France is famous for its romantic cast stone fountains, but it’s also rich in gardens that reflect its cultural taste, as those tastes have been from the Middle Ages to the present. What better way to breathe in the essence of the French than to wander outdoors in designed spaces where you can smell and touch the living displays, sit by a refreshing cast stone fountain and move freely and absorb at your own pace?
French gardens, particularly the French formal garden can engage all five senses. In the 16th Century, French courtiers built their chateau gardens along the Loire Valley fertile riverbanks. The homes were essentially small turreted castles that reeked of charm. Many of these same chateaux and their formal French gardens with cast stone fountains are open to the public today so that the owners may qualify for government tax breaks and grants.
The French Gardens and Cast Stone Fountains Were an Inspiration for Other Countries
Italian artists who traveled through Europe were inspired by French gardens and their cast stone fountains where architecture took pride of place over nature. Very strict geometric perspectives were used to show buildings to their best advantage. The French formal gardens at Versailles, designed by Andre Le Notre, were inspired by the sun-symbol chosen by King Louis XIV, the main axes corresponding to the points of the compass. Flowerbeds edged with trimmed box hedges were planted. Garden specialist Gabrielle van Zuylen sees the influence of Versailles at Blenheim Palace in England, in St. Petersburg (Russia), at La Granja near Segovia (Spain) and in Caserta near Naples (Italy). Le Notre’s radiating garden paths even served as inspiration for the town plan of Washington D. C. The cast stone fountains appeared in many of these palaces and estates.
French Formal Gardens Represent Extreme Formality
The most favored style for great house gardens in Europe during much of this period derived from the influence of the French designer Andre’ Le Notre, creator of the gardens at Versailles. The French style represented an extreme of formality, with box-edged parterres (elaborate and geometrical beds) typically placed near the residence to provide an arranged view. The cast stone fountain usually was set in the center as the focal point of where it all came together. Trees were grouped in neat plantations or in bold lines along avenues, with terraces and statuary carefully placed to emphasize the architectural symmetry of the grand manner. The widespread adoption of this style among the European nobility and gentry reflected the potency of French cultural influence at the time. It was also related, on a practical basis, to the limited availability of planting materials, especially those offering autumn and winter display.
The change to a more natural style of gardening came about when, in the latter part of the 18th century, the opinion arose among leading gardeners, particularly those of the English gentry, that the French formal garden manner brought with it a certain monotony. The increasing importation of foreign plants also brought with it opportunities for a large-scale transformation.
The Allee in a French Formal Garden
The allee (accent is placed over the second e) feature of the French formal garden was both a promenade and an extension of the view. It either ended in a terminal feature, such as a garden temple, a cast stone fountain or extended into apparent infinity at the horizon.
The allee normally passed through a planted boscage (a small wood); in the 17th century the boscage was square-trimmed at the sides and on top; later the sides were trained so high that the free-branching trees within the wood were invisible. As architectural gardening became unfashionable in the 18th century, the trimming of trees ceased, and the straight allee gave way to the meandering walk past the cast stone fountain.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the French formal garden came to be seen as too artificial and gave way to the English landscaped park style. Lovers of poetry and painting forsook straight lines in favor of “natural” landscapes composed of hills, woods, ponds and waterfalls but still, the cast stone fountain remained. The Romantics liked their paintings to include ruins and mausoleums. The garden became a theatre set, expressing the aspirations of 18th-century man in search of knowledge.
The French do insist that their plant life be well behaved. Tidiness is mandatory. Orderliness is essential. Just step into the French formal garden and stroll past the cast stone fountain to enjoy the Gallic appreciation of nuance, opulence and romance.