For academics, Monceau has long been a significant part of Old World garden history as an example, albeit an extreme and even unreliable one, of efforts in France to experiment with English pastoral or picturesque landscapes. The contemporary French model, by contrast, had status manifested in the grandeur of the artistic garden, with its formal terraces, parterres and clipped greenery.
Monceau was so fleeting that it may have been forgotten but for the fact its designer — Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle — created a lavish record at its completion, in the form of a book and the prospectus he wrote to raise funds for the book. The volume contains 18 engravings of the garden’s principle elements. Original copies of “Jardin de Monceau” sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but a new version, along with scholarly essays, has just been published in a collaboration between the Foundation for Landscape Studies, Oak Spring Garden Foundation and Yale University Press. If there’s a Francophile in your midst, “Carmontelle: Garden at Monceau” might make a sound holiday gift, at a price of $75.
What strikes me about Monceau is that although it may have been an extraordinary pleasure playground, it was not a very good garden, and its shortcomings continue to offer a valuable lesson in how to (or how not to) design a garden today, of whatever size or ambition.
If you create a garden just to project status, it will have no soul. If you ape garden styles from history or other lands, your landscape will have an ersatz quality to it. The biggest problem at Monceau was the conglomeration of disjointed features. A large garden should have many discrete spaces, but they must relate to one another to form a cohesive whole.
At Monceau, Carmontelle reached into a bottomless bag of tricks. The elements included a colonnade and pool from ancient Rome, a faux woodland mausoleum, a minaret on a mound, an ornamental Italian vineyard and various newly built ruins. It took the period’s fascination with China and Islamic cultures to absurd lengths. Outside the Tartar Tent, appropriately costumed servants led a camel around.
Carmontelle was a creative polymath in the employ of the young, fun-lovin’ Duke of Chartres. He wrote plays, he designed stage sets, he penned verse, he painted portraits of the duke and his society circle. He designed a garden unmatched by any other, and he was skilled in what today we would call event planning.
The duke was of the House of Orléans, family rivals of King Louis XVI and the Bourbon throne. He was the embodiment of a dissipated aristocracy too self-engrossed to see the approaching revolution. He married a young wife for her riches, had dozens of mistresses, gambled madly and required constant stimulation. Within his set, these were the norms. Together, they lived in a world of gossip, intrigue and one-upmanship, but really only feared one thing: boredom. Carmontelle’s “primary responsibility” was to defeat it, writes Joseph Disponzio in one of the book’s chapters.
The whole garden was meant to be enjoyed in just two hours, allowing only a few minutes at each of the amusements.
After the revolution, the garden changed hands and ultimately was preserved as a public park, which it remains. One area became a mass grave for the victims of the Reign of Terror, including the duke. But Carmontelle’s creation was partially dismantled earlier — in fact, incredibly soon after its completion.
By the early 1780s, a brusque Scottish gardener named Thomas Blaikie had arrived, immediately identified Monceau’s shortcomings and persuaded the duke to make wholesale changes.
He wrote of finding “a confused Landskipe,” and complained that “the whole was a Small confusion of many things joined together without any great natural Plan.” This hodgepodge, he noted, had been assembled “at very great Expense.”
Blaikie and I might have missed a key point: Disponzio suggests that Monceau’s absurdities may have been a way for Carmontelle to satirize the aristocratic classes he had to please.
Carmontelle went on to invent an early form of cinema: painting scenes on a transparent scroll that would be presented frame by frame in an unfurling narrative.
Whatever his skills as a landscape designer, he was an entertainer of great energy and invention. He seemed to have anticipated our digital age, and no doubt would have exploited its capacity to provide constant sensory stimulation to a world where boredom has become far more egalitarian.
Tip of the Week
Poinsettias last longest in cool, bright areas, away from sources of drafts or heat. Water thoroughly, then wait until the soil feels dry before watering again. Remove the foil when watering.
— Adrian Higgins
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