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Paris parks and gardens

The Oxford Companion to the Garden
Patrick TaylorPatrick Taylor

Paris parks and gardens. 

Paris is an ancient place but most of our knowledge of gardens is relatively recent. There was a neolithic settlement here in the 5th millennium bc—on the site of the modern quai de Bercy to the east of the city's epicentre—but Paris may be said to have started when the Celtic tribe of the Parisii established itself in the 2nd century bc on what is today the Île de la Cité which by the 3rd century ad was fortified to repel the barbarians. The Île de la Cité has remained the historic heart of Paris from which the city expanded outwards. For the Romans Paris, which they called Lutetia, was not as important as several other cities in Gaul. Autun, Lyon, Narbonne, Nîmes, and Rheims under Roman occupation had populations between 20,000 and 30,000 whereas Lutetia had only around 6,000. We know of no Roman gardens here but the Romans opened up the left-bank expansion of Paris when they built a forum and a great arena to the north-west of what is today the Jardin des Plantes—celebrated in the present square des Arènes in the 5th arrondissement. Three public baths were also built on the left bank of which the largest, built in the 2nd century, partly survives at the Hôtel de Cluny on the boulevard Saint-Michel. After the collapse of the Roman Empire the Merovingian Frankish King Clovis made Paris his base in 508 and thus established the royal presence which was to be vital to its history. Clovis's son Childebert I was a Christian and founded the church of Saint-Vincent-Sainte-Croix which formed the basis of the later Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. With the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in the 8th century, with its emphasis on the eastern parts of France, and beyond, Paris lost its importance. In the 9th century, after many destructive raids by Vikings, the city defences were reinforced and in 885–6 a Viking siege was resisted under the leadership of Eudes, the Comte de Paris. The great-nephew of Eudes was Hugues Capet, the first of the Capetian kings, who became King of France in 987 and established himself in a palace on the Île de la Cité. This, the Palais at the west end of the island, had been a Gallo-Roman fortress which the Merovingian kings had taken over. It remained the royal palace until the reign of the Valois King Charles V who came to the throne in 1364, after which it remained the seat of the exchequer and of justice. The building became, and remains, the Palais de Justice of which, today, the oldest part dates from the 13th century.

By the early 14th century Paris was one of the greatest of European cities, with a population of around 200,000, at the heart of a kingdom with a population of 20,000,000. King Charles V moved from the Palais to the Hôtel Saint-Pol which no longer exists but was in the Marais to the north-east of the Île de la Cité. The King laid out large pleasure grounds, an area of 8 hectares/20 acres in the care of his gardener Philippart Persant. It had, according to John Harvey (Mediaeval Gardens, 1981), ‘trellised pavilions, a labyrinth, tunnel arbours, plantations of cherry trees and many kinds of ornamental plants of which rose, rosemary, lavender, wallflower, marjoram and sage are recorded’. The earliest known depiction of any Paris garden is seen in a miniature from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413–16). It shows the Palais on the Île de la Cité from the south and precious glimpses of a tunnel arbour entwined with flowering plants are visible rising above the crenellated walls. On the banks of the river haymaking is in progress (it is the month of June) and a row of pollarded willows runs along the river bank.

Very early churches and monastic communities were established in and around Paris and several of these had gardens, but detailed knowledge of them comes only from the later periods of their history. To the north of the city, and just beyond its modern boundary, the church of Saint-Denis (since 1963 the cathedral of Saint-Denis), named after the 3rd-century Roman martyr and first Bishop of Paris, had its origins as a basilica erected over the tomb of St Denis. Later still it became an abbey church, with superb 12th-century architecture and stained glass. It is the burial place of the kings of France from the 7th century to the end of the 18th century. An engraving in Monasticon Gallicanum (1690) shows an elaborate garden in the cloisters—four rhomboidal parterres de broderie about a central circular pool. The abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (originally called Saint-Vincent-Sainte-Croix) was founded in the 6th century by Bishop Germain. It expanded greatly and at the beginning of the 17th century was adopted as the mother church of the Benedictines of Saint-Maur. Magnificent gardens were laid out and are seen in an engraving by P. Saury c.1723. A physic garden spread out to the east of the infirmary and the abbot's garden had triangular parterres and a bosquet with irregular spaces among the trees. A quadripartite arrangement of parterres filled the central space of the cloisters and, to the west of the infirmary, the Great Garden (Grand Jardin) had a central fountain pool, parterres de broderie, and other parterres with rectilinear arrangements of beds. The Abbaye du Val-de-Grâce (later a military hospital), founded in 1621 with a church designed by François Mansart, had an extensive garden by the time Jean Marot published his engraving of it in the late 17th century. Behind the domed chapel is seen an extensive pattern of allées lined with trees and to one side a four-part walled garden each of whose quarters is divided into four parterres. In 1606 Henri IV started to build a hospital to cope with the plague, the Hôpital Saint-Louis, outside the city walls to the north-east—it still survives, close to the 19th-century Buttes-Chaumont. Claude Chastillon's engraving of it published in Topographie française (early 17th century) shows that it was garnished with fine gardens—four courtyards are seen with parterres and topiary and there are several alignments of trees. Princes of the Church also had great houses with gardens. The town house of the bishops of Sens, the Hôtel de Sens, was established in the 14th century. By the late 17th century when it was engraved by Roger de Gaignières it was ornamented by a great parterre de broderie—with the house entre cour et jardin (between courtyard and garden) as is the classical arrangement of great Parisian houses.

