Archive for June, 2010

rainbows and daisesrainbows and daisiesAt one of the side entrances to l’Eglise Saint Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement are four little box-edged flower beds. This summer, one of them is thickly planted with rainbow-stemmed swiss chard, pink cosmos and dahlias. (There are also some rather unnecessary, straggly standard roses.)

My daughter and I stood for a few moments on Saturday to admire the planting. The chard was translucent in the sunshine. Even in the short time we were there, several other people also stopped and commented on the display, noting admiringly that the leaves were edible as well as beautiful.

It was a tiny space, a few annuals, and a delightful moment.

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ecole des beaux-artsThe Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was established in the seventeenth century and, in its heyday, was an enormously influential school for architects, painters and sculptors throughout the world. Its alumnae include Degas, Delacroix, Givenchy, Monet and Mary Cassatt.

Its current home in the 6th arrondissement was built on the site of an early seventeenth century convent. Something of a hotchpotch of styles and earlier historical remnants, the school’s buildings were designed by architects François Debret and Félix Duban between 1816 and 1872.

Today the site has a shabby, faded charm, with a mix of poorly maintained classical-style buildings, temporary modern classroom blocks, and a good deal of graffiti. We visited last weekend for the portes ouvertes – an open day showcasing the work of current students.

ecole des beaux-artsThe site includes the Cour du Mûrier, a charming little courtyard, created by Duban on the site of the original nuns’ cloister. It is named after the Chinese mulberry tree planted there by Alexandre Lenoir, who had for a time established a Musée des Monuments Français in the convent, aiming to rescue fragments of old buildings at risk from revolutionary fervour.

The courtyard is today a small leafy space, with a grand fountain at its centre and copies of classical statues displayed in painted arcades.

ecole des beaux-artsAdded later, the Jardin Lenoir contains some of the remnants acquired for the Musée des Monuments Français, including the façade of the hôtel de Torpanne, originally built in the Marais around 1567.

The open lawn of this pleasant garden is currently being used to house prefabricated classrooms, and the rest is sealed off behind fencing; sadly we could only see glimpses of the tree-filled space.

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British Embassy ParisWith Wimbledon in full swing, I am reminded that there is a solitary grass tennis court in Paris. It is located, perhaps not surprisingly, in the gardens of the British Embassy in the 8th arrondissement of the city. The French, of course, prefer clay courts.

British Embassy ParisThe Embassy court is used by staff and visitors – including (I am told) by new British PM David Cameron when he visited Paris recently, and was delighted to be able to try out the tennis racquet he had just received as a gift from French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The rest of the gardens, which are relatively small by Embassy standards, are a pleasant mix of grass, shrubs and perennials, with lots of English-style roses and lavender. They are not generally open to the public, but sometimes people are lucky enough to receive invitations to traditional British events held there, including a Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfire and a birthday party for the Queen.

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Spiral Jetty imageIs it an earthwork, a seascape, an icon of landscape design, a pilgrimage destination, perhaps even a joke at the art world’s expense? In a recent article for the Historic Gardens Review, I explored the meaning of Robert Smithson’s best-known work, Spiral Jetty, a strange, inaccessible mass of boulders, salt and mud, constructed in 1970 on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Issue 22Some saw it as a heroic gesture in the landscape, a modern version of Stonehenge or the pyramids. Remote, unseen except in photographs and film, its size and location meant that it was almost an appeal to the cosmos, a grand gesture best viewed from the heavens. Others interpreted it as essentially bleak, its location threatening and contaminated, its seemingly heroic nature Smithson’s cruel irony: despite its name, the Jetty served no maritime purpose and was artificial, functionless, a hollow legend generating vast amounts of empty metaphor. It was a monument to nothing but the futility of man’s intervention on the land.

The Collected WritingsIn my opinion, Smithson’s purpose was deliberately ambiguous and playful. Known for his sense of humour, he even wrote about laughter as the fourth dimension, and described ways of creating laughter in art, equating different kinds of laughs (guffaws, giggles, etc) to different shapes and structures, unfortunately none of them spirals. The shape of the Jetty could be seen as an elaborate question mark, gently teasing the viewer to try to work out what it meant. The location was neither glorious nor threatening, but a sly joke at the expense of Manhattan gallery owners, who considered themselves the centre of the art world. Now the wilds of Utah were the location of the real artwork and New York became a provincial outpost with access only via photographs and films. Certainly Smithson’s film “Spiral Jetty” was playful: part of its purpose was to allow people to see the sculpture without having to travel to a remote area of Utah, but nevertheless several minutes of the film were taken up with images of a car travelling along the dirt road to the shoreline. The film also made the point that once the viewer finally reached the artwork and walked to the centre of the Jetty, there was nothing there; there was no choice but simply to turn around and go back.

