Voyages to the House of Diversion 
Seventeenth-Century Water Gardens and the Birth of Modern Science

MAY 22nd. 2015 - CHANTILLY

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The Chateau from the west, largely a nineteenth-century rebuild.

It always takes me by surprise the sheer scale of French gardens of the seventeenth century. There are many reasons why by Italian or English standards everything seems extraordinarily huge. It’s partly a function of what happens under a system of absolutist government and partly what happens when the topography is rather… how shall we say… flat. All of this was typified by the gardens at Chantilly. The size of the thing is breathtaking, from end to end (east to west) it is nearly three kilometres and the amount of water shifted around, quite extraordinary.


Our visit began at the Moulin de Prince, otherwise known as the Pavillon de Manse which was a remarkable construction, part of the infra-structure of the seventeenth-century gardens combining a water wheel and pump, a set of pipe work and a rather interesting museum of all things connected with hydraulic engineering. There were also some very useful publications on sale which are difficult get hold of except by visiting the site. Another plus was the opportunity to purchase a pencil sharpener in the shape of the water tower… now where else can you buy such a wonderful souvenir of seventeenth-century plumbing?

Merchandise from the moulin: pamphlets and pencil sharpener.

This water tower and water powered pumping mechanism were constructed between 1677 and 1679 under the direction of the engineer Jacques de Manse following the extension of the gardens to the west of the chateau. Water was pumped to a holding tank in the top of the tower then was allowed to flow by gravity through iron pipes. to a reservoir at Pelouse some 350 metres to the south west. From here it fed a series of fountains and cascades to the north. In the nineteenth century the building was extended to the west and more advanced pumps were installed to supply the castle and the town with water and in 1877 a further extension was constructed as a home for a mechanized laundry, all now beautifully restored and in working order. Between 1993 and 2005 a major programme of work saw the reconstruction of the original seventeenth-century pumping mechanism based on detailed drawings produced in 1784. We were fortunate in being able to see the whole thing in motion (electrically powered today but our guide switched it all on for us) and in being allowed down to the lower levels, normally closed to the public to see the pumps operating in close up.

The Pavillon de Manse from the north with later additions to the right.

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The reconstructed pumping mechanism: the water wheel and the pit wheel  with the pipes up to the tank

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Looking down to the pumps and on the next floor down the rocker arms operating the pumps.

A model of the whole thing (cf. Modave ) - not sure about the Lego figure.

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Drawing of the Pavillon with detail of the pumps from Album du Compte du Nord 1784

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A small display case of related finds, sadly unlabeled but containing fountain nozzles, look at that reduction, and some splendidly hefty taps.

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Our host lets rip with the water supply to the nineteenth-century pumps and a group of children fathom the mysteries of the laundry

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In the car park to the south are preserved an original section of iron pipes en route to the reservoir which would have supplied the cascades now marked only by street signs.

The site of the reservoir at Pelouse looking south east marked by earthwork banks, not my photo but filched from Google Street view!

Despite having medieval origins the features that most people come to see today are parts of the gardens laid out by André Le Nôtre primarily in the 1660s and 1670s. These were severely geometric but enlivened by the play of water and the presence of decorative planting, flamboyantly dressed crowds and boats bobbing around. The fact that the plants, people and  boats are largely absent contributes much to the present rather austere landscape. Ultimately most of the water within the park is derived from the small river known as the Nonette but this was managed in increasingly sophisticated ways as channels criss-crossed the gardens. An early part of the system for feeding water to the castle was the Aqueduc du Bois Saint-Leonard constructed in1622 and bringing a flow of water from sources 2 kilometres upstream.

Looking north along the main axis of the garden to the east of the chateau over La Gerbe along La Manche and across the Grand Canal, the people give the scale.

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Water from the Aqueduc du Bois Saint-Leonard emerges here at a feature known as Le Regard, a small conduit house and circular pool which appears to be an 18th. century addition. View from north and detail of grid

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Aqueduc du Bois Saint-Leonard, with the conduit house, a sluice gate and the conduit as it bends round the the east.

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An intermediate point on the Aqueduc du Bois Saint-Leonard, a small chamber giving access to the conduit views looking north.

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Fountain at the head of the Bassin du Prince, view looking north east and detail of channel emptying into the Bassin looking east probably from the 1730s.

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The Grande Cascade and corner of the Hexagone looking north east and the view looking west across the Tete du Rond and out along the Grand Canal, all part of Le Nôtre's original scheme.

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Reconstructed water wheel on the side of the mill in the model village or Hameau, looking east and Le Rocher from the south, a feature of the Jardin Anglo-Chinois both 1772 -5

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Back to the classical garden, a close up of La Gerbe looking north east with a close up of the late nineteenth-century statue of Le Nôtre.

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Detail of sluice mechanism on the west side of the moat and stepping stones over to Les Iles Rocheuses looking north probably nineteenth century.

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Grotto to the east of the Cascades de Beauvoir, entrance looking south and steps and water channel at west end, doesn't appear to be earlier that the nineteenth century.

Cascades de Beauvais dating from the 1680s, looking south.

During the course of a day we were able to examine many significant elements of the park although there is more to do. The Potager de Prince, today a separate establishment but containing some fountains from the western part of the garden appeared to be closed and there simply wasn't time to head south towards the Parc de Sylvie. Even so a very productive visit plus a chance to pick up some useful publications namely:

La machines des Grandes Eaux du Prince de Conde a l'insu de notre plein gre, L'aventure de sa reconstruction. Association Pavillon Jacques de Manse

Les Grands Eaux dans les Jardins de le Nôtre: Chantilly, un cas unique, un cas d'ecole by Yves Buck. Association Pavillon Jacques de Manse

Les Fontaines et Grandes Eaux de Chantilly.
Association Pavillon Jacques de Mans

and purchased before we left, particularly useful

André Le Nôtre and the Gardens at Chantilly in the 17th. and 18th. Centuries by Nicole Garnier-Pelle, Somogy Art Publishers, Paris 2013

LINKS: Pavillon de Manse, Chateau de Chantilly, Potager des Princes