‘…a garden constructed according to mathematical formulas, where metaphysics is dissimulated by perspective, epistemology circumscribed by geometry, and rhetoric composed by the mobility of our bodies.’
Allen S. Weiss, Mirrors of Infinity
In 1656, the small village of Vaux and two nearby hamlets were cleared for the construction of the chateau and gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, commissioned by Nicolas Fouquet the recently appointed Minister of Finance to Louis XIV. On the project, he brought together the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre.
The gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, designed by Le Nôtre, can be seen as the result of a long tradition of garden-making, with roots in the Italian gardens of ‘Earthly Paradise’ and classic Renaissance ideals of order, proportion and harmony, the pursuit of the infinite and illusory through the conceptual and technical developments of perspective (also actively sought after in the realm of theatre), and the underlying prevailing awareness of, among the contemporaries of Le Nôtre, ‘wild’ nature outside the gardens. It represented the fruition of ideas in built form which established the nature of the French garden in the 17th century.
The classic French garden of the 17th century was a homogeneous image of controlled nature, an ordered world in the chaos of nature, a ‘formal subordination of nature to reason and order’1. The garden was an accessory to the architecture, which it elevated in its subservient relationship to it. By extension, man was the authority over the land he inhabited, his home the highest manifestation of order. This articulation in built form of the authority of man was also an ostentatious display of the authority and the power of the French court and its nobility over its common people.
At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the gardens conform, at first appearance, to the character of the classic French garden of order; it appears to the person who walks through the château to the garden terrace as a magnificent, unified image. It is composed of ‘parterres, trees, pools, fountains, sculptures… an enclosed garden bounded at the sides by walls of greenery and held together by the undeviating central axis extending into the distance.’2
Beneath the apparent unity of the image of the garden however, subversions manifest almost imperceptibly on closer inspection. Firstly, the garden is not completely symmetrical along its central axis. Secondly, the actual extent of the garden when viewed from the terrace of the châteaux, although seeming to reveal itself in its totality, is difficult to discern due to foreshortening contrived by the form and lie of the ground plan. The visual authority of the viewer is undercut by the nature of the topography of the land; whether it is for reasons of pure theatricality or to deliberately undermine of the ability to comprehend the landscape, the gardens do not submit visually to the viewer.
Thirdly, the garden is aggrandized, with large avenues and colossal, larger than life statues so it is even more difficult to ascertain the scale of the garden in relation to the human person visually. These devices that diminish the visual comprehension of the person looking over the gardens, ironically by visual trickery, mean that the gardens can only be discovered if the person is to explore it. In this, Le Nôtre at some level seems to acknowledge the incomprehensibility of Nature in its totality.
If the viewer is to acquiesce his position on the terrace and venture down to the first parterres and onward, he would discover the many and varied objects (the fountains, sculptures, pools, trees) that occupy the landscape and the particular events their relationships engender.
So at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the natural landscape is banished to the periphery. The garden is undeniably man-made and artificial, and occupied by objects. Nature is a building material – the parterres are carefully embroidered greenery, the water is held in still pools or made to spout out of fountains, living plants are on display to be observed. The garden is a protected outdoor room, the ultimate conquest of nature for human activity. Yet at the same time, Le Nôtre makes manifest a preoccupation with nature and man’s relationship to it at a deeper, metaphysical level. The undeviating central axis of the garden is traversed by water on two occasions and the transverse axes they set up extend into the nature beyond the garden and seemingly into infinity. The authority of the Cartesian man of reason is undermined by visual illusions. In the orchestration of these conflicting ideas, the tension between what the garden is superficially and what it is intuitively is maintained in a way that reaches sublimity, the epitome of the idea of the anamorphosis abscondita.
© Kalpana Gurung
1 Weiss, A. S., 1995. Mirrors of Infinity, The French Formal Garden and 17th-Century Metaphysics. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
2 Hazlehurst, F. H., 1980. Gardens of Illusion, the Genius of André le Nostre. Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press
Thompson, I., 2009. Rethinking Landscape, a critical reader. Oxon: Routledge.
Fig. 2 Taken from: Baubion-Mackler, J., Scully, V. 1992. The Designs of Le Notre, Photos by Jeannie Baubion-Mackler. New York: Rizzoli Int. Publications
Fig. 3 Aerial image from Googlemaps UK