History is often enough sorry stuff when it comes to human interest, and it needs editing only too often.
Courtiers and the fashionable world of France, ever since the days of the poetry-making and ballad-singing Francis and Marguerite, and before, for that matter, made of literature—at least the written and spoken chronicle of some sort—a diversion and an accomplishment. Then, as now, writer folk were wont to exaggerate, but most of their work made interesting reading. These courtiers of the itching pen did not often write for money.
Royal favour, or that of some fair lady, or ladies, was their chief return in many more cases than those for which their accounts were settled by mere dross.
It is in the work [Pg 9] of such chroniclers as these that one finds a fund of unrepeated historic lore. The dramatists came on the scene with their plots ready-made and have been coming ever since, if one recalls the large number of French costume plays of recent years , and whether they introduced errors of fact, or not, there was usually so much truth about their work that the very historians more than once were obliged to have recourse to the productions of their colleagues.
The dramatists' early days in France, as in England, were their golden days. One hears a lot about the deathbed scribblers in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but there was not much of that sort of thing in France. No one here penned bitter jibes and lascivious verses merely to keep out of jail, as did Nash and Marlowe in England. In short, one must give due credit to the court chroniclers and ballad-singers of France as being something more than mere pilfering, blackmailing hacks.
All the French court and its followers in the [Pg 10] sixteenth century shouted epigrams and affected being greater poets than they really were. It was a good sign, and it left its impress on French literature. Following in the footsteps of Francis I and the two Marguerites nobles vied with each other in their efforts to produce some epoch-making work of poesy or prose, and while they did not often publish for profit they were glad enough to see themselves in print. They, too, left behind them an imposing record, which has been very useful to others coming after who were concerned with getting a local colour of a brand which should look natural.
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Not only were the royal Paris dwellings, from [Pg 11] the earliest times, of a profound luxuriance of design and execution, but the private hotels, the palaces, one may well say, of the nobility were of the same superlative order, and kings and queens alike did not disdain to lodge therein on such occasions as suited their convenience. The suggestive comparison is made because of the close liens with which royalty and the higher nobility were bound.
It is sufficient to recall, among others of this class, the celebrated Hotel de Beauvais which will illustrate the reference. Not only was this magnificent town house of palatial dimensions, but it was the envy of the monarchs themselves, because of its refined elegance of construction. This edifice exists to-day, in part, at No. Times have changed, for the worse or for the better. The sedan-chair and the coach have [Pg 12] given way to the automobile and the engine, and the wood fire to a stale calorifer, or perhaps a gas-log. The comparisons are odious; there is no question as to this; but it is by contrast that the subject is made the more interesting.
The record is by no means a consecutive one, but a record exists which embraces a dozen, at least, of the Paris abodes of royalty, where indeed they lived according to many varying scales of comfort and luxury. Not all the succeeding French monarchs had the abilities or the inclinations that enabled them to keep up to the traditions of the art-loving Francis I, but almost all of their number did something creditable in building or decoration, or commanded it to be done.
Louis XIV, though he delayed the adjustment of Europe for two centuries, was the first real beautifier of Paris since Philippe Auguste. Privately his taste in art and architecture was rather ridiculous, but publicly he and his architects achieved great things in the general scheme. In a decade Napoleon made much history, and he likewise did much for the royal palaces of France. After him a gap supervened until the advent of Napoleon III, who, weakling that he was, had the perspicacity to give the Baron Haussmann a chance to play his part in the making of modern Paris, and if the Tuileries and Saint Cloud had not disappeared as a result of his indiscretion the period of the Second Empire would not have been at all discreditable, as far as the impress it left on Paris was concerned.
The French garden was a creation of all epochs from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and, for the most part, those of to-day and of later decades of the nineteenth century, are adaptations and restorations of the classic accepted forms. From the modest jardinet of the moyen-age to the ample gardens and parterres of the Renaissance was a wide range. In their highest expression these early French gardens, with their broderies and carreaux may well be compared as works of art with contemporary structures in stone or wood or stuffs in woven tapestries, which latter they greatly resembled.
Near the end of the eighteenth century a marked deterioration was noticeable and a separation of the tastes which ordained the arrangement of contemporary dwellings and their gardens [Pg 15] was very apparent. Under the Empire the antique style of furniture and decoration was used too, but there was no contemporary expression with regard to garden making. In the second half of the nineteenth century, under the Second Empire, the symmetrical lines of the old-time parterres came again into being, and to them were attached composite elements or motives, which more closely resembled details of the conventional English garden than anything distinctly French.
The English garden was, for the most part, pure affectation in France, or, at best, it was treated [Pg 16] as a frank exotic. Turning back the pages of history one finds that each people, each century, possessed its own specious variety of garden; a species which responded sufficiently to the tastes and necessities of the people, to their habits and their aspirations. Garden-making, like the art of the architect, differed greatly in succeeding centuries, and it is for this reason that the garden of the moyen-age, of the epoch of the Crusades, for example, did not bear the least resemblance to the more ample parterres of the Renaissance.
