The Baroque garden was a style of garden based upon symmetry and the principle of imposing order on nature. The Baroque garden is characterized by strong centers of composition, dynamism, illusory, theatricality, the use of contrast and the combination of different art forms. As a result of the activities of invited Italian builders, artists and gardeners, the principles of symmetry-geometry became embedded in French garden planning.
The style originated in the late-16th century in Italy, in the gardens of the Vatican and the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome and in the gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, and then spread to France, where it became known as the jardin à la française or French formal garden. The grandest example is found in the Gardens of Versailles designed during the 17th century by the landscape architect André Le Nôtre for Louis XIV. In the 18th century, in imitation of Versailles, very ornate Baroque gardens were built in other parts of Europe, including Germany, Austria, Spain, and in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. In the mid-18th century the style was replaced by the more less-geometric and more natural English landscape garden.
Baroque gardens were intended to illustrate the mastery of man over nature. They were often designed to be seen from above and from a little distance, usually from the salons or terraces of a chateau. They were laid out like rooms in a house, in geometric patterns, divided by gravel alleys or lanes, with the meeting points of the lanes often marked by fountains or statues. Flower beds were designed like tapestries, with bands of shrubbery and flowers forming the designs. Larger bushes and trees were sculpted into conical or dome-like shapes, and trees were grouped in bosquets, or orderly clusters. Water was usually present in the form of long rectangular ponds, aligned with the terraces of the house, or circular ponds with fountains. The gardens usually included one more small pavilion, where visitors could take shelter from the sun or rain.
Over time, the style evolved, and became more natural. Grottoes and “secret gardens” enclosed by trees appeared, to illustrate the literary ideals of Arcadia and other popular stories of the time; these were usually placed in the outer corners of the garden, to give suitable places for quiet reading or conversation.
An outstanding development in these formal gardens was their enormous size. Most of them had a unity of design due to the simultaneous construction of the residence and the gardens, with suitable architecture and ornaments. The building was often placed centrally on a large flat area on the central axis. The room was divided into geometric, symmetrical designs and was often played in perspective. Large and wide alleys were the main design elements, through which they were led first to garden designs, then to forest land, rural areas. Later, they began to radiate in all directions to respect the garden owner’s access.
The ground floor is a flat surface on the garden side of the castle, directly in front of the castle, designed with artistic beds. The Mollet, a garden dynasty of French kings, further developed parterre (flower bed) planting styles. The flat surface in front of the castle, which was usually seen from a higher place or from the castle, became especially important. The partners were surrounded by a boxwood hedge or even a flower edge. Instead of smaller parterre beds, large complete solutions were built, which in turn were divided into eight or more parts, but it was important to observe symmetry in the plan. Different colors of soil, coal, crushed stone, sand or gravel were used as a coating to obtain additional color for the parter design. For a more intimate stay, pavilions or pergolas hidden with climbing plants were erected near the parters.
Origins in Italy
The ideas that inspired the Baroque garden, like those of Baroque architecture, first appeared in Italy in the late Renaissance. In the late 15th century, the architect, artist and writer Leon Battista Alberti proposed that the house and garden were both sanctuaries from the confusion of the outside world and that they both should be designed with architectural forms, geometric rooms, and corridors. In a very popular allegorical story, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Song of Poliphile) (1499), one of the first printed novels, the Dominican priest and author Francesco Colonna described a garden composed of carefully designed ornamental flowerbeds and rows of trees shaped in geometric forms.
The Cortile del Belvedere or courtyard of the Belevedere at the Vatican in Rome was one of the first gardens in Europe which adopted these geometric principles, and was a model for many later Baroque gardens. It was begun in 1506, constructed for Pope Julius II, in connected his residence on a nearby hillside with the Vatican. The garden was three hundred meters long, filled with orderly flower beds and gardens geometrically divided by alleys and hedges, with fountains at the intersections of the paths. It was finished in 1565 by Pirro Ligorio. The original garden was drastically modified by the later addition of the Vatican Library.
