gardens of magnificence

We have no idea what the Garden of Eden resembled. Painters have generally rendered it as a flowering green background to highlight Eve’s white nakedness. What we do know is that humanity from the start has delighted in gardens. In many early European languages the same word paradise is the same for both heaven and garden. Paradise is a garden , a people of all persuasions have agreed with Thomas Traherne, that

All bliss
Consists in this,
To do as Adam did,
And not to know those superficial joys
Which were from him in Eden hid, …

Watteau. Party of Four. 1713. Read More:

…Surprisingly, it was not in Italy it was not in Italy that the Renaissance garden reached its perfection. Fine as they are, those gardens are considered  to be faintly theatrical. Walking around them from one brilliantly contrived prospect to the next, one is reminded what wonderful backcloths they make for the stage. There is some further possible experience, we feel, which they never quite achieve. And when we see what the Renaissance garden becomes in France under the genius of Andre Le Notre, we realize what it is.

Unlike the Italian gardens, Le Notre’s designs are a single indivisible unit. He can control the whole of his immense material at once in a way no Italian gardener was able to achieve. He does not build up his plan by adding pieces together but conceives the entire garden as a setting for the house, fusing the two together in a single work of art. The palace controls the vistas and the axes of the garden; the garden controls the setting and proportions of the palace. At Versailles, the gardens were laid out before the final palace was designed. The two belong inevitably together, like a head to a body.

---The parks which Le Nôtre designed at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles are the supreme examples of the French XVII ème siecle style of garden design. Le Nôtre also projected the central axis of the Tuileries, which became the grand axis of Paris running to l'arc de Triomphe and La Défense. The designer enjoyed a warm relationship with his patron Louis XIV. Both were men of taste with a passion for gardens and architecture. The baroque style of garden design, which they brought to a crescendo, became widely influential in Europe and beyond the wider world. Every prince and potentate dreamed of owning a garden which would 'outshine Versailles'. This ambition resulted in vast works, though few were executed with a fraction of Le Nôtre's excellent design judgement. Le Nôtre worked for Louis XIV from 1645 until Le Nôtre's death in 1700.--- Read More:

Since Renaissance palaces were symmetrical, Le Notre’s gardens are symmetrical too, at least in the parts we can see any single prospect. They are mostly on level or deliberately leveled ground and laid out on a long central axis which carries the view unhindered from the house to the far distance. Le Notre composed with three main elements: the levels of ground and water, the upright walls of trees and hedges, and the open space of the sky. With these he created a new ideal landscape, decorating it sparingly with fountains and statues, using the different textures of mirrorlike pools and clipped hedges in more distant parts of the grounds the feathery tops of freely growing trees.

Boucher. The Music Lesson. Read More:

Le Notre’s best gardens are of an austere and classical perfection; our mind travels nobly over level spaces, down long canals of quiet water, through avenues of stately trees, and out into the world beyond. The gardens of Le Notre convince us with a godlike sense of order and serenity. These are the gardens of man’s intelligence; and the pleasures of intelligence, so Poussin said, are above all others.

We may not always feel up to Poussin’s standard. Even the Renaissance French were not always so intellectually strenuous, and if this sole symmetry was was not what they happened to feel like, then there were all kinds of frivolous gardens for their amusement, hidden in the trees which filled the spaces between the main vistas of the grounds. There were mazes and topiary and elaborate games with fountain, flowers, and trees in tubs- Le Notre loved orange trees- and there were grottoes and little pavilions and open-air theaters with walls of green hedges. At Versailles, Louis XIV held his court fetes out-of-doors in the gardens: parades and masques and fireworks and elaborate ceremonies, where Lully composed the music and Moliere wrote plays for the theaters in the bosquets. And it seems always incongruous to think of Moliere’s powerful, even savage comedies in this elaborately artificial setting of courtly pastimes.

