The Jardin du Roi

I was supposed to be researching something serious the other day, when, as so often, I saw something much more interesting and decided to follow that lead instead. It was an image of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that had been painted at the very  height of  the French Revolution.  You might have expected it to be a scene of chaos and destruction but far from it. Instead it was a scene of tranquility and calm, with apparently well cared for gardens and garden buildings.

A bit more investigation revealed that far from damaging the former royal gardens the revolutionaries recognised their importance and made them a key part of their programme for cultural and scientific advance…and there wasn’t just one but a whole series of paintings which show the gardens in great detail.  So I decided to investigate the story behind them and the gardens…


As most of us will know, the first European botanic gardens were part of a continent-wide intellectual movement, based around universities,  and usually run by doctors and apothecaries as physic gardens.  Italy led the way in the mid-16thc with gardens at  Pisa (1543/4), Padua (1545), and Bologna (1568) but others quickly followed. In 1593 Henri IV of France, founded a garden at Montpellier, one of the most important medical faculties in Europe. Paris was not far behind and in 1597 the faculty of medicine at the university in Paris acquired the garden formerly belonging to  the leading apothecary of his day,  Nicolas Houël.  

It was put under the charge of the great  botanist Jean Robin [1550-1629],  the royal gardener to three French kings, Henry III, Henry IV and Louis XIII, and after whom the Robinia or false acacia is named. He planted the first specimens of this new introduction in Paris in 1601 and amazingly they are still alive, as is the one planted by his son Vespasian in  the Jardin du Roi in 1636.


A beautiful collection of engravings of plants within the garden by Pierre Vallet was published in 1608.

I’m not quite sure why but the gardens closed in 1617, but Robin pressed for its replacement because of its importance in medical training, and was strongly supported by several of  the royal doctors, notably Guy de la Brosse.

What de la Brosse envisaged however  was more than just a physic garden but a teaching and research institution, designed to improve medical standards across the board.  Besides a collection of living plants, de la Brosse planned a herbarium of dried specimens and a laboratory, where students could learn distillation and the preparation of herbal remedies.

His scheme was opposed by the medical faculty of the university who wanted a monopoly of such things but  with the help of Cardinal de Richelieu, the powerful chief minister, de la Brosse  finally obtained authority from Louis XIII  in 1626 to establish a physic garden close to Paris, although no site was specified.  Crucially it was to be independent of the university and answerable only to the king.


It was a long time before he found a suitable site but in February 1633 he bought  a small estate near  the south-east gates of Paris in the faubourg Saint-Victor close to the Seine and running down to the Bievre, the now hidden river of Paris.  The chateau became the residence of the  senior royal doctor with additional space set aside for  the work of the royal apothecary.

Conversion work and planting  began in 1635 with many of the plants supplied by Vespasien Robin, the heir to his father’s collection. The following year, 1636, de la Brosse published a catalogue of the 1800 or so kinds of plants that were already planted although the  the garden didn’t finally open its doors to students until 1640.  

De la Brosse also shocked the medical faculty  because the lectures that were on offer in chemistry and anatomy as well as botany were in French rather than Latin and they were  free. To make matters worse the 3 ‘demonstrators’, one for each subject, were recruited from the Paris’s great rival the university of Montpellier and they taught things such as the circulation of blood, which were not yet accepted by Paris.  The only concession Paris was able to obtain was that the new garden and its teachers could not award diplomas or degrees.

Also in 1640, perhaps to celebrate the opening, de la Brosse published a plan of the new garden which was now to be called Le Jardin Royal des Herbs Médicales.  It shows that in addition to the usual array of regular order beds there was spiral walk, [often referred to as a maze or labyrinth although it doesn’t appear to be one in the modern sense] up an artificial mound, which he called his mountain.

He had also begun work on a much more lavish catalogue of plants to be illustrated with 400 plates by the great engraver Abraham Bosse, but died before it was completed.  Sadly his heirs then sold the copper engraving plates for their scrap metal value and most were melted down, so his successor as the intendant of the garden, Guy-Crescent Fagon, could only salvage about 50 which were finally printed in a very limited edition although I have been unable to track down a copy of the result.

The new garden was visited by the young John Evelyn in February 1644 :  The 8th I tooke Coach and went to see the famous Garden Royale, which is an Enclosure wall’d in, consisting of all sorts of varietys of grounds, for the planting & culture of Medical samples. It is certainely for all advantages very well chosen, having within it both hills, meadows, growne Wood, & Upland, both artificial and naturall; nor is the furniture inferiour, being very richly stord with exotic plants: has a fayre fountaine in the middle of the Parterre, a very noble house, Chaple, Laboratory, Orangerie & other accommodations for the Prasident, who is allwayes one of the Kings chiefe Physitians.

After de la Brosse’s death the gardens went into a period of decline  with  continuing  fierce rivalry with the Sorbonne until the end of the 17thc,  when Louis XIV’s chief  minister Jean Colbert, intervened. In 1693 he appointed Dr Guy-Crescent Fagon as the principal royal doctor  and also the new intendant of the Jardin Royal des Herbs Médicales. Fagon was a member of the Paris medical faculty who just happened to be the great-nephew of Guy de la Brosse,  but it wasn’t a straightforward victory of medicine over gardening because Fagon had also  been a lecturer/demonstrator at the garden since 1671  so had a foot in both camps.

