The Eighth Wonder of the World?

Last week’s post was about Salomon de Caus’s career in England. It ended when James I’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who de Caus was tutoring, married Frederick, the Elector Palatine in 1613 and moved to Heidelberg.  This might have been a disaster for de Caus but it turned out to be a great opportunity and led to his grandest commission.

Instead of being left looking for a new patron in England de Caus was invited to Heidelberg, and  by July 1614 he had been appointed “Ingenieur et architecte de son Altesse Palatine Electorale” and asked to redesign the palace gardens for the happy couple.

These have become one of the most celebrated gardens of the early modern period.  They were on an extremely  difficult site, but extensive in scale, almost ludicrously elaborate in conception, and possibly with all sorts of mystical overtones.  They were immortalised in a much-reproduced painting and  engraving, and in considerable detail in de Caus own book about them, the Hortus Palatinus.  Yet it’s almost as much about their theoretical appearance and meaning as their actual existence, because they were unfinished, and even those parts  which were completed did not last long because of the ravages of war.

In short the Hortus Palatinus is as much  a legendary garden as a real one

Searching for information about these gardens I read everywhere that they were regarded by contemporaries as the Eighth Wonder of the World – yet no-one gives a single contemporary reference and I can’t track one down myself so, since my readers are usually better informed than me, if anyone knows of a contemporary comment that uses that compliment please let me know! But it seemed too good a title for the post not to use it anyway!

So what were the gardens like?  As I said we have a painting, or rather two versions of the same painting in birds-eye view, by Jacques Fouquier which show the castle and its grounds against the much wider landscape. The first is supposed to date from somewhere between 1614-16, so given that de Caus only arrived in early 1614, it may be a record of his intentions rather than a record of reality.




The second painting, now in Heidelberg’s museum, is thought to date from around 1620, which was, as we shall see, after Frederick had moved on. It was  turned into an engraving by Matthaus Merian.

Merian’s engraving from the earlier painting

The same year Merian also published a 14-sheet panorama of Heidelberg from the other side of the river which shows the steepness of the site and importantly those parts of the upper terrace otherwise hidden.

Merian’s Panorama of Heidelberg, 1620 – the garden can be seen on the extreme  left

All these images are remarkably detailed and  invite an obvious question. If they weren’t just a record of de Caus’  plans, how on earth were these complex gardens created so quickly?  The question is even more pointed when one realises that the site was extremely steep and rocky, clinging to the side of the mountain with scarcely a few hundred square metres of level ground.

It meant that de Caus first major job was to decide how to deal with the terrain.  Engineers cut a series of terraces from the mountainside, and buttressed them with thick retaining walls.  I have not seen any account of how this mountain-moving was done, nor how sufficient earth was introduced but it must have been a mammoth technical feat.

In any case we know that the gardens were never finished because, for reasons too complicated to go into here,  in 1619 Frederick, a protestant,  was offered the crown of Bohemia and set off for Prague. Work on the gardens probably stopped almost immediately he left.   His acceptance sparked the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, the bloodiest and most brutal conflict of the early modern era, which set Catholic against Protestant all over Europe.   He only lasted a year and 4 days as king, before being defeated in battle. The Palatinate was invaded and he and Elisabeth spent the rest of their lives in exile and nicknamed the Winter King and Queen.

De Caus himself claimed  that ” if the present war hadn’t broken out in the meantime, everything could have been completely finished in approximately six months”. That may well have been a little over-optimistic given that recent archaeology  during restoration and partial recreation showed that substantial  parts of the lower terraces, as well as  some of the stairways, fountains and other waterworks were unfinished.  And if the structural work was incomplete what does that imply for the ornamentation and planting?

So, in short Fouquier’s paintings and Merian’s engraving must have been  at least partly imaginary. However, we also have de Caus’ own account  which came complete with  30 engravings and a short introduction. The Hortus Palatinus  was published in both French and German  in Frankfurt in 1620.  This differs in quite a few details from the paintings/engraving, but Luke Morgan, his biographer, attributes this to later changes by de Caus who may have been hoping to impress potential new clients in France after work stopped. Perhaps he was  using the book as a sort of sampler of what he could do. That might also explain why the images in the book  are all of the garden and do not include images of the way it connects to the palace.

What strikes one first looking at the overall layout  is the variety rather than the similarity, and the diversity of styles rather than their unity.  This is very much in the contemporary Italian tradition where each section of a parterre was autonomous and different to its neighbour. De Caus seems to have had no intention of creating a unified whole, rather a selection of interesting but only loosely related and interconnected sections.


The garden is L-shaped and laid out in terraces looking down on the castle, the river  and the town, with the upper ones furthest away.