As far as modern Paris is concerned the two most important influences on the parks and gardens of Paris were the various royal houses and the 19th-century replanning of the city by Haussmann. These, with their fascinating history, determine not only the garden character of the city today, but much of its essential atmosphere. There are no really large parks in the centre of Paris—easily the largest, the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, each over 900 hectares/2,220 acres, are just outside the city boundary. But the city is immensely rich in small parks, far too numerous to describe here. It is also exceptionally enterprising in the creation of large-scale new parks—the Parc André Citroën and the Parc de la Villette are described below but the 14-hectare/35-acre Parc de Bercy, laid out from 1994 along the Seine in the 12th arrondissment, is also a fine addition to the city landscape.


The site just west of the city walls, which had been a tile (tuile means ‘tile’) factory since the 13th century, was bought in the early 16th century by François I. His daughter-in-law Catherine de Médicis, the widow of Henri II, started to build a palace here in 1564 to the designs of Philibert de L'Orme. A drawing of 1570 by Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau shows the walled gardens which were built below the palace's western façade along the Seine. Here was a rectilinear pattern of over 40 beds, some laid out as parterres, one as a maze (planted with willows), and there were many fruit trees—cherries, pears, and plums. From 1572 Pierre Le Nôtre, grandfather of André Le Nôtre, was in charge of some of the parterres. The palace was added to in the 17th century and in 1664 André Le Nôtre redesigned the garden. Israel Silvestre's drawing made shortly after the garden's completion shows a bold central axis and the gardens immediately to the west of the palace opening with triumphant parterres de broderie and three circular pools with fountains. The tree-lined central axis continues to an octagonal pool further east. In this design Le Nôtre laid the foundations to one of the most spectacular of all urban set pieces. Today the axial vista which starts at the Tuileries is continued by the avenue des Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe and beyond it by the avenue de la Grande Armée and the avenue Charles de Gaulle culminating in the Grande Arche de la Défense (1989) beyond the western boundary of the city. In the 1990s, as part of President Mitterrand's Grands Projets, the Tuileries gardens were reinvigorated. A new garden was designed by Jacques Wirtz for the Arc du Carrousel which marks the eastern end of the great vista, with radiating yew hedges and bosquets of pleached lime—a powerful and elegant design. The planting in the beds to the west was enlivened, to the designs of Pascal Cribier and Louis Benech, with much freer use of herbaceous perennials and shrubs. The pattern of Le Nôtre's garden, with two of his pools, remains in place.

Luxembourg Gardens

The palace and gardens were created at the instigation of Marie de Médicis, the second wife of Henri IV, who in 1610 on the death of her husband became Queen Regent during the minority of Louis XIII. Wanting a residence of her own, she commissioned a palace then well outside the city walls to the south of Paris. In 1615 the palace was started to the designs of Salomon de Brosse (1571–1626). The gardens were already under way in 1612 and in 1613 the great aqueduct of Arcueil was built to bring water from Rungis 11.5 km/7 miles away. The Italian specialist in water features, Alessandro Francini, designed a grotto in 1612 which survives in a different position (and heavily reworked in the 19th century) on the eastern boundary of the garden to the north of its original site. Jacques Boyceau de La Barauderie probably laid out the garden whose plan is seen in an anonymous drawing of 1627. South of the palace an octagonal pool stands at the centre of four square beds beyond which the ground rises and is sculpted into semicircular terraces. Israel Silvestre's engraving of about the same date shows elaborate parterres de broderie. The estate remained in the royal family until, after the Revolution, in 1791, it became national property and became the Senate, which it still remains. The gardens became a public park which still retains much of its original layout but, apart from the grotto, almost none of its detail. The most interesting planting today, which is otherwise strongly municipal in flavour, is the remarkable collection of tender plants—lemons, oleanders, oranges, and pomegranates—some of great age—which are displayed in huge caisses de Versailles (see container).