The same architect who completed the Cortile del Belvedere, Pirro Ligorio, was commissioned in the same year to design an even more ambitious garden, Villa d’Este, for the Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572). This garden was designed on a steep hillside, which could be viewed from the Villa above. The garden was composed of five terraces, elaborately planted in geometric forms and connected with ramps and stairways. Like many Baroque gardens, it was best viewed from above and from a distance, to get the full effect.
This architectural form for gardens continued to dominate in Italy until the construction of Villa Borghese gardens in Rome by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1605. In this very large garden, the regular and geometric alleys, flowerbeds and groves of aligned trees were joined by other parts of the garden in asymmetrical forms, and by a number of “secret gardens”, small sanctuaries of trees and flowers planted with flowers and fruit trees, and surrounded by rows of oak trees, laurel and cypress trees, and populated with birds and animals. This garden marked the beginning of the transition to the more natural landscape garden, based on the romantic vision of an imaginary Arcadia.
All of these gardens underwent extensive redesign in the 18th century, turning them into more natural-looking landscape gardens. Except in a few preserved paths and flower beds, it is difficult now to imagine them in their original state.
The Jardin à la française
At the end of the 15th century, Charles V of France invited Italian architects and garden designers to France to create an Italian garden for his Château d’Amboise. In the 16th century, the development of the Baroque garden in France was accelerated by Henry IV of France and his Florentine wife, Marie de Médicis. Their first major project in the style was the garden of the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. The new garden, on the bluff above the Seine, featured an extensive belvedere with ramps and stairways, scattered with an assortment of pavilions, grottoes, and theatres. Following the death of the King, his widow built a palace and a garden of her own, now called the Luxembourg Palace. She planted groves of full-grown trees and laid out parterres, alleys and fountains on the model of the gardens of her native Florence.
The French Baroque garden reached its summit under Louis XIV, due to his garden designer, André Le Nôtre. Le Nôtre’s first large-scale project was for Vaux-le-Vicomte, the chateau of the King’s Minister of Finance, Nicolas Fouquet, built between 1656 and 1661. The central feature of this garden was a main axis descending from the chateau, composed of a series of terraces decorated with parterres of low hedges in ornamental designs. Large basins with jeux d’eau were placed along the central axis, and the garden was set between rows of trimmed trees on the left and right, to lead the eye on the long perspective to the last fountain and grotto below. The garden was meant to be seen from the chateau, which overlooked it like the box of a theater.
The young Louis XIV had Fouquet imprisoned for his extravagance, but greatly admired the garden he created. He commissioned Le Nôtre to design a similar, but vastly larger, garden, for his own projected Palace of Versailles.
The most famous Baroque gardens were the Gardens of Versailles created by Le Notre between 1662 and 1666. It was built around the original small square park of ninety-three hectares before the chateau started for Louis XIII by Jacques Boyceau in 1638. In 1662 following the model of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Le Notre made the park ten times larger, centered on a grand canal which reached to the horizon. The new park was divided into an elaborate grid of flowerbeds, paths, and alleys, decorated with fountains and sculptures. A third enlargement expanded the park by another six thousand five hundred hectares, including forests for hunting and several nearby villages, surrounded by a wall forty-three kilometres long with twenty-two gates.
The centrepiece of the garden was the Fountain of Apollo, the symbol of Louis XIV, the sun king himself, surrounded by a network of paths, basins, colonnades, theaters, and monuments. The King himself designed the route that visitors should follow, with twenty-five different mythological scenes, stations, and panoramas. The garden became an outdoor theatre for pageants, promenades, theatre performances, and fireworks shows. Its greatest deficiency was insufficient water for all of the fountains; only a few fountains could work at the same time; they were turned on only when the King was approaching them.
Between 1676 and 1686, Louis XIV built a smaller version of the Versailles gardens at the Chateau of Marly, located in a more tranquil valley, where he could escape from the crowds of Versailles. After his death in 1715, portions of the Gardens of Versailles were gradually modified to the new style of an English landscape garden, with trees untrimmed and planted in more natural groves, winding paths, and replicas of Greek temples and even a picturesque model village for the amusement of Marie-Antoinette. The gardens of Versailles had many royal visitors, including Peter the Great of Russia, and many of its features were imitated in other European palace gardens.
The Baroque garden style was first introduced to Germany in 1614 by Frederick V of the Palatinate, who imported a French landscape architect, Salomon de Caus, and began building a garden called the Hortus Palatinus at his castle in Heidelberg. The hilltop location, overlooking the Rhine, limited the size and presented difficult terrain, but de Caus succeeded in building a series of parterres with concentric circles of greenery, a circular fountain, and a bosquet of laurel trees, ingeniously linked by stairways and ramps.
The style soon appeared in at the castles of other German princes, including Herrenhausen in Hanover, built at the end of the 17th century. Its designer, Martin Charbonnier, was French, and he included the classic Versailles elements, including a central axis aligned with the castle, a circular pond at the far end of the axis, bouquets of trees, and “secret gardens”, small gardens enclosed by trees, places for reading or quiet conversation, at the edges of the garden. He also borrowed some features of Dutch gardens, which he had visited in his research, including a canal surrounding the garden and wedge-shaped parterres surrounded by low hedges.
Another notable Baroque garden in Germany is Augustusburg Palace, Brühl (1728), designed by Dominic Girard, who was a pupil of Le Notre at Versailles. Like Versailles, it feature a central axis flanked by ornamental parterres and circular basins with fountains, all flanked by alleys and geometrically-trimmed rows of the trees.
Other notable Baroque gardens in Germany include the Großer Garten in Dresden, the Gardens of Karlsberg near Kassel, the garden of Weikersheim Castle (1707–1725), and the gardens of Nymphenburg Palace (1715–1720), which rivaled the Gardens of Versailles in size. The Baroque age in German gardens came to an end with the construction of the garden of Schwetzingen Palace, made in 1753–58 for the Palatine Elector Charles-Theodore, by architect Nicolas Lepage and gardener Johann Ludwig Petri. This garden was filled with artificial Roman ruins, a Chinese bridge, a mosque and other picturesque landmarks; it marked the debut of the romantic English landscape garden in Germany.
Austria and the Netherlands
The pupils of Le Nôtre were in demand across Europe, recreating the canals and parterres of French gardens for other European monarchs. One of the most prolific and successful designers was Dominique Girard, who designed the elegant curling patterns of the parterres of the Belvedere Palace in Vienna for Prince Eugene of Savoy. This garden was largely influenced by Le Nôtre, but also by the more modern ideas of Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenvilles, whose book Treatise on the practice and theory of gardening (1709), became the most influential manual of landscape design in the early 18th century.
Begun in 1717, the garden connected the two chateaux of the Prince. The upper palace and garden was used for grand ceremonies, while the lower garden, by his residence, was arranged with groves of trees and crisscrossed by paths. A large water basin on the upper terrace was connected by stairs and cascades, filled with statues of nymphs and goddesses, to the lower garden. The parterres were destroyed and replaced with grass in the eighteenth century, but have recently been restored to their original appearance.
A portion of the Netherlands, the United Provinces, had won its independence from the Spanish Netherlands, and in 1684–86 its ruler William III of Holland, the future King of England, constructed the Het Loo Palace with a magnificent Baroque garden. The garden was designed by Claude Desgots, who was the nephew of Le Nôtre; he earlier had reworked the design of the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace and designed the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. The upper garden of Het Loo was primarily inspired by Versailles, with paths radiating from a central alley, while the lower garden, in front of the Chateau, showed a Dutch influence, divided into independent sections, each different, and divided by alleys lined with the characteristic hedges and trees of the Dutch countryside.
Spain and Naples
Philip V of Spain, the grandson of Louis XIV, who had spent his childhood at Versailles, was responsible for introducing the Baroque garden to Spain. At the beginning of the 18th century, he created a garden modelled after Versailles at the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, not far from Segovia. The uneven landscape, a thousand meters in altitude, made it difficult to have extensive parterres, but it provided an abundance of water. The garden designer was René Carlier, who had worked under Robert de Cotte, one of the leading French royal architects. He used the natural slope of the site in the palace grounds design, for enhancing axial visual perspectives, and to provide sufficient head for water to shoot out/up from the twenty-six sculptural fountains in the formal gardens and the later landscape park.
Philips’s successor, Charles V of Spain, also created a notable Baroque garden in the Kingdom of Naples, which he ruled. It was located at Caserta, not far from Naples. As at Granja, the garden was surrounded by hills, while the palace was surrounded by canals, fountains, and geometric parterres decorated with low hedges in Baroque designs.
Peter the Great visited the Palace of Versailles and the Palace of Fontainebleau in 1717 during his European tour, and upon his return to Russia began constructing a garden at the Peterhof Palace, begun in 1714, in the Versailles style. He brought the French architect Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond to St. Petersburg to design new gardens for his new capital city and for his new palace. It was completed in 1728.
Peterhof was located on the side of the steep slope overlooking the Gulf of Finland. The new plans called for a formal garden on the upper terrace, and for a grand cascade pouring down the hillside from the palace to a canal, with fountains, leading out to the Gulf. The grand cascade was modeled after that of the Château de Marly, the smaller palace and retreat of Louis XIV near Versailles. The Gardens were laid out in parquets and alleys of trees in symmetrical patterns, similar to Versailles.
A less-known Baroque garden in St. Petersburg is the Grand in Oranienbaum, Russia (1710–27) (not to be confused with another Menshikov Palace in St. Petersburg) that was given by Peter to one of his most prominent nobles, Alexander Danilovich Menshikov.
The Russian Baroque gardens were much modified in the later 18th century to the more natural English landscape garden style; the trees and flower beds were not trimmed, and more natural flowerbeds and winding paths replaced the original parterres. In recent years, some of the parterres have been restored to their original Baroque appearance.
Decline of the Baroque garden
Baroque gardens were extremely expensive to build and to maintain; they required large numbers of gardeners and continual trimming and upkeep, as well as intricate systems of irrigation to provide water. At times a large portion of the French army was devoted to digging channels and constructing systems to bring water to the gardens of Versailles.
Descriptions of English gardens were first brought to France by the Abbé Le Blanc, who published accounts of his voyage in 1745 and 1751. A treatise on the English garden, Observations on Modern Gardening, written by Thomas Whately and published in London in 1770, was translated into French in 1771. After the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, French noblemen were able to voyage to England and see the gardens for themselves, and the style began to be adapted in French gardens. The new style also had the advantage of requiring fewer gardeners, and was easier to maintain, than the French garden.
One of the first English gardens on the continent was at Ermenonville, in France, built by marquis René Louis de Girardin from 1763 to 1776 and based on the ideals of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who was buried within the park. Rousseau and the garden’s founder had visited Stowe a few years earlier. Other early examples were the Désert de Retz, Yvelines (1774–1782); the Gardens of the Château de Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne, west of Paris (1777–1784); The Folie Saint James, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, (1777–1780); and the Château de Méréville, in the Essonne department, (1784–1786). Even at Versailles, the home of the most classical of all French gardens, a small English landscape park with a Roman temple was built by the Petit Trianon and a mock village, the Hameau de la Reine, Versailles (1783–1789), was created for Marie Antoinette.
The new style also spread to Germany. The central English Grounds of Wörlitz, in the Principality of Anhalt, was laid out between 1769 and 1773 by Prince Leopold III, based on the models of Claremont, Stourhead, and Stowe landscape gardens. Another notable example was The Englischer Garten in Munich, Germany, created in 1789 by Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753–1814). These marked the transition and soon the end of the baroque garden in Europe.