The Landscape Guide

Fontainebleau and Chantilly

Leonardo da Vinci

Two castles whose Renaissance style dates from the reign of Francis I. give a striking picture of the first phase in the development of this kind of castle in relation to its gardens: these are Fontainebleau and Chantilly. The first was an ancient hunting-seat, in the middle of a great wood (Fig. 317). 

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Here Francis I. built his fine castle, which embraced a number of courts grouped in no sort of order. A wide canal ran round the greater part of the buildings; and as there was a watery marsh close by, it was easy for the king to convert it into the gigantic pond which bordered the castle on one side. Near this pond, which was always famous, and still is, for its supply of carp, there is an avenue of four rows of trees extending from the old house to a pavilion at the entrance gate. On the other side of this beautiful promenade, which is raised like a bank, there was then a garden of fruit and meadow land where the parterre now is. Not only does the wide canal run through the middle, but every préau with its great trees is surrounded by a little canal as well.

On the other side of the pond Francis made the so-called Jardin des Pins (Garden of the Pines), probably a kind of winter garden, planted for the most part with fir-trees, between which Du Cerceau’s engraving shows formal beds evidently laid out in box, and perhaps containing useful vegetables. Here too there was a wide canal along the façade of the castle, the Gallery of Ulysses. At the end of the gallery a grotto under the corner pavilion completed this beautiful garden picture : great arches of rustica, flanked by giants (Fig. 318), reminding one of Giulio Romano’s work at Palazzo del Te, lead to the inner part, which is adorned with water-fowl and sea-beasts, and has running fountains. 

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There is a little nymphæum in front forming a court with pleasant walls and fountains, overarched with green.

This place is now the only part of the garden of Francis I., which (pretty well preserved) shows what it was before it was changed into an English park. But the real flower-garden was on the north of the castle, inside the canal. This little garden, cut up into four squares with wooden pillars marking them off, and laid out with box, flowers, and earth of various colours, contained as its finest ornament and central point the so-called Diana of Versailles. Apparently Francis put up other statues as well. It is an odd thing that a pergola which ought to give a sort of connection between the garden and the informal façade is, according to the drawing, not in the same line with the garden. The second castle, perhaps equally remarkable, Chantilly (Fig. 319), stands on a rock in a wide marshy valley full of trees.

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Throughout the Middle Ages it was a strongly fortified spot. In 1495 it came into the possession of the Montmorency family, and in the years 1524-32 the famous Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, built the Renaissance castle on the old foundations, retaining the three towers at the corners. Unfortunately the engravings of Du Cerceau do not give a good picture of the gardens, but they are laid out in the same style as at Fontainebleau. The wide tanks round the castle leave far too little room for much garden. On the little island beside the main castle a casino was built later, and in front of this was a small parterre with an aviary at the end, which still gives its name to the little garden. The constable made other gardens to the east of the tanks near the kitchen parts. In front of the tennis court—an indispensable adjunct to a castle both in France and England in the sixteenth century—there were several formal beds, and a grotto which has left certain traces behind, while on the other side a high gallery, called des cerfs, made the end of this parterre.

The whole place and its arrangement recall vividly the Jardin des Pins at Fontainebleau. They also have in common the whole meadow-garden with trees, a four-cornered ground, with small canals round it—a plan that helps the irrigation very much. Certain of the parts inside the canal system were covered with cornfields. The ground-plan is quite irregular, all the garden features are separate as though they were scattered about by chance here and there, but everywhere there is water either in wide tanks or narrow canals, pleasing but scarcely ever artificially wrought, and serving rather as a frame for house and gardens. At a later period the land will be laid under the control of a systematic design, in which water will play a leading part. Gradually a feeling grew in France for the nearer connection of house and garden, and similarly for uniting the two symmetrically with the ground-plan. A very interesting find of engravings of a villa design—after the researches of Geymülle they may be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (Fig. 320)—shows how a great artist near the end of his last weary days in France submitted himself to the artistic feeling of that country, and helped forward the scheme of a water-garden : the inscription says that the castle is to follow the style of Amboise.

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King Francis had prepared a house for the aged master, when he secured him for his country’s service in 1516, a place in the artists’ colony in the little castle of Cloux, and there Leonardo closed his eyes three years later. The church at Amboise had the honour of receiving his body.

The ground-plan shows a formality not yet natural to France, but the castle built round a pillared court is flanked by four corner towers and surrounded on three sides by wide moats, A bridge leads to kitchen regions with colonnades round, or perhaps it may be a garden with two fountains, ending with ground strictly orientated in the right axis, and with a canal round it, though unfortunately this part of the plan is not very clearly shown. Evidently there is a corresponding garden on the other side of the castle. By the side of this place there is a large sunk pond, intended by the artist to serve in antique fashion as a show- place for water tournaments. This is an indication that the great ponds at Fontainebleau, Chantilly, and other places were used for this purpose, and explains their immense size.