The Landscape Guide

Garden writing: Rabelais, Boyceau, Mollet

The descriptions given by poets came out to meet, so to speak, the visions of the architects. Rabelais had already told of a perfectly formal hexagonal place, with towers at each corner and water all round, in his Abbey of Thelemites. In these complete connecting links between different parts of the whole, in the blending of number and rhythm, Rabelais was trying to get a model and a sort of foundation for his idea of a common life on the one hand and the educational training of mankind on the other. He based the desire for harmony, not on any compulsion, but on free will following out the highest principle of Fay ce que vouldras. In the middle of his court he has a fountain of the Three Graces—three young female figures, who pour forth waters from various parts such as eyes, breasts, mouth and ears. He would have gardens in all the six sections of the castle. On the side where the Loire flows by there is the flower-garden, with a labyrinth in the middle. On the other side the fruit-trees in the orchard were planted in a quincunx. In the park farther on and near the castle, there was no lack of baths, animal cages, hippodrome, theatre, open and enclosed places for tennis, targets for archery—in fact, all the things that could be found in the parks of that day, or that a learned student of past history could supply. Rabelais does not say much about the real laying-out of the individual gardens ; and any special feature is only useful to him in so far as it serves the ends and suits the style of his general scheme of ideal education.

Very different is another Utopian thinker of the French Renaissance, as he lingers awhile over the garden and its style—Bernard Palissy, the renowned potter and handicraftsman. In his little book, with the strange title, A True Recipe, by which all Frenchmen may learn to add to their Treasures, he describes “ a precious garden, so lovely that it is second to none in the whole world except the Earthly Paradise.” Thus does he speak in the dedication to the Duc de Montmorency. Palissy had found in the duke’s father, the great Constable who laid siege to his insubordinate native town, a very staunch friend, in spite of the fact that Palissy had been one of the most energetic supporters of the reyolt. It was Montmorency who first made it possible for him to employ his manifold talènts. The Constable had just finished his castle at Ecouen, which he built in the days of his exile. He commissioned Palissy to set up a grotto in this garden, the passion for grottoes having quickly spread from Italy, where it flourished at the be- ginning of the sixteenth century, to France.

The common characteristic of grottoes is ornament of the “ grotesque “ sort, sometimes in structures standing separately, sometimes in ground-floor rooms, and sometimes underground, in this case generally under terraces. In France they started rather late, but one early example is the Grotte des Pins at Fontainebleau. By the middle of the century every garden that had any pretension to importance was bound to have at least one grotto of the kind. It was the business of the artist to produce new ideas for them. The grotto at Meudon was especially famous, because it was sung by Ronsard on the occasion of the espousal feast of Claude de France, a daughter of Henry II., with the Duke of Guise. The castle was started under Francis I., but Philibert de l’Orme was commissioned to finish it by Jean de Guise, the first cardinal of Lorraine who belonged to this family. The cardinal’s lavish ways and love of pomp were proverbial, so he built this princely seat and laid out lovely gardens, of which, however, we know no particulars till we come to the grotto. This was close to the castle, at right angles with the pretty parterre, raised above the orangery of a later date (Fig. 331).

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In many cases the grottoes, even till the time of Louis XIV., served as theatres for performances in gardens, until later on the regular theatres in the open air were set up. Ronsard himself comes with his friend, both in the guise of shepherds, to the enamelled cave of the grotto, where there is a dwelling for the Muses. They admire the lovely structure, the plan, the pillars of rustica, and the shells decorating the entrance. They look at the separate rooms, and the terraces (perhaps raised paths), the ornamental festoons and arabesques, and the enamel of many colours looking like a meadow strewn with summer flowers.

Palissy did not build the grotto at Meudon ; he was working at that time at Ecouen; but he soon appears as master of this style of decoration, and his grottoes (worked out in detail in his writings) actually show the realisation of all that Ronsard describes. Soon after Palissy completed his work at Ecouen, Catherine de’ Medici summoned him to Paris, where he began his chef-d'œuvre in this field of work—the great grotto in the Tuileries Gardens, This was on an island, approached by large enamelled bridges. No trace is left of either, and perhaps they were never completed, but in Henry IV.’s time they were destroyed. Nor have we authentic information about the grotto at Ecouen, On account of the grotto and its site, Palissy is very particular about the garden, constructed according to his own fancy, “so that one can retire there and find repose in times of turmoil, plague, epidemic, and other visitations.” The garden has to be on the level, at the foot of a hill and a rock, to protect it from the bad winds from north and west; it must also have the water it needs, and (as we shall hear later) facilities for all sorts of grottoes. Palissy published his little book in 1563, but he wrote it at a time when everyone in France still demanded a completely level ground at the foot of a hill as the only possible place and where every rise and slope was removed, often at great expense.

