Plant sculpture, an ancestral art

They hide their game well, the gardens of La Ballue! They seem to have come straight out of the time when André Le Nôtre, Louis XIV’s “gardener”, landscaped the parks of Versailles or Chantilly after learning his hand at Vaux-le-Vicomte. In reality, they are barely half a century old!

However, on the vast terrace overlooking the windows of the Château de la Ballue, built between 1620 and 1705 in Bazouges-la-Pérouse (Ille-et-Vilaine), boxwood, yews, cut laurels play with the geometry of lawned flowerbeds. And, on the right, high cloud-cut pines give a glimpse of the Couesnon valley, while on the left a large arcade of wisteria leaning on columns of equally sculpted yew trees separates this classical-looking garden from another, more contemporary, which plays with perspectives, shadows and lights.

It was the publisher Claude Arthaud who wanted them this way, in close collaboration with the architects Paul Maymont and François-Hébert Stevens. After his departure in the 1980s, these gardens were abandoned for a time, before being restored by new owners and registered, in 1998, as historical monuments. Since she acquired it in 2005, Marie-Françoise Mathon has not ceased to give new impetus to this complex largely inspired by the Mannerist gardens of the 17th century.and century.

The whole is, it is true, quite exceptional, because 13 rooms of greenery offer as many surprises as different atmospheres: the main courtyard hosts a second regular garden bordered by lime trees more than a hundred years old; beside, a “turbulent garden” creates a dialogue between boxwood, yew and holly cut into topiaries; next to it still hides a grove of ferns; nearby, a grove full of fragrant plants stretches around an octagonal pool.

Further on, a hemicycle made of walls of scalloped yews delimits a theater of greenery and a labyrinth invites you to get lost in a grove of 1,500 pruned yews. Added to this is a hornbeam grove, a birch wood, a temple of Diana and an alley of linden trees shaped like a marquise. In the moat stretch a collection of boxwood, a small Japanese garden and an area devoted to grasses. The cachet of these gardens is due to the refinement of the plant architectures, carved into balls, cones, cubes, spindles, trays, spirals…

Logically, the Château de la Ballue will participate in the first World Days of Topiary Art. “This art, already very perfected in antiquity, particularly among the Romans, gradually irrigated the whole of Europe”, recalls Monique Mosser, garden historian. However, “we also find topiary forms in the Persian or Arab tradition or in China and Japan, with the size in clouds or niwaki “.

Abandoned in the Middle Ages, topiary art experienced a dazzling revival in Italy during the Renaissance. After flourishing on the banks of the Arno, in Florence, in the residences of the Medici, it moved to the Vatican gardens: at the request of Julius II, the architect Bramante created three terraces there. Later, Paul V, crazy about water games, installed fountains fed by the aqueduct which, from Emperor Trajan, carried the waters of Lake Bracciano to Rome.

Since then, as Rafael Tornini, responsible for the Vatican gardens and the environment, points out, many other elements and plants from America and Asia and other developments have enriched these vast 23-hectare gardens. But the initial structure remains, as do the trees, the low hedges trimmed into topiaries and the plant embroidery.

After the Vatican, topiary art found in 1551 an extraordinary field of choice in Tivoli, in the distant suburbs of Rome. To show off his magnificence, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, an unsuccessful candidate for the papacy, displayed, thanks to Pirro Ligorio, exceptional refinement and know-how in his villa.

On the six terraces cut into the hill and in the “low” garden, cypresses, boxwood, laurels and carved forms alternated around a central axis and numerous secondary axes. The vegetal architectures were used to extend the palace, to underline the terraces, to dress the pergolas. They were sublimated by basins, jets and fountains, enriched in the 17thand century of an extraordinary hydraulic organ moved by the force of water thanks to the Frenchman Claude Venard. “This incomparable 16th century Italian gardenand century had a great influence on the landscape creations of all Europe”, insists Davide Bertolini, art historian.

In the XVIIand century, at the time of the absolute monarchy, the “regular French garden” imposed itself, topiary art became the main vector of its inscription in space, whether it was a question of large structures organizing groves or embroidery beds. If the following century preferred so-called “English” gardens, the fashion for plant sculpture made a comeback from the end of the 19th century.and with the famous landscape architect Duchêne, then in the XXand as seen at La Ballue.

Throughout Europe, countless gardens still bear witness to this art, but their future sustainability raises questions. The reason is climatic changes. Take the gardens of Marqueyssac, which, in the Périgord, are perched on a rocky outcrop 1.5 km long. At the front, their “bastion” overlooks the castles of Beynac and Castelnaud perched on the other side of the Dordogne valley.

It’s hard to say which is more admirable, the site or these gardens born in 1861 from the passion of Julien de Cerval who, inspired by Italy, planted 150,000 box trees there. After a period of neglect, these gardens were acquired in 1996 by Kléber Rossillon. This child of the country and wise manager of cultural sites orchestrated their spectacular rebirth. Today, the boxwoods once again flock on the famous “bastion” where they are pruned into a ball, while their rectangles collide in the “chaos” laid out under the windows of the castle covered with lauzes. Further on, left more free, they form arches and rooms of greenery or neighbor with holm oaks, cypresses, umbrella pines…

When the moth caterpillar landed in 2017, head gardener Jean Lemoussu and his team were prepared to contain this predator. Since then, they have learned to make their organic treatments based on Thuringian bacillus more effective, but other parasites are already threatening these boxwoods, which require 3,500 hours of pruning per year. However, Jean Lemoussu “is not worried”, because “boxwood is very resistant”.Frequent droughts and especially early heat strokes and late frosts worry him much more. “This garden, he assures all the same, will be able to pass very difficult events. The Mediterranean species planted here are adapted to dry climates. »

In the Vatican gardens, Rafael Tornini also appears serene. After drought in 2017 prevented water from Lake Bracciano from reaching Rome, a sophisticated drip and water recycling system was installed. Organic treatment and composting of green waste have been added to this to preserve the soil, amend it, mulch it and reduce watering.

These changes show, insists Rafael Tornini, that the new behaviors desired by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato si’ to safeguard the Creation are “not only necessary, but also possible”. Other adaptations will no doubt be necessary if temperatures continue to rise by 2050.


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