French Gardens

The Italian Influence and the start of French style up to 1650

Up until 1500, France was a series of independent states. Medieval French kings spent most of their time either at war or travelling between their or vassals’ castles. The latter’s gardens were firmly enclosed within the castle walls and reflected a layout based on Roman models. Charles VII invaded Italy in 1494 and saw for himself the new style of open Renaissance gardens there. Slowly the French royal gardens in the Loire valley and Paris began to reflect this Italian influence. Courtiers and royal advisers followed suit with their gardens and these newly expanding designed landscapes became places of political theatre and territorial control.

The Age of Absolutism: Formality through to ‘Le Jardin Anglais’, 1650 – 1800

In 1650, Nicolas Fouquet, the nation’s overseer of finances, inherited the estate of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Ten years later, the superb gardens laid out by André Le Nôtre, heralded the golden era of French landscape design. After a long period of effective rule by successive chief Ministers, Louis XIV assumed personal control of the French state in 1661. This coincided with the start of his building work at Versailles. The grounds that were developed over the next 50 years were again the work of André Le Nôtre and became the template for palace gardens of other absolutist monarchs (such as Peter the Great of Russia). Louis used the garden at Versailles as a place of symbolism for him and his absolute control over France. For instance, visitors were not allowed just to wander around the grounds, even here Louis ensured they followed a prescribed route. With Louis’ death in 1715, France’s status of leading nation gradually eroded and was surpassed by Britain. Prior to the Revolution, even the gardens turned away from the earlier formality to an adaptation of the English landscape style, known as ‘le jardin anglais’.

After the Revolution: Town planning and historical revival, 1800 - 2000

The French Revolution did more than do away with the monarchy and nobility (albeit temporarily), it also left many 17th and 18th century formal gardens to slowly decline. The focus shifted from the gardens of the few to those of the masses. The new public parks across the Channel in Britain were much admired by those engaged in the remodelling of the urban centres, most notably Paris. A resurgent French nationalism after 1870 saw a renewed interest in the French formal garden style and both Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte were restored to their former glory towards the end of the 19th century. New gardens in old styles were created such as Villandry at the start of the 20th century. The Modernism movement of the 1920s and 1930s had a major effect on French landscape design, which remains to this day.