France is famous for its grand gardens such as Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte and Fontainebleau which are the living proof of the superiority of man over nature and -only half in jest – of France and the French over everybody else.
I’m a Francophile but even I sometimes wonder whether some of these gardens are almost “too great and grand for their own good” and need to be re-assessed afresh.
I visited Fontainebleau again earlier this week with a group of Gardens Trust members as part of a tour looking at important French gardens mainly in the Loire Valley. Fontainebleau was our first port of call. It’s just over 30 miles [55km] south east of Paris and is unusual because its gardens, created over the last 500 or so years, include examples of most of the most important stylistic developments in garden design. Unsurprisingly Fontainebleau is not merely a national monument but a UNESCO World Heritage site.But is what you see today anything like they were when they were created and are they worth their reputation?
Photos are mine unless otherwise attributed
There’s evidence for a chateau at Fontainebleau from the early 12thc, while in the mid-13thc St Louis enlarged it by adding a Trinitarian monastery and hospital. It was used regularly by the crown but abandoned during the Hundred Years War when the court went into semi-exile in the Loire Valley.
But Fontainebleau’s significance really gets established during the the reign of Francois I, the contemporary of Henry VIII, when he commissioned the first major Italian-influenced Renaissance building in France.
Francois and his successors, notably Henri IV [ruled 1589-1610] continued to expand the chateau and develop its grounds as you can see from the 1642 plan below.
The building’s history from then on is complex and there isn’t really time/space here for a full architectural account but development and remodelling continued apace particularly under Louis XIV and Louis XV and then later Napoleon and Louis Philippe. However, rather try and explain it in detail at this point I’m going to do a walk around the site.
Nowadays the chateau – or palace as it sometimes described – is usually approached from through the vast Cour d’honneur, but this hasn’t always been the case. The buildings on two sides [left and top in the plan] are 16thc while those on the third [on the right] dates from reign of Louis XV. Originally enclosed on all four sides it was a service court and then a military parade ground before having one complete wing demolished and replaced by railings during the reign of Napoleon.
Officially it is known as La Cour du Cheval Blanc, after an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius which used to stand in the centre. It was made of plaster and it was rather strange to realise that in the 1560s it was Installed outside. Unsurprisingly a few years later it had to be given protective covering to prevent it being eroded, before it was eventually taken down. However the name stuck and there is a plaque recording the spot where it stood.
It is also known sometimes as the Cour des Adieux because Fontainebleau is not only where Napoleon signed his abdication but where he left for exile in Elba saying adieux to his Imperial Guard from the imposing horseshoe staircase originally built in 1550 but the remodelled in the 1630s by Jean Androuet du Cerceau.
The staircase has just been restored at a cost of €2 million raised by the chateau through an upmarket version of crowdfunding. As you’ll have noticed from the images the present simple but formal layout is a return to the earliest design that’s known, but for most of its history it was just an unplanted open space.
A passage at one corner of the Cour du Cheval Blanc leads into the Fountain Court, which also has buildings on 3 sides, again 2 dating from the 16/17thc while the third was finished in the 1770s as part of Louis XV’s plan to give the château a more classical twist. In the 1860s Napoleon III’s wife the Empress Eugenie added a “Chinese Museum” to one end, the entrance marked outside by a pair of Foo dogs. The fourth side opens onto the Carp Pond. The courtyard was named after a monumental fountain built there in the 16th century, which was topped with a larger than life marble statue of Hercules by Michelangelo . This has long disappeared , along with its associated surrounding formal garden, but was replaced in 1812 by a statue of Ulysses
The Carp Pond covers 6 ha [c14acres] and is mediaeval in origin. Its embankments with their lines of trees were created to help drain the swampy land around the chateau, and the lake then became a setting for elaborate water-based entertainments for the Valois monarchy. It’s named after the giant carp introduced [or so it is said] by Henri IV in the late 16thc .
The octagonal pavilion on the island, only reachable by boat, was a replacement for an earlier one seen on the plan above, and was built for Louis XIV by Louis Le Vau in 1662. It was restored and redecorated for Napoleon in 1807 and given panelling painted with birds and flowers. During the Second Empire it played host to the nautical parties of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. It is, however, once again in. need of restoration , and both it and the Prince Imperial’s yacht are the subject of crowdfunding bids by the chateau. So if you have a spare €800,000 I’m sure they’d like to hear from you!
Immediately behind one of the corner pavilions of the Cour d’Honneur is one of the earliest examples of an artificial grotto in France. Built in the 1540s as the entrance to François’ I’s Jardin des Pins the grotto is in the Italian mannerist style and was designed by Primaticcio. It has 3 huge rustic sandstone arches held up by monumental Atlas-like figures who, according to the 16thc poet Francois Malherbe, were “imprisoned in stone”, and represent the forces of “surrounding nature”, yielding “to the miracles of art” . Sadly the grotto is well hidden and really undersold and can only be seen through railings. This is an enormous pity because I’ve found on-line images of the interior which although quite shallow is highly decorated with rock-work and paintings.
Henri IV added a series of small formal gardens beyond the Jardins des Pins but these were all combined into a single larger formal space during the reign of Louis XIV. Then, at the very beginning of the 19thc ,Napoleon opened a military school in the palace and the whole 16 ha [c40 acres] space was cleared and turned into a training ground. Luckily the army was not there for long and after he had completed the alterations to the Cour d’honneur Napoleon’s architect Maximilien Joseph Hurtault, remodelled it again as a Jardin Anglais between 1810 and 1812.
