Thursday, August 25, 2011

Other People's Gardens: Jardin de Luxembourg

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, nestled between its territorially well-endowed neighbors France and Germany, and its more modest sized neighbors Belgium and the Netherlands, is both an amalgamation of identities and possessive of a distinctive one itself. Though the Luxembourgeois may speak out of necessity French, German, Dutch and, in our globalizing world, English, they also proudly retain their own language, Luxembourgish. Technically a Mosel-Frankish dialect, it first appeared in print in 1821 and was introduced in primary schools in 1912.

Luxembourg was on last year's European vacation, not this year's. So why am I writing about it?

This year's trip took us to France (Paris, Etretat, Deauville) and Portugal (Lisbon and, for a conference, Porto). One day--probably the sunniest and the warmest during our stay in France--we visited the Jardin de Luxembourg. The garden is on the grounds of the Luxembourg palace which is home of the French Senat, and is, in my estimation, appropriately named: for, like the Grand Duchy itself, it is both an amalgamation--the official marque declares the gardens to be a "rich diversity of styles, which combines French geometric discipline, softened by the curved terraces, with the less ordered, more dreamy English design"--and a distinctive site.

Funny: though English cottage gardens are dreamy and disordered (those qualities are the cottage garden's charms), the remark almost seems like an insult.
Nevertheless, in 1610, one day after the assassination of her husband Henry IV, Maria de Medici (yes, of that famed Florentine family) now possessor of the throne until her young son, the future Louis XIII could enough to ascend, asked an architect to remodel the existing Hotel de Francois de Luxembourg to mimic her childhood Florentine home, the Pitti Palazzo. Then she began to create her gardens (perhaps out of grief, perhaps because, like the uber-wealthy, she had nothing better to do with her time).

The structure of the garden is remarkably user friendly. Two gigantic ellipses bisect, the longer one being perpendicular to the Senatorial palace, the shorter one parallel to it. Three allees of clipped chestnut trees extend from the ellipses and parterres, which are ringed with stone balustrades topped with urns overflowing with fuschia petunias. In the center of this arranged is situated a floating pond in which young boys race their sailing vessels.

The beds--geometric patterns that echo the basic architectural form of the garden--are filled with English "dreaminess," which this year is expressed in terms of a sumptuous array of yellows (triple dahlias, Rudbeckias, snapdragons, marigolds, and a few other unidentified flowers) and accented by orange single-petaled dahlias, burgundy leafed grasses, and blue/purple petunias. The effect is at once grand and sublime, for the variations on the theme of yellow, which otherwise would be lost, are ultimately trumpeted by the presence of orange and burgundy. The effect is, in so many words, very Luxembourgian.

In the end, the Jardin de Luxembourg is French, very French, for it is in its present form a survivor of that fabled French custom of kissing your hand one moment and lobbing off your head the next. Behind the opulence, behind the beauty, behind the sun worshippers and savvy urban sophisticates there lies the truths of Revolution and Hausmann's urban planning: the garden has been repeatedly beheaded.

Several times.

All that remains today of the once vast garden are 22.5 hectares. True, this is more than modest sum, but 22.5 hectares is but a shadow of the garden's former self.

But what a spectacular shadow it is! 

I hope you enjoy these photos...

Two views of the Medici Fountain...


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