Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Gardens in the French Renaissance

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Nature tamed by art, the garden expressed the Renaissance search for order. French medieval examples were often enclosed in cloisters or within the walls of fortifications. In the sixteenth century, they became even more open and elaborate. The one that stretches behind the allegorical figure of Pomona, goddess of gardens, her back to the château on an oval dish fired about 1600, is still contained by fence and wall (53.225.60). In the manner of the ceramist Bernard Palissy, the dish is based on a composition by the Flemish painter Marten de Vos engraved by Philippe Galle about 1600 and survives in a number of versions in different color combinations. The parterres centered on a fountain—a plan typical of northern Europe in the late sixteenth century—are more formal than their medieval predecessors. Water features, often based on Italian models, prevailed as the century progressed. As early as 1508, for instance, the cardinal of Amboise commissioned a fountain from Genoa for the Château de Gaillon.


Gardens played many roles in French society—and thus found increasing representations in art—as places for relaxation, for music and dance, for poetry and learning, for horticulture, as symbolic spaces for myth and allegory, and finally as decorative motifs.

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As the use of gardens became more ritualized, structures were created for specific purposes. Cavelike rooms called grottoes were built at Fontainebleau in 1542–44 and in the 1550s at the Château La Bastie, owned by the d'Urfé family. Pergolas were erected by Renée de France, daughter of Louis XII, at Montargis in 1560–75 and by Catherine de' Medici in the Jardin de la Reine at Fontainebleau in 1560–62. Gardens played many roles in French society—and thus found increasing representations in art—as places for relaxation, for music and dance, for poetry and learning, for horticulture, as symbolic spaces for myth and allegory, and finally as decorative motifs.

Some of these activities are suggested in the wool and silk embroidery known as The Garden of False Learning (42.193.2). It is part of a cycle called the Table of Cebes, purportedly written by a Greek from ancient Thebes, that became popular in France through Latin and Vulgate translations in the sixteenth century. It recounts a parable of the pilgrimage through life, from the pure soul of a child to the temptations of false learning encountered along the way and finally to true learning and happiness. Three embroideries of the subject are known. Here False Learning, the attractive woman at the gate, welcomes the youthful wayfarer into the garden, where fashionably dressed men and women engage in various intellectual and artistic pursuits.

The embroidery documents some of the more cerebral activities that took place in gardens: music, reading, and conversation, as well as such studies as astronomy and geometry, that could be practiced in its quiet precincts. The ceramic relief of Pomona, on the other hand, who keeps spade, rake, and watering jar ready, reminds the viewer of the earthy side of this terrestrial paradise and the labor required to maintain it. Gardening became a suitable activity for noble women and men, as revealed by a set of luxurious pruning tools in the Museum's collection (64.101.1470-.1476). In his treatise L'Architecture (1567), Philibert de l'Orme describes a bower with tree trunks pruned into columns with tools such as these to form capitals, a reference to the presumed origins of architecture, primitive wood structures that led to sophisticated stone buildings.

Ian Wardropper
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art