22 December 2011

Re-imagining the Hortus Palatinus

The Hortus Palatinus, with Heidelberg Castle in the background, by Jacques Fouquier, c.1614-16

The Hortus Palantinus - the 'Garden of the Palatinate' - was once described as the 'eighth wonder of the word'. Designed by French engineer Salomon de Caus, it was commissioned by Frederick of Bohemia in 1614 as a gift for his new wife, Elizabeth Stuart - sister of Charles I of England - for their new home in Heidelberg.

Yet Germany's 'greatest Renaissance garden' was doomed never to be completed. The Thirty Years War came and wrecked its striking multi-level terraces, the married couple fleeing to the safety of the Hague.

Re-imaging the Hortus is not the forensic exercise it might have been, however, thanks to the survival of De Caus' original plans, indicative paintings and a helpful digital resource ...

The garden may have been a romantic gesture of a German prince, though its aesthetic concept was founded in England. During the marriage negotiations in London in 1612 Frederick came into contact with De Caus, who had previously been Elizabeth's tutor, and the architect and designer Inigo Jones. De Caus was working on a baroque garden for the teenage Prince Henry, the elder brother of the future Charles I, that same winter, and his tragic death from typhus as a teenager led to De Caus' abandoning his work on Henry's garden at Richmond to work for Frederick - possibly using some of the plans for the English palace as a basis for his work in Heidelberg.

The most immediate and striking aspect of the plans for the Hortus was its terraces. The steep land around the castle was to be engineered to provide multiple levels on which to arrange the planting of trees, plants and flowers. Also placed around the terraces would be a plethora of intriguing and artistic creations, including:

  • statues
  • grottos
  • fountains
  • clockwork automata birds
  • mazes
  • a water organ based on a design by the Roman writer Virtuvius and other hydraulic devices.

Detail from De Caus' plans, showing layout for terraces

Much of De Caus' plans were realised between 1614-19, before Frederick's defeat by Emperor Ferdinand II at the Battle of the White Mountain and his removal to the Netherlands. De Caus moved to Paris, with the garden left to be ravaged for the remainder of the Thirty Years War (its terraces providing convenient artillery platforms for forces attacking the city). By the time Frederick and Elizabeth's eldest son Charles Louis returned in 1648 the Hortus was low priority and probably beyond restoration.

Conveniently for historians, De Caus left a book with detailed engravings of his plans, including diagrams of the garden's layout as well as designs for individual items such as fountains and grottos. The painting by the Flemish landscape artist Jacques Fouquier (top of page) was produced during his own three-year residency in Heidelberg, before he left around the same time as De Caus. As Fouquier's painting was produced before De Caus' book appeared in print, it is possible that the landscape interpretation of the garden included in the book was based on it. It is also possible, of course, that both works are based on De Caus' earlier plans and have been embellished to show the garden as it would appear completed.

More about the existing pictorial representations can be read in Luke Morgan's book on De Caus here.

Recent commentators have also attempted various interpretations of the garden's symbolic meanings, the dominant strands identifying either political or hermetic meanings in De Caus' designs.

Visitors to Heidelberg Castle today can walk the grounds (see below) of the Hortus, though only fragments and part-restorations of De Caus' arrangements survive.

Heidelberg Castle and gardens today. View larger map

Re-imaging the garden has been made easier recently by a virtual representation of the garden, created by a group of German academics. A DVD is available providing a three-dimensional re-creation of Heidelberg in 1620, allowing the viewer to "admire the Heidelberg castle before its destruction and wander through the gardens of the Winter King". You can purchase it here.

Heidelberg Castle website (with visitor information)
Hortus Palatinus (De Caus' plans for the garden)
Hortus Palatinus (Wikipedia)
The Heidelberg Timetravel DVD


  1. Wonderful garden but such a shame that so little of it has survived.

  2. Fascinating article. I only visited Heidleberg last October and fell in love with the old Castle.

  3. Thanks Alison. Hope to visit myself in the near future to take some photographs.