Place Travel: Vaux-le-Vicomte

November 16, 2015

Meet France’s preeminent landscape designer, André Le Nôtre (1613–1700), at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the garden he designed for Louis XIV's Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fourquet, in 1647. Our virtual tour of this great forerunner to Versailles provides an introduction to his genius as the originator of the French Seventeenth-Century Classical style.

blog_vauxlevicomte_pic1.jpgVaux-le-Vicomte opens up like a play in several acts. There is, first, the drama of entry that visitors coming from the parking lot are apt to miss.

Approaching instead along the central axis, which runs through the mid­dle of the château and the garden beyond it, one walks down a slight incline toward a beautiful grille punctuated at intervals with herms (squared stone pillars topped with a carved head of Hermes), messenger of the gods and an evocation of an ancient Greek boundary marker.

blog_vaux-le-vicomte_pic15.jpgStanding at the entrance to the château one can see on either side verdant grass parterres, the edges of which are punctuated with yews clipped into precise identical cones. Through the far windows of the central pavilion, one glimpses more manicured verdure. With the same anticipation that is to be felt upon the rising of the curtain in a theater, one walks through the central vestibule and oval salon onto the terrace and beholds symmetrical parterres de broderie (beds of box hedges patterned like brocade). Fountains, pools, sculpture, topiary, and trees are all laid out along a grand central axis that finally turns from a graveled promenade into a grassy ramp upon which stands a colossal gilded statue of Hercules. Beyond, the axis continues, banked by forest groves, until it seems to melt into the luminous sky.

Strolling along the central axis one finds changes in level that were not apparent at first. A few feet beyond the circular pool at the end of the parterres de broderie one comes to the garden's first principal cross axis where there is a slight shift in the elevation. Descending, the visitor continues along the central promenade. Here one walks along a barely perceptible incline past flower-filled urns that today mark what was once the Allée d'Eau, so named for the evenly spaced low jets of water bordering it. This part of the garden terminates in a large square pool.

blog_vaux-le-vicomte_pic17.jpgBeyond the pool, and now suddenly visible, is one of the most impressive surprises in the entire garden. The elaborate architectural grotto, which from a distance appears to rise from the far end of the square pool, does not in reality do so.  Here the ground abruptly drops, revealing a huge chasm. This chasm contains the garden’s second major cross axis in the form of a wide canal. As unexpected as this sight is, it is only half of the surprise, for at the bottom of the stairs to the canal, the entire supporting wall of the terrace above becomes a grand water feature— les Grandes Cascades—a mighty wall of water, commensurate in effect with the scale of the canal beside it and a dramatic counterpoint to the grotto opposite. Now dry, it must be imagined with the roar and gurgle of water spouting from grotesque masks into cupped bowls and upturned shells.

To approach the grotto one must walk to the far end of the canal and back along the opposite bank. Its architecture of rusticated stone forms a massive support for the terrace above. Beneath the flanking pair of broad stairs that rise to meet this terrace repose giant classical river gods, one symbolizing the Tiber, the other the local Anqueil, the river feeding the canal.

blog_vaux-le-vicomte_pic16.jpgBeyond the grotto and beneath the towering base of the Hercules is an ordinary stone bench. From this vantage point one may gaze back at the chateau. From this vantage point Le Nôtre’s games with geometry, perspective, and optics are played all over again—but now in reverse. The canal and cascade are no longer visible; all the garden's cleverly interlocking parts are visually compressed into a single flattened plane. The garden presents itself once more as a unified image, the undisputed focus of which is the château with its swelling dome breasting the sky, the center­piece of Lé Nôtre's and Le Vau's collaboration, to which all its component parts adhere.

  • Read more about this world-famous garden in Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architechtural History by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers.
  • Find more images of Vaux-le-Vicomte in the Foundations for Landscape Studies collection on ARTstor.
  • For more infomation on planning a visit in person, click here.
  • Explore the garden online by entering these coordinates into the search bar of Google Maps and using the : 48.565812, 2.714134999999942