Civilization was making great progress, and it was necessary that the gardens should be in keeping with a less restrained, more luxurious method of life. Regretfully, one cannot say as much for the garden plots of the [Pg 17] eighteenth century, and it was only with the mid-nineteenth century that the general outlines took on a real charm and attractiveness again, and this was only achieved by going back to original principles.
The first gardens were the vergers and preaux , little checker-board squares of a painful primitiveness as compared with later standards. These squares, or carreaux , were often laid out in foliage and blossoming plants as suggestive as possible of their being made of carpeting or marble. When these miniature enclosures came to be surrounded with trellises and walls the Renaissance in garden-making may be considered as having been in full sway. Under Louis XIV a certain affluence was noticeable in garden plots, and with Louis XV an even more notable symmetry was apparent in the disposition of the general outlines.
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By this time, the garden in France had become a frame which set off the architectural charms of the dwelling rather than remaining a mere accessory, but it was only with the replacing of the castle-fortress by the more domesticated chateau that a really generous garden space became a definite attribute of a great house. The first gardens surrounding the French chateaux were developments, or adaptations, [Pg 18] of Italian gardens, such as were designed across the Alps by Mercogliano, during the feudal period.
Later, and during the time of the Crusades, the garden question hardly entered into French life. Gardens, like all other luxuries, were given little thought when the graver questions of peace and security were to be considered, and, for this reason, there is little or nothing to say of French gardens previous to the twelfth century. An important species of the gardens of the moyen-age was that which was found as an adjunct to the great monastic institutions, the preaux , which were usually surrounded by the cloister colonnade.
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One of the most important of these, of which history makes mention, was that of the Abbaye de Saint Gall, of which Charlemagne was capitular. It was he who selected the plants and vegetables which the dwellers therein should cultivate. Of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there is an abundant literary record, and, in a way, a pictorial record as well. From these one can make a very good deduction of what the garden of that day was like; still restrained, but yet something more than rudimentary. From now on French gardens were divided specifically into the potager and verger.
The potager was virtually a vegetable garden within the walls which surrounded the seigneurial dwelling, and was of necessity of very limited extent, chiefly laid out in tiny carreaux , or beds, bordered by tiles or bricks, much as a small city garden is arranged to-day.
Here were cultivated the commonest vegetables, a few flowers and a liberal assortment of herbs, such as rue, mint, parsley, sage, lavender, etc. The verger , or viridarium , was practically a fruit garden, as it is to-day, with perhaps a generous sprinkling of flowers and aromatic plants.
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The verger was always outside the walls, but not far from the entrance or the drawbridge crossing the moat and leading to the chateau. It was to the verger , or orchard, curiously enough, that in times of peace the seigneur and his family retired after luncheon for diversion or repose. The rose was queen among all these flowers and then came the lily and the carnation, chiefly in their simple, savage state, not the highly cultivated product of to-day. From the ballads and the love songs, one gathers that there were also violets, eglantine, daisies, pansies, forget-me-nots, and the marguerite, or consoude , was one of the most loved of all.
Still other flowers found a place in this early horticultural catalogue, the marigold, gladiolus, stocks, lily-of-the-valley and buttercups. Frequently the verger was surrounded by a protecting wall, of more or less architectural pretense, with towers and accessories conforming to the style of the period, and decorative and utilitarian fountains, benches and seats were also common accessories.
The old prints, which reproduced these early French gardens, are most curious to study, amusing even; but their point of view was often distorted as to perspective. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, perspective was almost wholly ignored in pictorial records. There was often no scale, and no depth; everything was out of proportion with everything else, and for this reason it is difficult to judge of the exact proportions of many of these early French gardens.
The origin of garden-making in France, in the best accepted sense of the term, properly began with the later years of the thirteenth century and the early years of the fourteenth; continuing the tradition, remained distinctly French until the mid-fifteenth century, for the Italian influence did not begin to make itself felt until after the Italian wars and travels of Charles VIII, Louis XI and Francis I. The earliest traces of the work of the first two of these monarchs are to be seen at Blois and, for a time henceforth, it is to be presumed that all royal gardens in France were largely conceived under the inspiration of Italian influences.
Before, as there were primitives in the art of painting in France, there were certainly French gardeners in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The archives of these princely houses often recount the expenses in detail, and so numerous are certain of them that it would not be difficult to picture anew as to just what they referred. Debanes, the gardener of the Chateau d'Angers, on a certain occasion, gave an accounting for "X Sols" for repairing the grass-plots and for making a petit preau. Again: "XI Sols" for the employ of six gardeners to trim the vines and clean up the alleys of the grand and petit jardin.