Jardin des Plantes

It was founded in 1626 as the Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales under the patronage of Louis XIII. The King's physician Guy de La Brosse urged him to found the garden, arguing that ‘plants are to medicine as stone, mortar and timber are to architecture’, and explained to him how the garden might be established and laid out. Scalberge's painting of 1636 shows an axial plan with a rectilinear pattern of beds and to one side, beyond an allée, a less formal garden with a mount and helical walk. John Evelyn saw the garden in 1644 and described ‘all varieties of ground for planting and culture of medical simples. It is well chosen, having in it hills, meadows, wood and upland, natural and artificial, and is richly stor'd with exotic plants.’ As early as 1640 the garden was opened to the public, the first in Paris to do so, and a seller of lemonade was licensed to ply his trade in the shade of the trees. Throughout the 17th century the garden was dedicated to the cultivation of medicinal plants and to teaching students of medicine and pharmacology. In 1718 it changed its name to the Jardin Royal des Plantes and assumed a much wider role in the study of botany. The great natural scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon became director of the garden in 1739, remaining until 1788. He was joined, as curator of the garden, in 1774 by Jean de Lamarck whose work on the mutability of species anticipated Darwin. After the Revolution, in 1793, the garden lost its royal appellation and greatly widened its scope, becoming the Jardins des Plantes of the new Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle dedicated to the study of natural history generally. Thus a zoo was introduced, with animals brought from the royal menagerie at Versailles. Today the layout of the garden corresponds generally to its 17th-century appearance. The formal garden, about the axis of the Allée Centrale, has gaudy bedding schemes sternly overlooked by statues of Buffon and Lamarck, but the Robinia pseudoacacia planted in 1636 and a Sophora japonica planted in 1740 remain. To the north the less formal garden has winding walks, an aviary, a menagerie, and a fine alpine garden. The mount survives, recreated as the Labyrinthe under Buffon, and there are several noble trees planted in the 18th century.


Originally the Palais-Cardinal, it was built in the 1630s for Cardinal Richelieu but became the Palais-Royal when Anne of Austria, Queen Regent of France during Louis XIV's minority 1643–51, came to live here in 1643. The garden, in Richelieu's time the largest in Paris except for the royal gardens at the Tuileries and the Palais du Luxembourg, was laid out by Pierre Le Nôtre (the grandfather of André Le Nôtre) with a flower parterre and a parterre de broderie to the designs of Jacques Boyceau de La Barauderie, with elm bosquets and hedges added in 1634. However, it was radically redesigned by André Le Nôtre for the Duc d'Orléans in 1673. La Boissière's engraving of 1679 shows an axial layout centred on the palace with a circular and octagonal pool and lavish parterres de broderie. The Palais-Royal today owes its appearance to the early 19th century when it was largely rebuilt. A sketch of a jardin à la française is in place, with lime allées running down each side and the great circular pool, but lawns in the centre are framed with late 20th-century mixed borders. In 1986 the entrance courtyard was filled with regular rows of striped stubby truncated columns by Daniel Buren—they delight children but garden lovers are more uncertain.

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Daniel Buren's courtyard of columns at the Palais Royal. (© Patrick Taylor)

Château de Bagatelle

In 1775 the estate, now in the north-western part of the Bois de Boulogne, was bought by the Comte d'Artois, the brother of Louis XVI. He replaced a simple earlier building with a beautiful new small chateau designed by François-Joseph Bélanger and built in 1777. It was set in a formal garden à la française (whose layout survives) but, to the south, Thomas Blaikie laid out an English-style picturesque park with lakes, a winding stream, and a pattern of serpentine paths completed in 1786. Today only traces of this remain and nothing is to be seen of numerous fabriques—Chinese, Dutch, Egyptian, Indian, and Swiss—which were scattered in the landscape. In 1835 the estate was bought by Lord Seymour (later Marquess of Hertford) who left the estate to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace, who in turn left it to his secretary Sir Henry Murray Scott, who sold the estate to the city of Paris in 1905. J. C. N. Forestier laid out a magnificent romantic rose garden which survives today and is very well looked after. With 24 hectares/60 acres, its delightful chateau (though rather clumsily altered in the 19th century), and richly varied grounds, it is an outstanding garden. C. C. L. Hirschfeld in his Theorie der Gartenkunst (1779–85) admired the ‘Peaceful voluptuousness of this hidden retreat’.

