Gazebo for Hotel Posta Marcucci in Bagno Vignoni15 November 2023
The french formal garden falls within the category of formal gardens, much like the Italian Renaissance garden from which it directly derives. Both have been prominent features in palaces and estates throughout Europe for more than three centuries until the 19th century, when the English landscape garden also comes into vogue.
- Origin and history of the french formal garden
- Key features
- Plants and flowers of the french formal garden
As mentioned, the French formal garden evolves from the Italian Renaissance style. In 1495, after visiting the gardens of the Villa di Poggioreale near Naples, King Charles VIII was so impressed that he brought Italian architects and artisans to create gardens in the same style at the Amboise Castle and Château Gaillard. Later, King Henry II, who had also encountered Leonardo da Vinci during his travels in Italy, commissioned an Italian-style garden at Bois Castle.
However, it was Catherine de Medici who initiated a departure from Italian norms with the garden at Chenonceau Castle in 1551 and the Tuileries Garden in Paris, designed by architect Bernard de Carnesse. In 1536, architect Philibert Delorme, inspired by a trip to Rome, created the gardens of Anet Castle, one of the earliest examples of the emerging style, though not yet fully defined and separate from the main building.
The true French formal garden comes to life in the 17th century, representing the complete expression of the Baroque period. Louis Le Vau, Charles Le Brun, and, most notably, André Le Nôtre, commissioned by the Sun King, expanded and redesigned the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. This included all the defining elements of the style—avenues decorated with red sand, topiary art, hedges and green areas with curvilinear shapes, water mirrors, fountains, classical statues, and more.
Le Nôtre would later care for numerous royal gardens such as Fontainebleau, the Tuileries, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the park of Saint Cloud, becoming the paradigm to follow. After the mid-1700s, in light of new Enlightenment ideas, flowerbeds and parterres rich in curves evolved into gradually less elaborate and simpler forms to maintain. Typical of this period are flowerbeds with irregular octagonal shapes. Also during this time, the influence of the English garden and the Chinese garden begins to arrive through the Jesuit contacts of the French king with the Emperor of China. By the early 19th century, the parterre and areas of the garden closest to the main building retained the Baroque French style, but those farther away began to be designed in the style of the landscape garden.
The humanistic rationalism inherent in the formal Italian garden is taken to the extreme in the French counterpart. The idea of mastering nature through mathematical laws, using it as another ‘material,’ evolves in complexity and integration with architecture. Nature is molded into richly elaborate forms characteristic of Baroque aesthetics, permeating and complementing buildings in a new concept of harmony. Typical features of a French formal garden include:
- Vast expanses of predominantly flat terrain or broad, flat horizontal terraces, especially near the main building.
- A large central area (lawn, water surface, or walkway), starting from the building and serving as a perspective axis toward the surrounding landscape. Symmetrically arranged around it are all other elements such as alleys, bosquets, palisades, parterres, in a specular manner.
- Geometries of the main areas expressed with straight paths, always orthogonal intersections, symmetric flowerbeds, and perfectly equal proportions, resulting in a composition designed to be majestic from any viewpoint.
- Parterre: the area closest to the main building, typically square in shape. Allows a scenic view of the garden from above, as suggested by the seventeenth-century landscape architect Olivier de Serres. Enriched with complex decorative elements made with lawns, low boxwood hedges, colored bricks, or gravel. Typical are the flowerbeds rich in arabesques and complex curved forms called Parterre de Borderie. Water parterres follow the same philosophy but are realized with basins and pools from which jets and water features spring, often enriched with classical statues and fountains.
- Allée: gravel, sand, or beaten earth paths bordered by hedges that can be combined in parallel (double allée), with shorter paths (contre-allée), delimited by rows of trees (allée verte), or enriched with climbers (allée en berceau).
- Bosquet: densely populated areas of closely spaced evergreen trees or shrubs delimited by alleys and may contain mazes, water mirrors, or fountains.
- Palisade: a tall hedge often enriched with topiary elements that delimits alleys and bosquets.
The color palette is dominated by green, ranging from the shades of evergreen shrubs, boxwood, cypress, to yew. Among the tall species, deciduous trees such as beech, hornbeam, elm, and lime are preferred. In flowerbeds, fresh hues in tones of white, blue, and purple prevail, contrasting with red and fuchsia. Lavender is an essential floral species, while lilies, dahlias, agapanthus, and cyclamen are widespread. Less common but still present are tulips in a wide range of colors and daffodils. When the surrounding landscape consists of coniferous forests like Scots pine and larch, or trees with dark foliage such as oak and chestnut, the garden tends to favor trees with brighter and luminous foliage, emphasizing the depth of the landscape through contrast.