The Landscape Guide

Gardens of Amboise, Blois and Gaillon

A comparison with the French style of castle will show what an effect this had on the garden. France, as we have said, had no part in the Italian development, and in spite of great admiration for the flourishing art on the other side of the Alps was for the most part content with imitating decorations. The castles (chateaux), however, all but kept their mediaeval character, with more or less pleasing irregularities of ground-plan, and with towers at the corners, which no doubt were ever changing into pavilions. They still, however, preserved their independent native style in the chief buildings. The high roofs also, and most of all the moats, kept with a tenacity shown by no other country, were a marked characteristic of the Middle Ages. Moreover, all these features of a fortress were not only found in the castles, rebuilt on old foundations, but at nearly all the new buildings, though here one did begin to see a gradual tendency towards the formal ground-plan. Thus it comes about that the gardens at the earliest castles, especially Chateau Amboise, differ very little from the mediaeval type in site and plan.

Charles brought with the artists a Neapolitan gardener, Pasello da Mercogliano, by profession a priest, who combined the care of the garden of the soul with that of the earthly garden. At Amboise he found a little plot to work in that was in its proper mediaeval place close to the burial-ground. Charles had the high terrace widened, so that he could make a larger garden (Fig. 312), and this to begin with was enclosed with pretty lattice and pavilions, round which Louis XII, later on put a gallery, still to be seen in the engraving by Du Cerceau.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 The fine pattern of the parterre also belongs to the middle of the sixteenth century. In Charles’s time the garden was still partly planted with fruit- trees beside the geometrical beds and all round them. We hear of a purchase of fruit trees made for the garden by Pasello. But on the south, quite away from the real castle garden, which could not be enlarged any more, the king put an orangery, the first that France had to show ; and in memory of this—of course it was only the bitter orange—the tenant handed the king a branch of orange every year. The gallery which Louis put round the garden represents an idea that was found in Italy, but there it was soon given up, whereas in France it remained for a long time as a special kind of ornament. One charming pavilion of trellis, not set in the centre here but at the side, was still standing in the middle of the seventeenth century until it came to grief in a storm.

The gardens at Chateau Blois were finely set out, but quite differently (Fig. 313); they began right back in Roman times. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see



Louis Xll. was born there, and he rebuilt the castle on the old foundations. An unusual character was given to the place as a whole by the much-admired wing on the town side which was added by Francis I, Louis moved his residence from Amboise to this favourite place of his, and took with him Pasello, who found a growing field for the exercise of his activities. There was not much garden. The little plot which in mediaeval fashion was under the dungeon-keep, but was in this instance deeply sunk, was continued in narrow strips, and had already been widened into a large piece. This old ground was converted into the lowest parterre of a garden that rose in three mighty terraces with powerful supporting walls. People were not at all afraid of the difficulties of large subterranean works, and for these the immense sub- structures below the high-built castles of the Middle Ages served as patterns. But the garden on each individual terrace was still a garden all to itself, having no connection whatsoever with the other gardens on terraces above or below.

The great Roman invention of connecting steps had hardly established itself in Italy; and France, like all the Northern countries, adopted it late, and then but sparingly. And the different parts of a garden are as little related to the castle as they are to each other. The moat dug by the wall, which goes round three sides of the isolated building, seems to have lost its water very soon and then to have been turned into a fruit-garden. Over the trench Louis made a gallery from the corner of the burial-ground to the middle terrace, the queen’s garden, which was laid out as the chief flower-garden. All round it were pleasant wooden galleries covered with greenery, and to make these the king summoned the best joiners in the kingdom. The separate beds—called in the accounts parquet—were surrounded with trellis borders : accoudoir.

In 1503 a marble fountain, made by the Italian Pacchiarotti at Tours for the sum of 662 livres, was set up in the middle pavilion, which had a St. Michael on the top. The real engineer of the waters was Fra Giocondo, who had come over with Charles, and now received an extra commission for his skill. The fountain was an octagonal basin with two shells above made of white marble : the remains of these are still kept at the castle. The pièce de résistance is the little chapel (Fig. 314), a great favourite of Anne of Bretagne ; and the king also liked to say his prayers in it. It is the one thing in the gardens that has been preserved. The highest of the terraces, called the Kingts Garden, had its chief ornament, the pergola, put there only in Henry II.’s day. This was also the time of greatest success and beauty, when the king’s table was enriched every day with fruit, and when Blois could boast of wonderful mulberry-trees. Then came the period when this castle and others on the Loire were more and more forsaken for the palaces of Paris because they were too near. For Paris was the centre of political life, and more and more

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


attracted the court and nobility. Henry IV., however, cultivated the gardens of the ancient place, and cared for them. Once again they rejoiced in the delights of a royal visit, when great festivities were held in honour of the presence of Louis XIV, in 1668. That, however, was a last farewell, and the beautiful gardens began to decay. It is true that Gaston d’Orléans intended to revive their old-fashioned charm when he introduced fine showy features in a new style, but he only succeeded in destroying much of the beauty of the old castle with his grand but depressing new buildings. After his death the gardens soon degenerated, and now we can see nothing but the buttress walls, and these only where new roads have not made an end of them.