At the junction of the L, and overlooking the whole site, was a large niche containing a small statue of Neptune and above it a 15ft statue of Frederick,  making it “the first monument paying homage to a lord in modern garden history” [Stefan Schweizer, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)

As can be seen from the detail of Merian’s panorama above Frederick looked down diagonally  at the Parterre of the Column which de Caus says was the first to be completed.  It has a dominating position at the corner of the L-shape on the main terrace.


The Parterre of the Column was quadripartite in form around a hexagonal basin that had a rustic Ionic column in its centre. The column was a giant water feature, with water pouring from   stone  “icicles”, and from the grotesque faces at the base.  On top is an orb and cross which formed part of Frederick’s coat of arms. The four sections were 55ft square with a complex knot pattern, and ornamented with orange trees in pots.

Continuing the diagonal line of Frederick’s gaze down to  the terrace below, there  were two more parterre gardens, one centred round a statue of Ceres and the other around one of Pomona. In between them is a basin containing statues of two river gods representing the Main and the Necker rivers, which flowed through the Palatinate.  

Luke Morgan argues this is all symbolic for Frederick’s overlordship of all water, nature and the fertility of the earth as well as  the rivers of his own territory.

The embroidered parterre

To the right of the Column Parterre was the Embroidered Parterre which had  statues of the nine muses. Two stood by each gateway with the ninth, Urania, the muse of astronomy, in the centre. She held a rod in her raised hand which, with its shadow, acted as a sundial. Again there were orange trees in tubs everywhere but instead of knots the beds were in a  flowing “broderie” style and filled with coloured gravels and sands. These are some of the oldest examples of this style, although Claude Mollet had already designed some a little earlier, at Saint-Germain and Fontainebleau but there are no illustrations of them. Links to Frederick were  prominent here too, with heraldic crowns with the orbs and crosses as part of the pattern in each quadrant, and a Latin inscription which translates as Frederick V, Count Palatine, Elector Duke in Bavaria 1619.

The orange tree parterre

Next to that was the Parterre of Oranges with a very different and distinctive pattern based on an eight-pointed star.  De Caus referred to “eightness” in Institution Harmonique, his treatise on music – “the divine science” – and “audible geometry” –  and says it “encloses all consonances within it.”  The orange trees are arranged according to another commentator ” to express all possible permutations of harmonic order”.

From there, along the terrace the visitor reached the orangery, where all these  orange trees were overwintered.  Previously since the castle did not really have a garden  they had been kept in another garden some distance away. De Caus had them bought to the base of the hill and then winched up to their new home. He describes the building at some considerable length. It was a temporary structure made of wood some 280 feet long and 32 wide with 4 furnaces inside.  It had an elaborate inscription in Latin which translates as “Frederick, King of Bohemia, Count of the Rhine and Elector Palatine, after he had toppled the peaks of the mountains into the valleys, consecrated this place, once holy to Diana, to Vertumnus. He decorated it with water pipes, grottos, statues, plants, flowers and extremely tall trees, transplanted very artfully from the suburban garden, and he completed this work in the year of our Lord 1619.”

De Caus also suggested that it would be better to have a permanent stone framework so that each winter it would merely be a question of  putting back the windows to protect the trees, and he added an image of what this should be like.

The pillars were to resemble ivy-covered tree-trunks which relates back to the story of how Vertumnus won the hand of Pomona.

At this point I discovered a problem in describing the rest of the gardens.  There’s simply too much to cover properly -and I haven’t even started on the grottos – so I’m going to confine myself to very brief accounts to accompany the engravings, and I’ll return to de Caus and his grottos and hydraulic schemes another time.

The Flower Garden, at the very end of one of the arms of the L, was highly symbolic as well as highly decorative. It was circular and divided into 4 sections, one for each season, and centred around what appears to be a rustic Mount Parnassus fountain.




This reflected a similar grand rustic fountain at the opposite end of the garden in the Parterre of the Entrance.





The departure of Frederick and Elizabeth for Prague saw de Caus leaving too, but he west instead of east, moving to Paris in 1620, to work as an engineer and architect  for Louis XIII. He was to die  there  in 1626.  

The Hortus Palatinus is Salomon de Caus’ masterpiece, easily surpassing  what he created in Brussels, England  or France (about which little is known).  Although the garden was never completed and much of what was left was soon destroyed,  the engravings and paintings make it a reference point for all other grand 17thc gardens.  Indeed  his book on it is  the first  dedicated to a single garden.

After being wrecked and abandoned interest in the gardens revived  after a new edition of de Caus’s book was published in Mannheim in 1795. This was picked up in Britain when  John Claudius Loudon used some of the text in his Encyclopaedia of Gardening (London, 1853, vol. 1, pp. 171-175).  There was a reprint of the German version in 1980 and the French version in 1981.  Some reconstruction work has taken place and there are also some  computer-generated images of what certain parts were like

For more information the best place to start is Luke Morgan’s, Nature as Model, 2007

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