Image courtesy of Ray Boren

Whatever meanings Smithson intended for the Spiral Jetty, its subsequent history has given it an extraordinary iconic status. Within three years of its completion, its creator, still a young man, was dead. Even before then, the water level of the lake had risen to engulf the sculpture completely. It barely emerged for thirty years. Only visible in old films and photographs, but still present under the surface of the lake, the Spiral Jetty became a mythical, almost legendary, work of art.

Sunset 2003

Image courtesy of Ray Boren

By the turn of the twenty-first century, a prolonged drought meant that the water in the lake dropped to its 1970 levels. For the last few years, the Spiral Jetty has again become visible above the water, at least during the drier summer months. Its formerly black rocks emerged from the lake dazzlingly white and salt-encrusted. The media frenzy that has greeted its re-emergence is everywhere on the web, and the Jetty continues to provoke fascinating questions about the nature of aesthetic appeal, the role of landscape art, and the complexities of conservation in a world where change is inevitable and unavoidable.

For more of Ray Boren’s wonderful photographs of the Jetty since its reemergence, see the Utah Hands website.

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Roseraie du Val de MarneRoseraie de Val de Marne cupidonLa Roseraie de l’Haÿ is a glorious summer garden, just a few kilometres south of Paris. Dedicated to the queen of flowers, it is the oldest rosarium in France and claims to be “the world’s first rose garden.”

It was created in 1890 by Jules Gravereaux, who spent his career working for Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut, creators of Parisian department store Bon Marché. Gravereaux then dedicated his retirement to collecting over 3,000 different roses. Such was his passion that he travelled widely, through eastern Europe, Asia Minor and the Balkans, to collect new plants, and helped establish other rose gardens, notably the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. Gravereaux also bred many new roses, including the highly-scented rugosa seedling called rosa ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’, which was introduced into cultivation by rose breeder Charles Pierre Marie Cochet-Cochet in 1901.

Roseraie du Val de Marne allée de rosesGravereaux commissioned landscape architect Edouard André to lay out his garden. André was internationally famous as a designer of public spaces through Europe and South America. His career began when he won a competition to design Sefton Park in Liverpool. As Head Gardener of Paris, he worked on the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Tuileries. For Gravereaux, André created a classically French garden, with geometric beds, long allées, sculpture, and a central octagonal pool. The roses were displayed not just as bushes, but trained into different shapes, grown on trellis, along wires and over arches, and cultivated in pots and urns.

Roseraie de l'HaÿSince 1968 the garden has been owned by the municipality of Val de Marne, and is carefully maintained, both as an extraordinary rose museum, and as a lovely public park.

The roses are displayed in box-edged flower beds, and the labelled plants are carefully arranged by type and origin. You can learn about the evolution and breadth of the species; equally, you can just enjoy an hour or two immersing yourself in the scents and colours of this most beautiful of flowers, the essence of early summer.

The photos in this post were taken in late May; the garden was lovely, but the bulk of the flowers were still to come. June is the month to visit.

Roseraie du Val de Marne central pool

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Paris cemetery

Today, the cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris is best known as the final resting place for such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. But it is an iconic place for another reason, as I am discovering in my research for a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania next Spring.

Père Lachaise was the first metropolitan garden cemetery, laid out to the east of Paris in 1804. It marked a dramatic shift in burial practices, and rapidly became the model for a wave of similar style rural cemeteries throughout Europe and North America. Immensely popular with visitors and even tourists, its fame was such that citizens of Philadelphia and New York spoke of creating their own Père Lachaise without needing to explain its style or location.

Before Père Lachaise, burials had taken place in squalid and overcrowded churchyards in the middle of cities: the tenth century Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, for instance, received over two million corpses and became home to vast trenches of rotting bodies; it was a feared, hostile wilderness. By the mid-eighteenth century, increasing prosperity, individuality, and family affection led to a desire to be able to mourn and commemorate loved ones; while growing health concerns about putrefaction and vapours from urban burial plots led some to imagine a return to classical-style burial in picturesque landscapes.

Mount Louis at time of R. P. Lachaise

The Jesuit estate that was to become Père Lachaise, from François Marie Marchant de Beaumont’s guide to the cemetery, published in 1828.