Palissy insists that there are more than four thousand fine houses in France where it would be easy to get so desirable a site as that described ; but in his garden the dwelling house is never even mentioned. This garden is a square, quite shut in by itself, and not differing from the mediaeval plan in its main lines. Two avenues cut it across so that it makes four square plots. There are grottoes at the ends of the main walks, in the corners of the garden and in the centre, nine in all; also there is a set of rooms, two stories in height, that are cut into the boundary rock. The lower is a fruit granary, but the upper, provided with balcony and balustrade, can be used at the pleasure of the owner as a cool airy retreat. The direction of Palissy’s fancy, at that time so concerned with varieties and changes in natural forms, is shown in his proposal to make human figures appear on this balcony, leaning over the edge and able to move, so that a visitor would bow to them. Palissy was one who experimented in every field ; and this idea of his reminds us of the pictures that Mantegna painted on the ceiling of the bridal chamber of the Gonzagas at Mantua.

Palissy’s description is important, because it first introduces into the garden the realistic figures that played so great a part in the seventeenth century. The eight grottoes. that enclosed the garden were to have amphitheatres round them, probably semicircular; the four corner ones were to give the effect of caves in the rock, and in front were sup- ported by columns or grimacing Herms. There were inscriptions on the architrave, giving praises to wisdom, which alone is pleasing to God : this was in accord with the. religious feeling of Huguenots at the Renaissance. The inside of the grottoes is richly adorned with enamel in every conceivable colour, which is reduced to one lustrous mass; for by burning a great fire inside the place the artist has made all the colours run together to produce a fine iridescent effect. This enamel, moreover, by the help of the technique. he handled so perfectly, was ornamenttd with animals of all kinds, treated naturalistic- ally. But here, too, Palissy had a pattern to his hand in the favourite book that he was never without, the Dream of Polifilo. In this book there is a grotto of the same kind, with lizards and fishes so natural in colour and movement that you could fancy they were real. Palissy wanted to introduce into another grotto which he planned for the queen- mother—possibly at the Tuileries—these natural animal decorations both outside and. inside the canal enclosing the place.

The four grottoes at the corners were so made that on the outside (with so much plantation, shrubs, water run artificially, mossy stones, etc., and if possible a natural rock) ‚"one would never guess there was a human habitation below" ; but if one were walking on the prominence of rock above, it was quite a different thing with the grottoes at the ends of the avenues. These he desired to make out of elms, their trunks to serve as columns and their leaves and branches arranged as pavilions with windows, frieze, and roof. This method of clipping trees he rightly thought to be nothing unusual, for in many gardens he had seen at the very least clipped low-growing shrubs in the shape of  “cranes, hens, geese, and other creatures ; and elsewhere men on horseback or on foot with various armorial bearings, also letters of the alphabet and mottoes.”

The inside of these grottoes is enamelled. In the centre there is a pavilion made of poplars, and at the point of the roof a kind of wind-organ; in the middle of the hut stands a stone table with green hedges and seats all round it, and beyond this an aviary made of a trellis of copper wire, with four gates leading out to four corresponding avenues. All this central part is upon a small island made by a little stream, which comes from the hanging rock and flows round the garden. The slight interlacing of this water is very pretty in the garden, designed by the ingenious whimsical fancy of the potter. Palissy only thinks of water as flowing brook or canal, but we remember what excessive use was made of water devices in the Italian gardens of that day. Little is said about any other planting, but all round there is a covered way, and that is all we know. Palissy firmly rejects the notion that this gar&n of his was only a dream, like that of Polifilo. But what he does admit is that he dreams of a garden “ where the saints live as shepherds.” Still this particular garden is to be actually ‘made, and is to serve as a model for many others.

The literary feeling which is evident in this work of Palissy’s, a mixture of religious sentiment and one that has its source and aim in pleasure, finds material expression in much that was made at this time. Du Cerceau has preserved a masterpiece in the hermitage at Gaillon (Fig. 332). 