Parc Monceau

In the 18th century the site, now in the heart of the 8th arrondissement, was in the country. It was bought by the Duc de Chartres who commissioned a picturesque garden from Louis Carrogis, known as Carmontelle, an artist who became ordonnateur des plaisirs to the Duke. This, known as La Folie de Chartres, was his most famous work. He started work in 1773, disposing numbers of exotic fabriques—a windmill, sham ruins, columns, a Turkish tent, a pyramid, and much else. Carmontelle wrote a booklet, Le Jardin de Monceau (1779), explaining his ideas. He believed that one should ‘change the scenes in a garden like the stage sets at the Opéra’. In 1783 Thomas Blaikie was asked to take charge of Monceau which he found ‘a confused Landskipe … the walks Serpenting and turning without reason’. In the 1860s, during Haussmann's replanning of Paris, part of it became the Parc Monceau, and today it is a popular public park in a fashionable residential district, with only the faintest traces of Carmontelle's work surviving.


Properly known as the Cimetière de l'Est, the cemetery of Père-Lachaise was designed c.1810 by Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart (1739–1813). By 1804 the city of Paris had forbidden any further burials within the city. A country estate belonging to the Jesuits, named after a priest, François de La Chaise, was acquired for a new cemetery then outside the city walls. Brongniart's original plan, a picturesque landscape garden decorated with fabriques, was only partly executed. The sloping southern part, closest to the boulevard Ménilmontant, has a central axis off which winding paths wander among the monuments with many trees and shrubs. The northern part is disposed in a much less sympathetic grid pattern. Many notable people are buried here, often with outstanding and appropriate memorial stones. Among them are Frédéric Chopin (1849, romantically shaded by a weeping willow), Alfred de Musset (1857), Oscar Wilde (1909, a sphinx with pouting lips by Sir Jacob Epstein), and Marcel Proust (1922, a sleek horizontal slab of gleaming black marble).

Bois de Boulogne

Although just beyond the western city boundary the Bois de Boulogne, which belongs to the city of Paris, must certainly be considered a Paris park. The site, today with an area of 845 hectares/2,087 acres, has its origins as part of a royal hunting ground called Rouvray (chêne rouvre is the French for Quercus robur, the common oak). An abbey was founded here in the 13th century by Ste Isabelle, the sister of St Louis, who gave it the name Longchamp—the name given today to a famous racecourse. François I built a palace here, the Château de Madrid (so named because it was inspired by a Spanish country house), which is illustrated in Androuet Du Cerceau's Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France (1576–79). A spectacular building, its façade was clad in intricate majolica architectural ornaments by Girolamo Della Robbia—it was destroyed during the Revolution. In the 1550s Henri II enclosed the park in a wall and in the 17th century, when the park was still used for hunting, Louis XIV laid out a star-shaped pattern of rides. The perimeter of the park became a fashionable place for new houses in the 18th century—Bagatelle and the Folie Saint James date from this period. In 1852 Napoleon III gave the Bois de Boulogne to the city of Paris to be used as a public park. It was laid out by Louis-Sulpice Varé (1802–83) and J. C. A. Alphand. The park was girdled with boulevards, and a pattern of paths, sometimes straight and sometimes serpentining, divided the interior space. Several lakes were floated of which the largest, the lower lake, had two islands, one of which had a famous restaurant, the Chalet des Îles, which survives. Unlike other Hausmannian parks the Bois de Boulogne was at some distance from the more populous parts of Paris so attractions were needed to draw the public. Restaurants and cafeterias were established, the Longchamp racecourse built, and, to the north of the park, a great zoo, the Jardin d'Acclimatation, was laid out. The municipal architect Gabriel Davioud (1824–81), who worked on many Parisian parks, designed several garden buildings, of which the Emperor's Kiosk at the southern end of the lower lake is a pretty survival rising among the trees. Pleasure gardens, the Pré-Catelan, were laid out with a smart restaurant, a puppet theatre, and an open-air theatre. In 1953 it was decided to transform the theatre, by then neglected, into a Shakespeare garden in which every plant mentioned in the plays is cultivated. Throughout the park many different trees have been cultivated—native oaks and beeches but also countless exotics. Proust was moved by the character of the Bois de Boulogne and in Le Côté de Guermantes gave a memorable description of the narrator's autumnal walk with Albertine ‘while the wind, like a conscientious gardener, shook the trees, causing fruit to fall and sweeping up the dead leaves’.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

The park was laid out between 1865 and 1867 by Jean C. A. Alphand. The 25-hectare/62-acre site is dramatically hilly—a rocky promontory soars to 50 m/164 ft and is crowned with a copy of the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli and a great cascade plummets into the lake below. Engravings of the newly made park give it the atmosphere of an 18th-century picturesque landscape park. Now that the planting is fully mature, dense with groves of trees enlivened by sudden hidden glades, it has a secretive and mysterious air—one of the most attractive of Paris parks. It was much loved by the surrealists—Louis Aragon wondered if it was the preserve of ‘seuls rêveurs en quête de mystère’ (solitary dreamers in search of mystery) (Le Paysan de Paris, 1926). In the 19th arrondissement close to the north-eastern boundary of the city, this is not a park much frequented by tourists—it retains a quintessentially Parisian character.