Across Europe and North America, people began to argue for change, but it was Napoleon who finally made it happen. City burial grounds were closed and three sites were obtained to create new garden cemeteries just outside Paris. The first was Père Lachaise. Formerly a neglected Jesuit country seat with views over the city, the new cemetery combined elements of the existing classical French garden—axes, straight lines and allées of horse chestnut trees—with new sinuous paths, carriage roads and plantings inspired by fashionable English landscapes such as Stowe and Stourhead. In stark contrast with the horror of urban burial plots, Père Lachaise was imagined as an Edenic, idealised landscape, its curving pathways designed for sweetly melancholic promenades. For the first time, people could buy a burial plot in perpetuity, and engage in a more secular form of burial that celebrated the French ‘cult of ancestors’ over the old order of Catholicism and veneration of the monarchy.

Père Lachaise tomb by Pugin

the tomb of Héloïse and Abélard, as drawn by Augustus Pugin, c 1828.

To help market Père Lachaise to hesitant Parisians, famous figures such as Molière and La Fontaine were reinterred at the new cemetery. Even the purported remains of legendary lovers Pierre Abélard and Héloïse were transferred there. Its resulting popularity meant that Père Lachaise soon became crowded with commemorative monuments and family mausoleums filling the fenced private plots. In comparison with its many imitators, it was perceived as grand, dark and mysterious, with a mass of exquisite, expensive monuments, but perhaps as a less romantic and naturalistic landscape than many later examples of garden cemeteries.

It is easy today to overlook the significance of Père Lachaise as the early nineteenth embodiment of dramatic shifts in views on public health, familial sentiment, nature, and death itself. In its day it was a new style of burial ground that was ‘celebrated throughout the world.’

Cemetery today

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secret ParisPromenade PereireCreated in 1989, this linear park runs along the middle of boulevard Pereire in the 17th arrondissement. It may not be on a par with the great parks of Paris, or merit a special visit, but it is green and pretty, and beautifully maintained by the city. This shrubby bed (right) is typical of the planting, with white hydrangea, variegated pieris, silver-leafed pear, heathers and purple heuchera.

promenade PereireThere are also archways covered with honeysuckle and passion flowers, banks of roses, Judas trees and lilac-flowered paulownias, benches for sitting, areas of lawn where you can picnic, a children’s playground, and a number of bronze sculptures by Boris Lejeune.

La Promenade Pereire is typical of the mayor’s wish to squeeze in green space wherever possible in this densely-packed city and, for anyone who finds themselves in the area, it is a very pleasant place to spend a little time.

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gardening with no gardenAlmost all Parisians live in apartments. A lucky few have a terrace or balcony where they can grow plants. Most of us have to make do with house plants and window boxes if we want to garden. But it is amazing what people can create even with no outdoor space. Here is one of my favourite examples: it’s the front of a second floor apartment on the trendy rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement. I walk past there every week and the display always looks vibrant and eye-catching.  Even though there are few plants here that I would normally choose to grow, somehow it makes me smile every time.

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TerraceWe were recently fortunate to visit the glorious sixteenth century Villa Madama, just north of Rome. Designed by Raphael, it was one of the finest Renaissance villas with its classically simple façade, vast windows and monumental courtyard. Inside are beautiful stuccoes, friezes and painted lacunar ceilings by various Italian masters, including (it is said) Raphael himself.

raphael loggia

Villa Madama

painting of Margaret of Austria from bildindex.de

The history of the place features two extraordinary women. The first was Margaret of Austria (1522-86), the ‘madama’ after whom the Villa is named. The bastard daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Margaret was engaged at age 5 and married at 10 to Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, illegitimate son of a Pope and a black servant. It was through him that Margaret became mistress of the sumptuous villa created for his father, Pope Clement VII. After the Duke was assassinated in a foolish tryst with another woman, Margaret married Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, himself the grandson of another Pope. Only 13 when they married, the bridegroom was apparently overawed by his experienced, older wife (she was all of 15) and there are tales of dramatic bed-wetting and general reluctance to consummate the marriage. But Margaret managed to turn their union into a happy one, and later demonstrated her intellectual and diplomatic skills when she was appointed as Governor of the Netherlands for eight years.


Photo of a dilapidated Villa Madama from “Romance of Roman Villas” by Elizabeth Williams Champney, published 1908.

After Margaret’s death, the Villa passed to the Farnese family and then to the kings of Naples. It gradually fell into disrepair and was for a time used as a farm, with animals herded into Raphael’s exquisite loggia.

Henry James visited in 1873 and wrote “The place has become the shabbiest farmhouse, with muddy water in the old pièces d’eau and dunghills on the old parterres…. Margaret Farnese was the lady of the house, but where she trailed her cloth of gold the chickens now scamper between your legs over rotten straw.”

