Designs of Sun King's adviser still create stir

By Catherine Field

Four centuries after birth, Andre Le Notre's work continues to bedazzle garden lovers

Andre Le Notre's gardens impressed European nobility and he went on to create notable designs for their palaces.
Andre Le Notre's gardens impressed European nobility and he went on to create notable designs for their palaces.

From Versailles and the Tuileries to Fontainebleau, Chantilly and Vaux-le-Vicomte, gardeners at French chateaux are paying tribute to Andre Le Notre, whose imprint on the landscape endures four centuries after his birth.

To call Le Notre a gardener is like saying Liberace was a piano player. He liked to think big, multiply the result and then multiply it again. And as the trusted adviser of Louis XIV, the Sun King himself, Le Notre was given full licence to realise pharaonic dreams. He changed the royal lands into astonishing examples of horticultural symmetry and tamed nature. He ignited a craze for the "jardin a la francaise" that spread across the French nobility and abroad..

Le Notre's crowning achievement is the gardens at the Palace of Versailles.

He took a tract of forested, marshy land and transformed it into a vast spread of gravelled avenues, manicured beds with tiny hedges of box, narrow strips of grass studded with topiary, groves dotted with several hundred sculptures depicting Greek and Roman myths, interspersed with hundreds of fountains, including giant set-pieces showing the sea realm of Neptune and the dawn rise of the sun god Apollo.

Started in 1661, this enterprise took four decades to realise. In the process, the grounds of Versailles expanded from 90ha to 6000ha, equivalent to two-thirds the area of Waiheke Island. Le Notre's master plan required an army of workers, toiling with shovels and wheelbarrows, to carve out terraces so that the King, from the palace, could enjoy an unrestricted 12km view. Unprecedented in Europe, the vista stretched to the tree-lined horizon across the formal gardens, the groves and a "Grand Canal"- a cross-shaped artificial lake 1.6km long that took 11 years to dig and hosted mock naval battles with miniature warships to amuse the court.

"The characteristic elements of Le Notre gardens are first of all, the principle of symmetry - the idea that symmetry is a principle of perfection," says Pierre-Andre Lablaude, in charge of the Versailles gardens. Today, the 100 gardeners at Versailles follow the blueprint set down by "Papa" Le Notre with exhausting attention to detail. The tree-covered walks - 40km of them - are kept to a uniform height of 8m, interspersed with trellises made from chestnut wood and copper wire, just as at the time of the Sun King.

There are 70 designated ways of trimming the garden's yew trees. Then there are the 900 topiaries which must be hand-cut with millimetric precision.

True to historical authenticity, the gardens are not a splash of colour. Imported flowers, even for the the Sun King, were expensive things. In the 17th century, traders in Marseilles had a stranglehold on flowers brought in from the Mediterranean, while the Dutch had the monopoly on tulip bulbs. As a result, Le Notre's gardens had only two showcases for flowers - a big spread in front of the King's apartments, and another where the flowers were grown in pots.

Le Notre's biggest contribution to Paris is the Tuileries gardens of the Louvre, once a royal palace but now home to the world's most visited museum. Its 23ha of matching flowerbeds and broad avenues, covered in a signature whitish gravel, provide a classical, austere and low-profile tone to the capital. The gardens open to the avenue which Le Notre conceived and was later named the Champs-Elysees. In an indirect tribute to Le Notre's sense of urbanism, later architects added the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Elysees, and in 1989, for the bicentenniary of the French Revolution, the Grande Arche in the La Defense business district, creating an arrow-like axis of more than 7km.

"The Tuileries are the only green space in the centre of Paris, which is unusually poor in public gardens and green areas compared to London, Amsterdam or Berlin," says Patrick Legeron, secretary of the Friends of the Tuileries Association.

"It is a typical French garden, rather rigid and symmetrical in design, a bit 'mineral' in its feel. It is one of the greatest walks in the world."

As the crowned heads of Europe, bedazzled by Versailles, rushed to emulate it at home on a smaller scale, Le Notre's style went with them. He provided garden designs for Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, for Charles II's palaces at Greenwich and Windsor, and for the massive gardens - now sadly lost - at the royal palace of Venaria Reale in Turin, Italy.

A Le Notre garden gives the notion of a Nature that is organised and codified - a thinking that was entirely in spirit with the Cartesian thinking of the 17th century: the idea that Universe is run on smooth, reassuring lines of mathematics and logic, overseen by a divine benefactor.

But in the 18th century, this cosy view was challenged by the Enlightenment, a golden age of philosophy and challenge to convention.

As the French Revolution started to brew, some saw the symmetrical garden not as a freedom but as a confinement, a sterile attempt to fence out the rugged forces of nature - and thus a handy symbol of a fossilised haven for the hated nobility.

On the up was the English Garden, a style exemplified by Capability Brown, which sought not to tame nature but to incorporate its wildness in a romantic landscape of lakes, trees and artfully-placed ruins.

- NZ Herald

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