The martial connotations of the Champ-de-Mars come from the École Militaire (designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698–1782) in 1751 (but subsequently much altered) which stands nobly at its southern end. The champ (field), which ran all the way north to the river Seine, was let out by the École Militaire to market gardeners until, in 1881, it was sold to the city of Paris. It was laid out as a public park, from 1881, by J. Bouvard, J.-C. Formigé, and J. C. N. Forestier who designed an open central space flanked by informal groves of trees, shrubberies, pools, and flower beds. Its northern end is marked by the world's supreme eyecatcher, the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889. To celebrate the millennium Le Mur de la Paix (The Wall of Peace) designed by Clara Halter was put in place in 2000 at the southern end of the park where it abuts with the esplanade of the École Militaire. An open pavilion walled in glass is engraved with the word peace in 32 languages as are the pale grey free-standing stone columns that flank it, sixteen on each side.

Parc de la Villette

The former cattle market and abattoir in the north-east of Paris was, from 1983, transformed into a park with several public buildings for different purposes. The site is a large one, with an area of 55 hectares/136 acres, and among the buildings are a museum of science and industry, a museum of music, a cinema with a hemispherical screen (the Géode), a multipurpose auditorium, and much else. The landscaping was designed by the architect Bernard Tschumi (b. 1944) and consists of a series of episodes involving several different designers linked by a serpentine walk. Scattered hither and yon are curious skeletal buildings painted bright red. Designed by Tschumi these are said to evoke the ‘follies’ of an 18th-century landscape park. The setting is very strongly architectural and the planted episodes, which provide occasional hidden retreats, have only a modest, sometimes perfunctory, presence in the landscape. The surface is busy with different materials—concrete, cobbles, stainless steel, or pebbles. Some of the plantings are attractive—thickets of Salix elaeagnos subsp. angustifolia below a parade of maples, a grove of Catalpa bignonioides, a bosquet with vertical mirrors, and a deep canyon of bamboos. But the most memorable features of the landscape are certainly the buildings. The Géode, designed by Adrien Fainsilber (b. 1932), is a sphere clad in stainless steel, 36 m/118 ft in diameter, which rises above a huge placid pool.

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Trees reflected in the stainless steel Géode in the Parc de la Villette. (© Patrick Taylor)

Parc André Citroën

This park occupies the site of the former Citroën armaments and car factory, with an area of 13.8 hectares/34 acres, which now has residential and office buildings about a central open space. The site was landscaped by Gilles Clément and Alain Provost (b. 1938) who won the competition for its design in 1985. Clément's colour-themed planting and wild garden, the garden's calmly expansive great central lawn crisply framed in a surrounding canal, subtle plantings of groups of trees, and explosive computer-controlled fountains resulted in a very popular public garden which gives a new urban development on a former industrial site a true sense of place and character.

Paris has an exceptional range of public parks and the sometimes ponderous lines of Haussmann's new avenues and boulevards are everywhere enlivened by trees. Of all cities Paris has shown that it has the political will and determination to devote precious land to green amenities. It will even make them on the roof of an office block. The Jardin Atlantique is a 3.5-hectare/8.6-acre public amenity on the roof of an office block immediately adjacent to the Gare Montparnasse (which serves the Atlantic coast of France, hence the garden's name). Here in 1994 the landscape architects Brun, Pena et Schnitzler designed lawns, bosquets, a children's playground, a meteorological centre disguised as a sculpture (surrounded by giochi d'acqua), tennis courts, a pergola, and much else. The whole is garnished with bold plantings of grasses and willows with magnificent individual trees—black walnut (Juglans nigra), nettle tree (Celtis australis), and Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto). There is no phrase in English for tour de force.

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The computer controlled fountains in the Parc André Citroën (© Patrick Taylor)

Patrick Taylor


Martine Constans (ed.), Jardiner à Paris au temps des rois (2004).Find this resource:

    Dominique Jarrassé, L'Art des jardins parisiens (2002).Find this resource: