyn also admired in the small park on the east a star-shaped shrubbery with a fountain in the middle of it, The chief ornament at the present time, the Medici fountain, was at first in a different place at the end of the crossway that leads to the façade; and instead of the group that we now see, which is Polyphemus watching Acis and Galatea, there was a nymph : the place at the top end of the canal has only been the home of this fountain since the nineteenth century (Fig. 341), when the garden, after many chances and changes, received its final form under the Second Empire.

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The life to be seen nowadays, in such different circumstances, seems to be really much the same as what Evelyn describes with appreciation. Anyone who has gone to the park on a Sunday has seen his picture repeated in every detail, but in Evelyn’s day the garden for merry Parisians was not so sure to be open as it is now, for Sauvai writes in his work on the antiquities of Paris in 1650 that it was often open but often not. We need not speak of its shocking appearance in the time of the Revolution, when the Luxembourg was turned into a prison.

The jealous unending rivalry of Maria and her great opponent Cardinal Richelieu spurred them both on to a bloodless strife in the making of their gardens. There existed only one garden that could compete with the Luxembourg, and this was the one that Richelieu made beside his country house at Ruel. The house was not large, and therefore so much the larger could the fenced-in garden be, and as a fact it included, within the hedged squares of the park, cornfields, meadows, and even vineyards ; also there were shrubberies with evergreen trees and avenues that Evelyn greatly admired for the way they were cut, Beautiful fountains were set up as points de vue of the avenues, one of them shaped like a basilisk that shot up its water to the height of sixty feet and twisted round so quickly that you could not escape being wet if you were anywhere near. From this place one passed on to the Citron Garden, on which the Arch of Constantine was so artfully painted that swallows tried to fly through it, With this pleasing illusion Evelyn was delighted. In front of the house there was a parterre with beautiful fountains and statues in bronze. The grotto enjoyed a great reputation because of its fine shell-work, the fall of water like rain, and the two musketeers in front, who scared visitors, as they hurried off, with a water-salvo—an idea that reminds us of Villa Lante.

But the real pride of the garden was a great cascade, which plunged down from a steep acclivity, checked by several basins and pouring over marble steps, “ with amazing fury and noise.” At each basin there was a fountain, the last one a gigantic shell in lead. Thence the water flowed in a quiet narrow canal to a grotto (Fig. 342).

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 A great number of ideas were exhibited in a garden like this, compared with the simple and imposing but monotonous plans of Du Cerceau’s time. But all the same there is no complete mastery in this kingdom of art, for they have not yet learned to utilise important regions with a view to the whole scheme; for instance, the cascade, which should be the chief feature, is not in the main axis of the house, but at the side, at the end of a wide avenue which leads to the Arch of Constantine.

Cascades were a new contribution from Italy, and were introduced into French gardens in the first half of the seventeenth century. Where it was not possible to find enough fall for them, terraces of turf were built, as for instance on the flat ground at Liancourt, a pleasant garden which the wife of Marshal Schomberg had enjoyed making. The garden of St. Cloud boasted of the finest cascade then known. Among the many Italians who came to France in the train of Maria de’ Medici, and who with their great love of adventure and picturesque appearance were characteristic of this court, the banking family of the Gondi is conspicuous. They quickly acquired property and built a villa on the high bank of the Seine near the boundaries of the town; and by the side of the house they made the famous cascade, in Italian fashion, which Evelyn describes in its early condition. But several decades later the place was destined to become far more magnificent, and the great laying-out of the gardens took place in the reign of Louis XIV. [Evelyn's description of Ruell is on the CD]

Evelyn’s straightforward descriptions lead us easily through the first half of the seventeenth century, which may conveniently bring to a close our survey of the art of the Renaissance, little though France has to show of any kind of check or sudden upheaval in the course of development. Evelyn visited not only the large towns, but also the little town-gardens, whose limited space the owners tried to make look larger with painted perspective [see note on CD]. To Evelyn the small garden of the Comte de Liancourt seemed to look a great deal larger by using this method, and by the help of paintings they made their little gardens "flow for some miles,” And a small doll-theatre at the end increased this childish pleasure. Another garden which Evelyn liked very much belonged to a man called Morine, who began as a simple gardener. He laid out his garden as a perfect oval surrounded by thuyas, clipped smooth to look like walls, and within it he introduced very beautiful and at that time unusual plants, such as tulips, ranunculuses, crocuses and anemones. He himself, a very old collector, lived in a small garden-house at the end. It is evident that in this type of small town-garden the love of surprises was particularly lively, for at “an house called Maison Rouge”  Evelyn hears a noise that “ resembles the noise of a tempest, batailles of guns, etc., at its issue,” and much beside.


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Jardin du Luxembourg