While Louis XII. was making his garden at Blois, his minister, Cardinal Amboise, was building Chateau  Gaillon near the Bishopric of Rouen in competition with his master (Fig. 315). 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 The mediaeval castle that used to be there had been demolished by the English. The cardinal, as Du Cerceau remarks, carried out his work sans tenir de l’antique. In spite of this, however, the ground-plan was quite informal, and there was a moat all round crossed by many bridges. The chief buildings, with turrets at corners and doors, stand about an almost square court with a wonderful fountain in it — a present from the Venetian Republic to the first French Minister, who was also a cardinal ( Fig. 316).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


As a sign of homage this present was brought by sea, stupendo fonte marmoreo ex Venetorum munere illustrato, as the inscription says. On the plinth the cardinal had his own and his royal master’s arms carved. The wonderful fountain of three shells, of which Du Cerceau’s engraving is our only record, was adorned with eight lions’ heads and eight masks, with fine figure groups on the middle shaft and a statue of the Baptist on the top. It was the work of a group of Genoese sculptors, with Agostino Solari, an artist who had many commissions at the time, not only in Italy but also in Spain and France, at their head. The fountain was afterwards removed to the archbishop’s garden, and was destroyed in the eighteenth century. When one regards the wealth of ideas and the wonderful vigour in the execution of a work like this, it seems that the poetical descriptions of fountains, from Greek antiquity to the Middle Ages in the West, need no more be thought of as the inventions of uncontrolled imaginations. These gardens of Gaillon are not in real connection with the buildings. One walks through the great court into the main garden, which, as at Blois, forms the middle terrace. Through a turreted gate in a gallery that runs along the garden on two sides, one passes into the parterre : a tree-garden stands on a higher terrace, and the thick trellis makes an effective contrast with the cheerful parquet of the garden. From above one looks down upon two. labyrinths. “ Here,” says Sir Henry Wotton in the seventeenth century, "we can follow our friend with a smile as he wanders about picking berries, till at last he will never find his way out unless somebody helps him.” The other beds are shown by Du Cerceau to be bordered by box hedges, and planted at the corners with low trees, but originally they had a wooden bordering with little doors in it, just as at Blois. In the box borders there were either flowers or different-coloured clays, slate or terracotta. Though Du Cerceau seldom mentions unworthy trifles, we learn from the accounts that the beds were laid out to depict coats of arms, and all sorts of animals cut out of wood were used to decorate the garden. A masterpiece of joiner’s work, a pavilion finer than the one at Blois, because at the four corners were little aviaries, stood in the centre. The lovely two-shelled fountains were protected by the dome, a  companion work to the one at Blois made in Tours by the same artist : at the top was a statue of John the Baptist. The friendly Louis did not take amiss the rivalry of his cardinal-minister, as later princes would have done, but at times lent him his own gardener. The laying-out of this place was also entrusted to Pasello ; and one of his relatives, Piero da Mercogliano, became permanent gardener here. According to Italian custom, Pasello had his kinsmen come out to him from home, and they were mostly, like himself, half priests and half gardeners.

In the axis of length, opposite the entrance tower, there is a small two-storied casino, that may perhaps have had a living-room in it. On the side of the valley the garden is shut off by a gallery, which is a masterpiece of its kind, with its five entrance turrets and windows with gables. It probably had entertainment rooms inside. From the windows there was a famous view of the great garden that lay below, and beyond that of the pleasant valley. But people could not and would not walk straight down into the lower garden. Each terrace had to be an independent whole, with no relation to the castle or to the other divisions of the garden; it must have its own architecture and its own axial direction. So to get to the much larger garden on the third terrace the only thing to be done was to return to the court and climb up by concealed steps from there. It was not till the time of Le Nôtre that the various terraces were connected with stairs. The lowest garden, not in the same line as the one above, was mainly kitchen-garden and orchard. Two beautiful berceaux, as they called the barrel-shaped walks made of trellis and covered with greenery, were by the side of the entrance path. Second only to Blois, the mulberry-trees were famous, two hundred of them, their cultivation being one of the most important duties of a sixteenth-century gardener. An attempt was made to grow peaches at Gaillon, but it must be admitted that they proved very expensive. Close to this gar- den was the vineyard. The park that rose in a sort of terrace-slope led to an unusual and peculiar place, the hermitage ; but this belongs to another period and another type of sentiment.

Gaillon must be reckoned as one of the finest products of Louis XII.’s time; but if we want to study the natural bent of French style and its relation to its. Italian teachers and guides, we must remember that Villa Madama was built at almost the same time as Gaillon. While in France the gardens held firmly by the mediaeval castle scheme, being separate and self-contained, having no contact with the buildings and no links with one another, in Italy we find the cheerful open loggia, the house and garden all in one. Though the Italian garden is not condemned by the stern decree of an undeviating axial line, the various groups are interconnected with a number of different stairways, and each group part of a composite whole ; whereas at Gaillon the actual approach is so poor that Du Cerceau proposed to improve it by adding a proper stairway.

The peculiarity of the gardens of France does not depend upon their markedly secluded character, which is after all negative, nor in the tendency shown later to a sort of licence that it was first to assume and then to change in a remarkable way, but rather on the successful adaptation of another mediaeval feature of the castle scheme, the trench for water. The French adhered longer, and with more conscious intention, than any other country to that type of castle which is encompassed by wide moats. And when at last these had lost their old use as a protection to the house, they remained merely as ornaments. Indeed we shall see that new buildings, without any compulsion from an old ground-plan, made use of such trenches as decoration, and that they had a great influence on gardens as time went on.