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At the end of the terraced park, which stretches westward from the garden, Cardinal Bourbon built in the sixties his Chartreuse abondant en tout plaisir. “ If,” says Du Cerceau, “ you walk from the upper garden through the park partly by terraces, partly through avenues of trees, always keeping your eyes on the lovely valley, you come to a little chapel and house and hermit’s rock in the middle of water enclosed in a square basin, and all round it are narrow paths where you can stroll for pleasure. To get there you cross a swing-bridge. Close by you find a little garden, and in it are statues three to four feet in height, standing on a great plinth, depicting all sorts of allegorical subjects, and also several berceaux covered with greenery ; the hermitage here is very pretty and attractive, and as full of charm as any you can find anywhere.”

There has already been some anticipation in Spain of the hermitage in a garden, avowedly put there for the sake of enjoyment. Although the whole arrangement of this spot seems so frivolous, its religious character was probably maintained, In the little house lived a real holy man, and the owner of the place kept certain seignorial rights ; such as “ one dish of meat, two vessels of wine, two loaves, and the first dance after a wedding.” There was something of the same kind in the chapels at Blois and elsewhere, but they were oratories with a more serious purpose. In the park at Chantilly there were seven chapels, and the Pope allowed the hermit to grant indulgences. But at Gaillon the hermitage was not the only lieu de plaisance in the park. From it a wide-walled canal with balustrades led to a small summer-house round which the canal also ran. A little marble palace, excessively decorated, and known as the White House, contained a large garden- room on the ground floor, which had arcades round it and was ornamented with fountains in niches. Outside this are the trees of the park. The canal is on one side of a wall with balustrades and alcoves, and on the other side there is a second canal with circular ends to it. It often happens that the next generation, and now and then the original owner, allows places of this kind to fall into decay or to be altered. So it comes about that we cannot get further light on Du Cerceau’s plans and sketches except from occasional descriptions or comparisons made with the ornamental grounds so common in Italy in the days of the Renaissance.

The theorists, however, contribute more to our knowledge of the way these architectural plans were worked out ; for they describe the fine results of this development at the con- clusion of the period, and more or less point the way to the future. The activities of all these persons, Olivier de Serres, Mollet, and Boyceau, belong to the time of Henry IV., in whose reign an important movement in garden art took place. They were all proud to have served Henry the Great of happy memory, who (to quote one of the dedications) "himself planted and grafted, and so even now [1652] the great lords and princes of France take the utmost pleasure in doing the same.” The earliest of these was Olivier de Serres, whose great work, Le Theatre d’Agriculture, appeared in 1600, and went through many editions. The sixth section of this book, which had great influence on agriculture in France, was concerned with the garden. He desired to have a garden divided into departments for kitchen products, flowers, medicinal herbs, and fruit-trees, with which he included vineyards. From this one sees at once that his chief interest is in what the garden can produce, and that there is little left for the architectural and artistic side of things. Kitchen-garden and orchard—not to speak of vineyards—must take far more space than anything else, When in Chapters X.—XII. he discusses the flower-garden (bouquetier) he abandons the architectural ideas of his time, and fills the parterres with flowers and various plants. In his parterre he demands perfect symmetry in lay-out and plantation : the very name “ parterre “ (incorrectly stated to derive from partiri, to divide) is used from now onwards to mean the patterning of the flowers as opposed to the high-growing shrubberies. Here there has to be a great variety in the blending of plants in patterns. For the edges of the parterre they must use sweet-scented low bushes like lavender, thyme, mint, marjoram, and many others. At the end of the century, however, box came more and more to the fore, taking the place of other things because it was evergreen. The inner part of the pattern was made by low-growing plants, such as violets, wallflowers, pinks, heartsease, and lilies of the valley : many of the kinds, at least twenty, with which we fill our beds nowadays, are mentioned by de Serres. A small part is also played by imported foreign plants, even bulbs, in particular parts of the parterre.

To enhance the effect of this variegated picture, clays of different colours were strewn about, and these had to be selected carefully, to preserve the harmony of it all, The higher-growing perennials were used at the edges of the footpaths, but de Serres will have no mixtures, and wherever there are several kinds planted near together, each kind must be separated from the others, In the corners of the patterns there may be cypresses, but he will have nothing to do with other trees with spreading tops, because they spoil the designs. Box is the best for clipping of every kind, and can be made into seats, benches, buildings, pyramids, pillars, men, and beasts, always according to the skill of the gardener. In the parterre the main ideas are harmony and a fine view above and beyond it. There may be a cypress in the middle to act as a sundial, and instead of a tree-pyramid statues of every sort : obelisks, columns, pyramids of marble, jasper and porphyry, can be erected as the parterre. A parterre of this kind is before everything intended to be looked at from above, so it is well if it can be seen not only from the house but from surrounding terraces, as was so well arranged by King Henry at his Tuileries Gardens, where he planted round his parterre a terrace with mulberry walks.

