The water garden - Did you know?

Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil, moat, century-old tree on a sunny day

What would the Ainay-le-Vieil site be without the presence of water? Indeed, water is found both as a defensive element around the fortified castle with its moats, and as an amenity that will structure and shape the landscape in a highly organized way in the gardens. Let's take a look at the changing role of water.

Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil is fortunate to have a water moat, a privilege in the Middle Ages when most lords had "dry" moats.

Moats were wide, deep ditches filled with water and dug to act as an obstacle to attack. The use of siege engines, such as towers and battering rams, which require access to the surrounding walls, was made difficult or impossible by fortifications surrounded by moats. Another advantage was that the water in the moat could thwart attempts to undermine it. Moats were filled by diverting water from a nearby stream, pond or lake. They required constant upkeep, to clear the bottom of any branches or debris that might have facilitated their crossing.

Illumination, young woman fishing in the moat of a fortified castle

The moat could also be used as a fishpond,
as illustrated by the medieval illumination above.

Indeed, fish figured prominently at the lords' table. Viollet-le-Duc, in his "Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe to XVIe century" on the subject of moats: "It was up to the suzerain lord to regulate the extent and width of the moats, and in certain cases, he was the one who demanded that they be filled in. Maintenance was the responsibility of the lord, or of the vassals under special agreements".

Smaller lords, who couldn't afford to build masonry moats, made do with dry ditches that could be booby-trapped (as shown opposite at Château de Touffou in the Vienne department).

Water, an element of pleasure

The decline of the fortified castle in the seventeenthe century, the moats were drained for sanitary reasons. After the Renaissance, moats continued to be used for castles, but mainly for aesthetic purposes, as at Chambord and Vaux-le-Vicomte.

During the Renaissance, the order of priorities was reversed: at the same time as water became less effective for castle defense, it became increasingly necessary for garden decoration.

Château de Chenonceau aerial viewContemporary taste for water explains the importance of water gardens, as in the water gardens at Château de Chenonceau.


Advances in hydraulic technology

The importance of water in XVIe century gardens can be explained by advances in hydraulic techniques (drainage, irrigation). Indeed, advances in hydraulics not only helped to extend the surface area of island gardens, they also contributed to giving water a more important role.



The art of water play

The Renaissance was a favorable period for the creation of leisure areas for kings, princes and prelates. They called on renowned Italian hydraulic engineers to create sumptuous gardens. Each more ingenious than the last, hydraulic mechanisms animated a fantastical pantheon that drew the admiration of guests, some of whom came from afar.


Above, a fountain featuring
automata driven by a hydraulic system.

Hydraulic engineers put their science at the service of the art of water games. They used the power of water not only to create all kinds of aquatic figures, but also to broadcast programmed music and bring mythical figures from Antiquity back to life in the form of automata. King Henry IV continued the artistic legacy of Francis I. He called on Francini, internationally renowned in the art of designing gardens enriched with fountains and hydraulic automata. In 1598, in the garden at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, this hydraulic engineer staged mythological creatures: sea monsters and Neptune, which came to life as walkers passed by.

Canal networks were used for navigation and bathing. The many nautical festivals organized on the canals of the water gardens from the mid-16e century.


"Jardins d'Amour" after David Vinckboons, 17th century.

Domesticated water: the case of Ainay-le-Vieil

In the XVIe century, the orthogonal grid of canals became the norm in the French garden, and water was increasingly used in its domesticated form, with wild water becoming the exception.

It was in this context that one of the ancestors of the owners of Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil, the Marquis de Bigny, a humanist with close ties to the court, created new gardens. He saw the birth in France of this new movement to create canals surrounding islands during the Renaissance (Chenonceau, Fontainebleau). He had canals dug and irrigated by a stream that came directly from a river to feed the château's moats. Upstream of the moat, he dug regular canals measuring 120 m on each side: "le Grand Carré en Île".

Characteristic of Renaissance water gardens is the creation of islands of varied geometric shapes. What also characterizes the site is the omnipresence of water, but above all its remarkable use, thanks to an elaborate hydraulic system inherited from the Middle Ages, still in use today with weirs and shovels regulating the flow of water along its entire course.

Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil, a weir supplies water to the gardensThere are two major weirs on the site: the first brings
water from the canals of the Grand Carré en Ile to the moat via a forebay (above).
Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil, a weir supplies water to the gardens The second runs from the moat to a small stream that feeds the Cher river.

Between the two pavilionse century, a diversion canal brings water to the mill. The water on the site is moving from end to end, not stagnant. Water arrives in a stream, it leaves in a stream.

Cultural historian Michel Baridon brings this article to a fitting conclusion when he says: "Water is the living spirit of the garden".