Holding both offices Fagon now took a strategic decision, and shifted the emphasis of the garden away from strictly medical botany to much wider scientific research.  He  surrounded himself with an extraordinarily talented team from across all the sciences, including the great taxonomist and plant hunter, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, the brothers Antoine & Bernard de Jussieu, and Sebastian Vaillant. Mostly now forgotten they were, in their day, the leading figures in their fields. To stress the change the gardens were renamed simply the Jardin du Roi  [the King’s Gardens] with no reference to medicine, and they were  replanted and reclassified according to a system devised by Tournefort which was not medically based.


The infrastructure improved too, with Fagon overseeing the building of a new amphitheatre-shaped lecture room and the construction of new hothouses, heated by underground hot air piping. One of these was specifically dedicated to growing the first coffee plants in France. And he made the garden look outwards by initiating a series of plant hunting expeditions including three by Charles Plumier to the Caribbean and another to Peru.

After Fagon’s death in 1718 the new direction the gardens were taking was reinforced by when it was decided that the office of intendant or director of the garden should be separated from that of royal doctor.  However his immediate successor still combined the two posts, and definitely gave precedence to medicine over the garden and what he called its  “its weeds.”   The royal apothecary was evicted from the chateau and the space given over to the garden’s growing collection of natural history exhibits. 

But things really began to change in 1732 when the polymathic chemist  Charles Francois Cisternai Dufay was appointed intendant.  Dufay replanted the gardens again, built new greenhouses to house the increasing range of exotic plant imports, and began to establish close relations, with other botanical institutions across Europe, including those in Britain.  Although only in charge for 7 years  he  transformed the  collection into “the most beautiful garden in Europe”, and laid the groundwork for its expansion both in size and reputation  by his successor, Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon

Buffon’s statue at the entrance to the gardens

Buffon is a giant in the field of natural history and he was to run the Jardin du Roi for nearly 50 years, although what his qualifications were to be appointed in the first place is quite vague.  Middle class in origin he moved to Paris in 1732 to continue studying science, mathematics and mechanics, and was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1734 . There, after carrying out some experiments on timber for the navy, he met the powerful minister the Comte de Maurepas,  and it seems that it was Maurepas who somehow engineered him into the job in 1739.

It was a momentous decision both for Buffon and the gardens.

Buffon set about  acquiring  more land, and eventually doubled the gardens in size, extending them north to the banks of the Seine. There were also unrealised proposals for a bridge across to the other bank. He re-landscaped the grounds,  planting long tree-lined walks, laying out the central large-scale Italianate parterres, building a grotto, and installing statuary across the site.  There were plans too for a small woodland area and more greenhouses.

More importantly  he fostered  research and turned the gardens into an early prototype for the modern botanic garden devoted to science with associated teaching  and display.


To do so, he too gathered a team of leading scientists from every major field including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who devised a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution.   Buffon himself took a key role in this research, developing a keen interest in all forms of natural history and natural philosophy which he wrote up in a series of vast encyclopaedic books.  His Histoire des Animaux (History of the Animals, 1749) and Théorie de la Terre (Theory of the Earth, 1749) were followed by the 36 volume Histoire naturelle, générale et particuliére. [Natural History] , published between 1749 and 1804 which earned him the title of “prince of naturalists”.  

 Towards the end of his life, and in the last years before the French Revolution, Buffon turned his attention to building works to support the work of these scientists and to house the growing collections. 

As part of this the old chateau, which was home to the Cabinet of Natural History and which was overflowing had to be enlarged and the collection reclassified  . 

The gardens were also a place of public recreation and in 1786 Buffon added a belvedere on top of the mount offering extensive views over the city and surrounding countryside, and he encouraged people to meet and debate the issues of the day there.  Called the gloriette it was designed by the royal architect Edme Verniquet, and built  in iron by Claude-Vincent Mille, who was the royal locksmith.

This use of metal was avant-garde, making it one of the oldest metal buildings in the world and certainly the  oldest in Paris, more than hundred years older than the Eiffel Tower. It has recently been restored by a public appeal.

Next in 1787 he bought the adjacent Hôtel de Magny [originally built around 1700] for use as the offices of the gardens, but then immediately built a new lecture theatre also designed  Verniquet in its grounds.

Finally new greenhouses were built  in 1788 just before Buffon died, and the French Revolution broke out.  They were 



to be winter quarters for the citrus trees, with housing for the gardeners above, while others were for succulents, south African bulbs and cactus, with  a  separate range elsewhere for propagation.

And then came the revolution!

I’ve only shown a few of the  paintings of the gardens by Jean-Baptiste Hilaire but   I’ll explore some more of them in the next post when I’ll investigate the story of the Jardin du Roi post-Revolution.



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7 Responses to The Jardin du Roi

  1. Pingback: Flower power: the botanical art of Madeleine Françoise Basseporte - Women in French History

  2. Pingback: Creating Kirby | The Gardens Trust

  3. Interesting read of the ‘chemistry’ lineages via ‘Chemistry Tree’ … back through great scientific lives all the way to the Jardin du Roi and Jardin des Plantes circa 1590….

  4. A splendid and gorgeous way to learn some history.

  5. ilacox says:

    Another extraordinary Garden Trust Blog. The Jardin du Roi is a keeper. Much interesting information about the intellectual movement to understand plants in the 16c/17c and the transition from investigation for purely medicinal uses, to development of classification systems, etc. I don’t know how you keep these fascinating articles coming each week. They are much appreciated.

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