The most remarkable chapters of de Serres’ book are the fourteenth and fifteenth, which are concerned with the medicinal garden. In consequence of a scientific interest in botany that was felt in Italy as early as the middle of the century, botanic gardens had been founded at the Universities of Padua and Pisa, and now at the beginning of the new century Northern Europe was to follow their lead, Even in the Middle Ages the care of plants for the sake of their medicinal virtues had gone hand in hand with delight in their fragrance and beauty.

It happened otherwise with the development of the flower-garden, which was both parallel with the medicinal garden and derived therefrom, keeping the name giardino dei semplici in Italy till late into Renaissance days. Botanical study gave an unprecedented impetus to these herb-gardens——chiefly by the introduction of foreign plants—and thus they were converted into botanical gardens, though their original intention was never quite lost sight of.

In the northern countries it was the reverse of what happened in Italy, where public botanic gardens were established with purely scientific aims, for it was the private gardens that went ahead. Whereas the Jardin des Plantes in Paris was not founded till 1632—and this was nearly a hundred years behind Italy—we hear of a great many private botanical gardens in Germany, in France, in the Netherlands, and in England, all of which enjoyed a great reputation. It was understood that the owners introduced foreign plants into their own flower-gardens and there cultivated them. But Olivier de Serres, in his strong feeling for a sharp distinction between gardens of different kinds, advises the owners to make an extra place for medicinal herbs. “ For in this way,” he says, “ many foreign healing plants have been naturalised with us, rare and remarkable in their useful properties, and hitherto unknown to those who own land,” For these private botanical gardens he recom mends making artificial mounds (Fig. 333), because he thinks they would save space and money, and also give variety of aspect as each kind needed it, seeing that all four sides of the hill would be at their disposal.

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No doubt de Serres was familiar with the spiral hill; he refers to the Tower of Babel and the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria. In his ground-plans the artificial mound has sometimes a round and sometimes a square form, and its lowest walls give room for grottoes. He does not mention Diodorus’s account of the hanging gardens of Semiramis, but his drawing might stand for an illustration in miniature of those mighty buildings, with the stairs at the sides, platform on the top, and grottoes in the walls. We have no first-hand information as to how far he carried out his plans ; but the influence of his book was so great that we may suppose many made attempts to create such places as he writes about. Of course his influence was more felt in his main effort to improve farming and husbandry than in the garden as such.

In the discussion of flower-gardens de Serres refers to the king’s own gardener, Claude Mollet, who in 1613 towards the end of his life wrote as a theorist after his practical experience was finished. Mollet belonged to one of the most famous families of gardeners of that time. His father before him was in the king’s service, and Claude says, “ God has granted me His grace, so that for the blessed King Harry the Great I have made many beautiful things.” In his book Claude was associated with his sons, who made the plates for him : it appeared a good deal later, in 1652, under the title of Le Théâtre des Plans et Jardinages, but it throws a clear light on his own activities. His sons appear to have gone into foreign service, and one of them, André, we shall meet again as a practical and theoretical gardener in England and in Sweden.

Claude Mollet directs his attention first and foremost to the laying-out of the parterre, which, as the ornamental garden, naturally was most interesting to a French gardener. For the most part we find in the planting of it the same ideas as those of Olivier de Serres, but Mollet demands that, among the borders of tall shrubs which go round the squares in a wide band, there shall be many kinds of flowers, so that there shall never be gaps in the bright ribbon, and new flowers shall always succeed the old ones. This principle is pursued by the most modern gardeners. Mollet is proud to think that he used box very extensively, because it was so strong and good to look at. He first made high hedges of box instead of using cypresses, which would not endure the French climate. He supported very high espaliers with dead wood, and had plants on both sides, so that the desired shapes, such as windows, battlements, arches, and pillars, could be more easily obtained. The most important thing that Mollet effected was the great development of the parterre. If we look through Du Cerceau’s engravings, we find that all his parterres are divided into somewhat small squares, most of them in a geometrical pattern. It was desired that these should show variety and alternation ; it was possible to look at them conveniently from some raised surround, which might be walls, as at Henry IV,'s Tuileries Gardens, or might be terraces ; thus all the patterns could be seen separately. But towards the end of the sixteenth century there was a new departure, and Mollet lets us know the exact moment when these small parterres, divided up into geometrical patterns, were united to form a considered, connected plan.