The whole concept of the “Jardin Anglais” had become, despite the on-going wars between England and France, a very fashionable style in France. Another was created at Malmaison for the Empress Josephine although apparently Napoleon wasn’t that keen. Mainly laid to grass the one at Fontainebleau featured narrow, winding paths, and an artificial stream as well as the “Fontaine Belle-Eau” after which the château is supposedly named.
Perhaps the main reason the style was accepted is because it enabled Napoleon to show off newly introduced exotic trees from around the world such as catalpa, tulip trees, sophora, and cypress trees from Louisiana, then a French colony.
Amongst the many statues are two 17th century bronze copies of ancient Roman originals, the Borghese Gladiator and the Dying Gladiator.
Unfortunately the Jardin Anglais at Fontainebleau isn’t very inspiring or even well-maintained. [Even searching the web it was difficult to find interesting photos so mine will have to do!] I know that such gardens are difficult to photograph but unfortunately I think there are better examples of a Jardin Anglais elsewhere in France.
There are semi-formal hedges and avenues separating the Jardin Anglais from the Grand Parterre and around the southern side of the Carp Pond. They help prepare for the shock that you get when walking into what is the largest formal parterre in in the world.
Its pretty clear from this satellite image but at 14 hectares [c35acres] it must be visible from space! And it was only part of the overall scheme!
There had been a large and traditional formal parterre garden there in the 17thc but Louis XIV wanted something even more spectacular so he commissioned his gardener André Le Nôtre working with his architect Louis Le Vau to create the Grand Parterre.
As you can see from the print below it was originally divided up by elaborate patterns of box hedging but this was all removed under Louis XV.
What remains is the general layout of the grass sections, and the water features adorned with statues. In 1817, a fountain known as the “pot bouillant” was added to the large central square pool, while in 1998 a copy of a bronze allegorical statue of the river Tiber was returned to the large round pool to replace the one melted down during the French Revolution.
On the north eastern edge of the parterre the ground drops away sharply to the park, with boundary marked since 1664 by four sphinxes who look out over the Bassin des Cascades now also ornamented with 17th and 19thc sculptures, and then the road, to the canal.
Turning back towards the palace from the cascades the visitor reaches The Oval Court which incorporates the remaining parts of the mediaeval chateau including the keep. This was , for centuries, the main courtyard at the château. Altered and enlarged by Henri IV its has two magnificent gateway entrances the Porte Dorée and, the Baptistry Gate.
There are yet more courtyards beyond – after all the palace complex has around 1500 rooms – but nothing of much gardening interest.
So whats the verdict? There’s no doubt that Fontainebleau is an important garden in the wider historical picture. The kings and emperors who ordered and paid for the work wanted to impress not just their subjects and visitors but their fellow monarchs with reports of their power, taste and extravagance. As a result its sheer scale marks it out as significant but, of course, size is not everything. Does it have quality? About that too there is no doubt. The grotto is a significant contribution to the genre, even though it is no longer integrated in the overall scheme for the garden, and has been left lying unloved and on the sidelines. The canal, ponds and and other water features and their hydraulic systems are also great examples of the best of Renaissance water gardening and deserve a place in the pantheon. I’m not sure the same can be said of the rather bland Jardin Anglais and I wonder what would have happened if Napoleon had not introduced the military school to Fontainebleau.- would the smaller 17thc gardens have survived ? Maybe that’s just wishful thinking?
The biggest challenges for me comes in trying to comment on the Grand Parterre. We ought to love it because its by Le Notre, and we certainly ought to be overawed by its sheer immensity but I can’t help thinking that for once Le Notre, or his royal master, overstretched himself. This does not have the elegance or even grandeur of Vaux le Vicomte, where the parterre can be seen by visitors from a distance looking down.. At Fontainebleau the site is as flat as a pancake and the garden can only even seen partially – unless you are in a balloon or on Mr Google’s satellite. From there of course it does look good, but from a terrestrial perspective it’s surely too big for its own good.
Even if one accepts that that doesn’t matter there is the planting to consider. The modern reinterpretation has made no attempt to be historically accurate, and uses grasses and colourful perennials unknown to Le Notre or Louis or indeed to anyone else until the 19th or even 20thc. In most settings this would be a minor detail and not really that important but Fontainebleau is a World Heritage Site for a good reason, and so I think it does matter. And so did most of the members of the Gardens Trust who talked to me about it.
Of course while we’re all idealists we’re also all realists. Like the authorities we know there are problems with managing and interpreting the gardens and the palace for visitors but while the authorities have little difficulty with doing that with the architecture and its history and keeping it accurate, they have, as at the new gardens at Chambord, opted for an easier less precise and less authentic approach to the gardens, and especially to their planting. That’s a pity and I’d suggest a wasted opportunity….but don’t take my word for it, go and look for yourself especially as entry to the gardens and parkland is free.
For more information the official website has several good webpages about the history of the chateau and its garden, but even better [especially if you can read some basic French] is the website of the Friends of Fontainebleau which has far more images than I could possibly include here and very detailed histories of most parts of the gardens.