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.

Ulysses in the Fountain Court



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.

The canal is impressive. Commissioned by Henri IV, its is well over a kilometre long and  40 metres  wide. It was supplied by a complex system of aqueducts, partly  been constructed earlier by Francois I to supply the various fountains around the site, and the rest by Henry. Much of this still survives.  Originally its banks were planted with over sixty thousand trees  and, as you can see from the image below,  used for entertainment and boating.  Le Notre later added elm avenues on either sides.

Alongside the canal and in the wider parkland and forest were a whole series of other ponds and fountains, now sadly mostly vanished.  Part of the reason for this, apart from their role in the estate’s hydraulic system, and of course for entertainment, was that Fontainebleau was a small spa town with baths and springs. The therapeutic quality of its mineral water was “rediscovered” during the reign of Napoleon III in the mid-19thc and he added another fountain in the forest, the remains of which are still visible. 








LaPorte Doree, whuch opens onto the Oval Court from a painting inside the chateau , c1540

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.

The final garden section is the Garden of Diana, now open to the street in a corner between two wings of the palace.  This area  was originally  the private garden of the royal family and overlooked by their rooms and known as the Queen’s Garden.  At that time it was completely enclosed by another range of buildings which contained the offices of various officials and then under Louis XIV an aviary which was later converted into an orangery.


From the 17th until the end of the 18th century, the garden was in  formal Italian or French style, divided up by straight paths and with rectangular flower beds centred on fountains, decorated with statues and citrus trees in pots.  In the centre was a bronze statue of Diana – hence the current name of the garden.  Napoleon “naturalised” the layout converting it into another English style garden, but during the reign of Louis Philippe one whole wing including the offices and orangery were demolished so the garden opened onto the town’s street.

It became a public garden after the fall of Napoleon III, and is nowadays very much in the best traditions of a French public park.   The original Diana statue is now on show inside the palace and has been replaced by a copy  of the Roman Diana of Versailles, which was given by the Pope to Henri IV, and which  once stood in the grounds of Louis XIV’s hunting lodge at Marly.





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.


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