Formal gardens from a century of extravagance
FOR most of us, the last couple of weeks will have been the most extravagant of the year. In the world of gardens, however, none have come close to the display of extravagance demonstrated by the formal French gardens of the 17th century.
A huge gulf developed between the rich and the poor in France during the mid to late 17th century, with thousands of enormous châteaux built across the country for nobility and aristocracy. The grounds that accompanied these châteaux were also vast, taking full advantage of the plentiful amount of space available in France. Following on from the Renaissance gardens of Italy, a new style evolved in France particularly to suit this larger scale.
Throughout this period, the Mollet family were influential nurserymen and garden designers to three consecutive kings of France over many generations and as such were instrumental in the development and spread of the French formal garden style across northern Europe. Claude Mollet wrote a volume called Théâtre des Plans et Jardinages, in which he details a number of newly-developed garden features adopted as part of the French formal style. These features included the Bosquet, a regular shaped group of trees or shrubs; the Cabinet, an outdoor room surrounded by hedges and trees, and the Allee, which was a straight walkway lined with trees leading to a focal point.
Claude also expanded on the renaissance parterre theme by introducing low clipped hedging with far more complex and elaborate interlaced patterns resembling embroidery – hence the name "parterre de broderie".
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The landscape architect Andre le Notre was also pivotal in the progression of the grand French formal gardens.
The gardens of châteaux Vaux-le-Vicomte were a landmark achievement for Andre, demonstrating his vision on a large scale. The châteaux was built on a platform surrounded by moats and a series of parterre garden sections divided by huge gravel paths and reflective canals that stretched far out from the building in every direction.
Le Notre's most famous work and the garden that sums up the extravagant French Baroque style is the Palace of Versailles. King Louis XVI tasked Andre le Notre with the massive undertaking of building the best gardens in Europe worthy of the King's shrine. Thousands of people worked on the construction in terrible boggy conditions and many of them died of fever. The King even drafted in the Army to help. They failed to redirect a river and had to build huge reservoirs and water wheels to supply more than 1,400 fountains and other features.
A 20-acre kitchen garden was built with 27 walled enclosures and orangeries, where they grew exotic tender plants like citrus trees. Vast parterres and walkways stretched out from the palace, lined with hundreds of statues and elaborate topiary specimens in large pots.
The main central axis of the garden was surrounded by sections of trees or Bosquets, all linked together with a complex network of geometric paths. Within these groups of trees, a number of Cabinet garden rooms were also built. The most dominant feature is the immense cruciform lake which the King would use as the setting for hugely extravagant pageants including numerous flotillas. One even hosted a performing orchestra. Now that is extravagant.