From the Middle Ages…
The garden is the expression of nature tamed. It can be found in the Loire Valley in all its forms. It has accompanied our History every step of the way, and today is certainly no exception. As an undeniable example of a territory’s living heritage, the notion of garden is a central feature of the Loire Valley’s inclusion on the World Heritage List.
A symbolic medieval vision
In the Middle Ages in particular, the garden took on many symbolic qualities. The subject of many an artist’s work, the theme of the garden sparked an outpouring of the imagination. Seen as God’s work on Earth, the garden therefore had to be a reflection of the Garden of Eden, an image of ideal nature with everything in it evoking both perfection and divine beauty. This idyllic vision of nature can be seen in many tapestries and such gardens are regularly described in medieval literature.
The medieval garden – secular or religious
A source of edible and medicinal plants, the medieval garden served a largely functional purpose. With woven branches marking the plots and main enclosure, decorated with a few flowers and planted with trained fruit trees, the garden occupied a special place in the abbeys where this art would be especially developed.
The Capitulaire de Villis, an order set out by Charlemagne (end of the 8th century), demanded that his estates follow a number of rules on cultivation methods. It lists the plants that those estates were obliged to grow. The main list includes 94 plants: 73 herbs, 16 fruit trees, 3 textile plants and 2 dye plants.
All the plants mentioned had been known for a long time. The intention was to achieve a sense of organisation and an ideal balance between food, medicinal, textile, dye and even ornamental plants. It is speculated that this document was written by the scribe, Alcuin, who was abbot of Marmoutier near Tours.
The model for medieval gardens was that of hortus conclusus: an enclosed garden, divided into thematic and orderly spaces. The hortus (vegetable garden) was generally larger than the herbularius (the medicinal or herb garden), but they were arranged in the same way in regularly-spaced plant beds – square or rectangular plots that were raised and demarcated. More often than not the beds were bordered by channels designed to improve drainage and irrigation. This form of checkerboard layout allowed light to bounce around thus causing the soil to warm up much more quickly and in winter protecting a large part of the roots.
These checkerboard vegetable and medicinal gardens, with their rational and geometric character, would become the norm for all gardens in the Middle Ages until the 15th century, whether they were secular or religious.
….to the Renaissance
In the late 15th century a new kind of château emerged on the banks of the River Loire and with it a new style of garden. The first designs were brought over from Italy by Charles VIII and Louis XII. Gardens which, until then, had only been used to grow fruit and vegetables for food, and flowers for their fragrance, now also took on an ornamental role.
French gardens: looking to Italy for inspiration
Back in the late 15th century, the Loire Valley became referred to as the “Garden of France”. This flattering nickname, inspired by this region’s quintessential gentle lifestyle, would henceforth play an enduring part in the development of garden art.
In the mid-15th century at his Touraine residence, Château du Plessis-les-Tours, Louis XI ordered for a new garden to be laid out to draw the admiration of visitors and writers of the time. But garden art began to change with the return from the first Italian campaigns.
The designer spearheading this change was Pacello da Mercogliano (circa 1455-1534) who demonstrated his groundbreaking talent after accompanying Charles VIII back from Italy in 1495.
The gardens of Blois and Amboise were the first to benefit from this influence. They were graced with orderly, geometric forms and boxwood borders were also common. Abiding strictly by architectural principles, the garden had to display regular décor and cut an entirely artificial figure. Nature was kept on a firm leash, with none of its whims allowed.
The new style of the Amboise garden designed circa 1495-1498, can be made out on Androuet du Cerceau’s 1570 drawing. A unique pairing is apparent in this garden – flowerbeds and architecture: an entirely novel concept for the time in France. A wood gallery surrounds the interior and the stonework opens up windows onto the view. Geometric flowerbeds and pattern contours form the core principles underpinning this style of garden, which also gave pride of place to topiary art (training and trimming plants into clearly-defined shapes) with geometric or figurative shapes such as spheres, cones, pyramids or cubes.
From 1499 to 1510, Pacello da Mercogliano continued his handiwork in Blois where he laid out expansive gardens spanning three terraces near the Château. Parallel alleyways of symmetrical, regularly-spaced flowerbeds criss-crossed the bottom garden formed from boxwood, medicinal plants and herbs, outlining intricate patterns. The vegetable garden was redesigned too, with geometric shapes woven into the vegetable plots. Majestic stonework framed the Queen’s garden in the middle, where major levelling works were carried out.
This feature of regular and, at times, tiered terracing became more marked over time, making the “jardin à la française” – as this style of garden became known – just as much the work of landscapers as masons.