---As competitive gardening goes, it

no surprise to learn that these humble shelters eventually expanded in size, scale and elaborateness, to the point where The Orangery shown above, erected at Versailles in Paris, was almost large enough to hold a small city (image above from The Oxford Companion to Gardens). Read More:


Saint Simon:After a breakfast walk in the gardens of the Tuileries, there is the most extraordinary sight that either French or English eyes could ever behold at Paris. The King walking with six grenadiers of the milice bourgeouise, with an officer or two of his household and a page. The doors of the gardens are kept shut to respect him, in order to exclude everybody but deputies or those who have admission tickets. When he entered the palace the doors of the gardens were thrown open for all without distinction, though the Queen was still walking with a lady of her court. She also was tended so closely by the gardes bourgeoises, that she could not speak, but in a low voice, without being heard by them. A mob followed her talking very loud, and paying no other apparent respect than they of taking off their hats whenever she passed, which was indeed more than I expected. Her Majesty does not appear to be in health; she seems to be much affected and shows it in her face; but the king is as plump as ease can render him. By his orders, there is a little garden railed off for the Dauphin to amuse himself in, and a small room is built in it to retire to in case of rain; here he was at work with his little hoe and rake, but not without a guard of two grenadiers. He is a very pretty good-natured looking boy of five or six years old, with an agreeable countenance; wherever he goes, all hats are taken off to him, which I was glad to observe. All the family being kept thus close prisoners (for such they are in effect) afford, at first view, a shocking spectacle; and is really so if the act were not absolutely necessary to effect the revolution….

---Anonymous View of the garden of Versailles: La Grande Salle des Bosquets--- Read More:

…He took pleasure in tyrannizing nature and subduing it with works of art and precious objects. He built one thing after the other, pell-mell; he mixed the beautiful with the ugly, the spacious with the cramp. The apartments of the King and Queen were among the most badly placed, with a view that was dark, confined, and offensive. The gardens were startlingly magnificent but unpleasant for strolling and equally lacking in taste. One can only reach the shade of the trees by crossing a vast torrid zone that leads to a rise; and the gardens end after this short hill. The gravel burns the feet, but without it one would sink into quicksand and black mire. One cannot help being repelled and disgusted by the outrages committed everywhere against nature. The abundant waters brought and channeled from all over become green, thick and muddy; they emanate an uncomfortable and unwholesome dampness, and a smell that is even worse. However, the fountains are incomparable, although they must be used sparingly; as an over-all impression, one admires the gardens but shuns them. On the side facing the courtyard, the closeness is suffocating, and the vast wings of the building spread out as though unattached. On the side facing the gardens, one can relish the beauty of the general view, but the palace looks as though it had burned down and was still missing a top floor and a roof. The top-heavy chapel (Mansart built it to try to get the King to add another floor), looks from every angle like the mournful replica of a huge catafalque. The craftsmanship is exquisite, but the arrangement is worthless, everything in the chapel focuses on the balcony, because that is where the King always sat, and the side aisles are inaccessible through the small passageways built to reach them. One could go on forever describing the monstrous defects of such a tremendous and tremendously expensive palace and its vast dependencies: orangeries, vegetable gardens, kennels, small and large stables, a prodigious commons, in fact an entire city where once there had only been a miserable inn, a windmill, and the tiny card castle Louis XIII had built so he would not have to sleep in the hay. It could have fitted in Versailles’ Marble Courtyard, and its principal building had only two small wings. My father knew it well, and slept there often. And again, this Versailles of Louis XIV, this masterpiece of extravagance and bad taste, whose fountains and groves cost their weight in gold, was never completed; among so many rooms there is no banquet hall, no theater, no ballroom, and there remains a great deal to be done both in the front and in the back. The seedlings planted in the parks and lanes have not yet grown. Game must endlessly be brought to the parks; the numberless irrigation channels are four or five leagues long, and the vast circumference of the walls surrounds Versailles as though it were a small province of the saddest and ugliest country in the world. Read More:

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