Villa Madama

Photo of Dorothy with Gary Cooper, from themave.com

The second woman prominent in Villa Madama’s history is the American socialite and heiress Dorothy Caldwell-Taylor (1888-1954). Impossibly rich, stylish and flamboyant (and by some accounts a spy), her many lovers included Hollywood film star Gary Cooper and gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Her first, brief marriage was to British aviator Claude Grahame-White. Subsequently she wed the Italian Count Carlo Dentice di Frasso, very much her senior, and in the 1920s used some of her inheritance to purchase and restore Villa Madama, using plans by Marcello Piacentini. In 1929, socialite and garden designer Norah Lindsay (best known perhaps for her work with Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote Manor) was commissioned by the Di Frassos to add herbaceous garden plantings to the garden. For many years Countess Dorothy threw lavish parties at the restored Villa for her friends from Hollywood and the Italian royalty, before it was appropriated by Mussolini in the early stages of World War II. Today it is used by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive foreign dignitaries, and is not usually open to the public.
Giulio Romano ceiling

The gardens today

The grounds are a shadow of the original plans for the Villa. Raphael had originally intended there to be a vast series of terraces running down from the Monte Mario to the banks of the Tiber, but geological instability, a lack of sufficient funds and the 1527 sack of Rome curtailed the scope of the project. More was lost when the estate fell into decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while Mussolini appropriated the estate’s hippodrome as the site for the Fascist Stadio Olimpico.

GardenOn our recent visit, we entered the estate via a switchback road that gave a glimpse of the east side of the building and the car park that has subsumed one of the original garden terraces, before bringing us to the curved south entrance. Having admired the staggeringly beautiful painted ceilings inside the Villa, we entered the garden terrace adjacent to the loggia. This was green and dramatic, with tall, clipped box parterres, ivy covered walls, a rectangular stone water feature, and The Giants, a pair of sculptures by Bandinelli that stand either side of the gate through to the rustic garden. From the east side of the terrace, there were fine views over the river Tiber below.

Elephant tombThis area contains perhaps the garden’s best known feature, the curious Raphael-designed elephant tomb, which commemorates Annone, an Indian elephant given to the Pope by the King of Portugal in 1514.

While the parterres are an early twentieth century design, the essential layout of the terrace remains as it was in the time of Margaret of Austria, and the fountain, stone portico and vast plaster figures are all original features.

Through the gate, we entered the rustic garden, which is long and narrow, with simple box-edged beds in grass.

Villa Madama paeoniesIt is clearly a restoration work-in-progress, with stonework being cleaned and rebuilt. There were some simply-planted pots and urns, and the overgrown cypress was being (re-)trained into attractive arched screens. Near the circular end were some paeonies in flower among the box.

It was lush and pleasant rather than being spectacular, but there was a sense of this part of the garden being gradually recovered and re-used.

Madama water featureAt the end of this walk, we were led down a small path to the left, where the source of the gardens’ water emerges from a handsome stone grotto. This little valley among the trees is marked by a charming rectangular pond, and a further, rather overgrown, water feature with six playful stone putti. Often associated with amorous liaisons, these little figures seemed a fitting symbol of the history of the Villa.

There was much we did not see, and some we did not understand (we speak English and some French; our guide spoke Italian and some Spanish) but we still felt the palpable history and splendour of this place.

Madama putti

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parc Monceau path

Monceau rotunda

Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement of Paris is our local park, a five minute walk from our apartment. Our daughter’s school is based in one of the access roads, and she plays there every day. At weekends, we often walk there as a family for picnics on the undulating lawns, or for a stroll around the perimeter path with its ancient trees and jazzy flowerbeds. It is almost always full of joggers and children and thousands of other apartment-dwellers making the most of its eight hectares of green space.

It is easy to overlook the history of Monceau. First created in the 1770s as a flamboyant, theatrical garden for the future Duc d’Orléans (cousin of Louis XVI), it contained a series of follies, including a Dutch windmill, Egyptian pyramid, minaret, ruined watermill and a naumachia – an oval pond for sea jousting. A new city wall was built along its northern edge in the late 1780s, with a rotunda designed by Ledoux that served as a toll-gate.

Egyptian pyramid

In the 1860s, the site was bought by the city of Paris, and half was sold for development. The remaining area was laid out as a public park as part of the transformation of Paris undertaken by Baron Haussmann.  New features, such as the monumental gilded entrance gates and the cascade and grotto, were added to those that remained from the original garden.

Naumachie and columns in Spring

I am currently doing some work with the Friends of Parc Monceau, a group of local people trying to maintain the park’s historical character, and will post again later in the summer about developments at this special place.

Spring picnickers

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