As we celebrate historic garden week in central Virginia, I thought it fitting to focus on formal gardens. Gardens on the tour will sport all versions of landscape design, but many will contain features or hints of formal gardens.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Although most of us enjoy an informal and more loosely designed landscape, there’s something comforting to my psyche about the organized symmetry of a formal garden. The order and repetition give a sense of control and dominion over nature. Formal landscape design is a blend of the living art of the garden combined with the absolute perfection of geometry and mathematics. There is a feeling of structure and predictability that is absent in a casual garden and the natural landscape. With its clean lines and definiteness of purpose, a formal garden seems to bring a sense of restraint and discipline to a generally chaotic world. It is a powerful illusion.
Formal gardens have their historic roots dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks discovered a world of mathematical absolutes and perfection in the laws and symbols of geometry, which form the basis of a formal garden. The plants and garden are manipulated to conform to a definite predetermined pattern and layout. In a formal garden, form takes precedence. In other words, the overall pattern, execution, and precision of the design take center stage over the individual parts. The design and imagery in total are the dominant features of the garden.
Throughout history, formal garden style has evolved into many iterations and interpretations. The classic gardens of the Roman Empire lived on in their structural essence during the medieval period in the knot garden designs found in monasteries. The overall layout and geometry of many formal gardens were often borrowed motifs fashioned after decorative objects such as rugs, tapestries, or tile designs. The Italian Renaissance opened the way for formal garden design to reach new heights of grandeur. In France, the reigns of Louis XIII and XIV brought with them the palace and gardens of Versailles, arguably the pinnacle historic achievement of formal garden design. Little wonder that the formal garden temporarily fell out of style after the French Revolution.
In the gardens of Versailles, a refinement of formal garden design was conceived by the 16th-century French landscape designer Claude Mollet. In his parterre designs, he visioned gardens from a bird’s eye view rather than ground level. High vantage points from open windows, balcony promenades, and palisades created a grand perspective from which to enjoy the gardens. Parterre gardens have an emphasis on larger planting materials that have more visual impact when viewed from a distance. In lieu of the smaller plants, herbs, and flowers of knot gardens, parterre borders are comprised of a sophisticated, monochromatic array of shrubs with subtle variations in shades and tones of green. Boxwood cultivars are of course a favorite. The gardens typically include ornate statuary and artistic topiaries.
Next… Creating Your Own Version of formal european garden style!
For information on Virginia Historic Garden Week check here: http://www.vagardenweek.org
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