The formal French garden of the height of the Ancien Regime produced the first “selfie.” What can we learn about the culture of the wealthy and the powerful from their gardens? From the marvel of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the mythologic Garden of the Hesperides, from the Virgin Mary hortus conclusus to the Venus garden of The Dream of Poliphilus, the garden belongs both to myth and reality. What is the spirit of the French formal garden, the famous garden style that inspired much of 17th century Europe? Geometrical lines imposing order on nature reveal a vision of the world where man is « master and owner of nature » as the French philosopher René Descartes wrote.
The garden became much more than a garden: it became a microcosm to express the desire for an everlasting power. Playing with natural elements, principally water and earth, the French garden develops the features of terraces and perspective. Pools are used as mirrors; water defies gravity’s rules. Vegetation is as important as stone. Sculptures and follies inhabit the green. Curvy lines and irregularity arrived in France in the 18th century. We will explore the gardens of Versailles and a range of chateaux, and compare and contrast them with the very different styles of English gardens to see two multiple views of the garden as a means of self-expression and an evolving view of the human relationship with nature, as well as divergent national identities.