In 1582 the French architect Du Pérac came back after a long pilgrimage to Italy, where he had eagerly studied Italian art, ancient and modern ; at the present day his pictures of old ruins are among the most valuable we have. The Villa d’Este seems to have attracted him more than any others that he saw in Italy, and he dedicated to Maria de’ Medici, a princess of his own country, a set of drawings which he made of it. On his return he was appointed architect to Henry IV., and carried on the building at Fontainebleau, which the king had so much at heart at that time. Du Pérac was also employed by the Duke of Aumale, who made him (as Mollet says) superintendent of all his castles. He made designs for Anet, which seemed to Mollet the most beautiful of all the French castles, ‘4 such that a garden makes one single parterre, divided by wide paths.” This new kind of parterre was called compartiments de broderie.

Boyceau gives a perfectly clear example of this style among his drawings of the parterres in the Luxembourg garden (Fig. 334). 

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Here we get an entire sequence of separated plots, and the one complex split up into its component parts : the whole parterre is enclosed so as to form a united design about a middle line which preserves its symmetry. For a design of this nature the wavy lines of an arabesque pattern are employed, and the sharp geometrical lines have entirely disappeared. According to what Mollet says, we must assume that Du Pérac got his inspiration in this matter entirely from Italy. If this is so, very different results came about in France, for in Italy the parterre played a very subordinate part, especially in the sixteenth century. In the Villa d’Este, for example, the movement was towards the development of terraces and artificial water-schemes, while the art of France was directed towards the gardens that were on level ground with canals round them, and concerned with the laying-out of parterres, in which matter at least France took the lead among all the nations.

Another peculiar kind of art that was growing up now influenced the culture of the parterre in the first decades of the seventeenth century. In the reigns of Henry IV. and Louis XIII. expensive flower-embroidery was fashionable, and was used in arabesque patterns for dresses, and later for all sorts of furniture, in silk of many colours, and thread of gold, silver, and linen, with a close imitation of natural flowers. So great was the growth of skill and the love of luxury, that soon the ordinary flowers did not suffice ; and people looked round for foreign plants, which were eagerly copied by embroiderers with astonishing effect, while men were also attempting to produce something equally beautiful in the parterres. The two arts were so closely allied that the fashionable and profitable trade of the embroiderer was often carried on with the gardener’s business by the same person. Some of the most important French collectors of plants, such as Jean Robin, laid out foreign gardens with the express purpose of providing new flower-patterns for embroidery; and on the other hand coloured drawings were a help in spreading the knowledge of plants. Thus it came about that the vanities of fashion as well as scientific botany gave an impulse to the art of gardening.

The chief artist of the parterre was Jacques Boyceau. His book, Traité du Jardinage, was written in his last years, and was published after his death in 1638. He stood on the threshold of the new age : the strict division made by Olivier de Serres into four or five separated gardens he discarded ; and for him it was enough to have two gardens, one for the kitchen and the other for pleasure ; in very small places these might be mixed together.

n the pleasure-garden (the part for parterres, avenues, and shrubberies), he insists before all things on proportion ; the height of the trees and hedges must be in well-considered plans proportional to the length and breadth of the paths ; and the parterre required a surround of raised terraces, galleries and berceaux, which he classes all together under the one expression, corps de relief. Next to proportion he ranks variety, in spite of his desire for the most severe symmetry. “ It tires me inexpressibly," he says, “ when I find every garden laid out in straight lines, some in four squares, others in nine or in six, and nothing different anywhere.” With ideas like this Boyceau planned the new parterres for the Tuileries Gardens, and his specially beautiful design greatly excited the admiration of the next generation (Fig. 335). Boyceau is regarded as the precursor of the great develop- ment of French gardening, but the earliest and most important time of his activities was really in the reign of Henry the Great.

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The king, who impressed everyone about him as a brilliant and many-sided character, gave a fresh impulse to gardening in that long-desired period of peace which he conferred on his country. Olivier de Serres is full of admiration for the beauty in Henry’s time of the remarkable gardens scattered about over the whole kingdom, but especially those he had had made at the castles of Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the Tuileries, Blois, and others. It is astonishing to behold the ordering of the plants, “ which speak to you in letters of the alphabet, mottoes, sign-manuals, armorial bearings, and pictures; marvellously imitated are the gestures of men and animals, the shapes of buildings, ships, boats, and all sorts of things, in bushes and plants. There is no need to go to Italy or anywhere else to look at the best gardens, for our own France takes the prize, and serves as a school of learned men to give us the instruction we need.”