Nicolas Fouquet and Château Vaux-le-Vicomte: The Danger of Eclipsing the Sun King

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
     Down to a sunless sea.”
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

“Vaux is the estate that I considered my primary seat, and it is there where I wanted to leave a mark of the status I had.”
~
Nicolas Fouquet

 

There are, of course, many great attractions to see in and around Paris, and many great country homes that stand tribute to France’s rich history.

One of the most remarkable is Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte—the great estate of Nicolas Fouquet, and a testimony to his extraordinary life. But beyond its stunning beauty, it has one element that makes it stand apart… an absolutely jaw-dropping back story.  A back story that involves the celebration of great art, deadly games of intrigue, high drama, sudden reversals of fortune, and a cast of characters involving many of France’s most legendary figures. And best of all… one of the most famous parties in French history….

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, as seen from the gardens

* * *

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is dazzling.  It is a gorgeous pleasure palace that reflects more or less a single creative vision, and the glories of a single moment in history.

It was the brainchild of Nicolas Fouquet. He is the quintessential rags-to-riches type of character: the second son of a minor noble family. The family’s heraldic ensign was a squirrel, with the motto “To what heights can he not climb?” The family was well-known for its piety and prudence, and Fouquet’s mother was famous as an amateur scientist who wrote one of France’s first great medical treatises.

Nicolas Fouquet, by Charles Le Brun

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By 1641, Fouquet was on the rise.  He was a protégé of Cardinal Mazarin and an ambitious, 26-year-old member of the Parlement of Paris.  He was casting about for an estate that he could call his own, and develop into a property worthy of his rising stature.  And in due course, he acquired Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 40 miles outside of Paris, in 1641. It was, in modern terminology, a “fixer-upper.” The castle that existed on the property was in a sad state of disrepair, and in attempting to repair it Fouquet realized it would need to be completely rebuilt.

At first Fouquet neglected the property, but by 1656 his fortunes had improved immensely, as had his stature in Louis XIV’s government.  He had risen, over time to become Attorney-General, and Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances, making him one of the richest, most influential men in France.  He took a new wife, a wealthy heiress named Marie-Madeleine de Castille, and decided the time had come for him to build a new château on his estate… a new château that would be worthy of his exalted position.

And so, he set out to rebuild Vaux-le-Vicomte, making it the greatest residence in the country.

The main house from the gardens

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What makes Vaux-le-Vicomte so remarkable is that Fouquet made the decision that it should be a comprehensive, all-encompassing work of art. Fouquet was a noted patron of the arts, and felt that all aspects of his new château should exist in harmony and all relate to the overall design. Thus, he brought together three exceptional minds to work in tandem for its construction:  the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the interior designer Charles Le Brun.

And the result is an unqualified success.  A long, tree-lined boulevard leads up to the main house itself, creating a sense of order and command of nature, while masking views of the château until a dramatic “reveal” right at the end. The lines in the gardens guide the eye of the viewer toward the main house and frame it in ways that highlight its features.  The château’s architecture creates a steady rhythm that, in turn, makes the structure seem a natural outgrowth of the landscape.  In fact, the main entry ways are aligned and expertly crafted so that the ground floor seems almost to float—from the main approach, you can see right through the château and into the gardens behind.  And the interior is a showplace of art.  Fouquet decorated with an array of tapestries, sculptures, and paintings that were painstakingly curated to build a sense of wholeness, delicate tension and proportion.

The gardens. In the far, far distance is the great statue of Hercules.

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That the whole estate was completed in a mere five years is an absolute wonder, and a testament to the resources at Fouquet’s disposal.

And nothing could compare to Fouquet’s gala housewarming party.

* * *

Fouquet felt that to secure his continued standing at court, he needed to do something to impress the king…  and a royal festival at his newly-completed home was sure to do the trick.  There he could dazzle the king with the refinement of his tastes, demonstrate his managerial/organizational skills in completing such a massive project in a short period of time, and convince his fellow courtiers that he was a force to be reckoned with.

There was another, more subtle reason for throwing an extravagant party—as the chief financial minister of France, he knew that he had to project the image that France was a good investment to potential creditors.  He hoped to demonstrate that France was flush in cash, with ample resources to cover its debts.

The facade leading to the Oval Salon

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And so, on August 17, 1661, Fouquet greeted Louis XIV and the royal court at a celebration that France still remembers as one of the most extravagant fêtes in its long history. And everyone was there.

The first of two banquets featured plate after plate of delicacies created for the occasion by François Vatel: pigeon pie, filleted capon and stuffed breast of veal, served with salads and oranges specially imported from Spain.  Fouquet and his wife drifted from table to table to ensure each of their guests were afforded with personalized, hands-on attention. As the famous poet Jean de La Fontaine remembered, “The delicacy and choiceness of the dishes served were outstanding, but the graciousness with which the Superintendent and his wife did the honor of their house was even more so.”

The dining chamber

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Moreover, the composer-conductor Jean-Baptise Lully provided an orchestra of 24 to serenade the diners, performing works specially commissioned for the occasion.  After dinner, the royal party moved to the gardens, where Molière personally led the premiere of the new comedy Les Fâcheux, which had been especially comissioned for the occasion.  Interspersed among the plays scenes, Pierre Beauchamp and Lully premiered a series of dance suites for orchestra.

The lavishly appointed interior

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After the performances, Fouquet entertained the assembly with one of the greatest firework displays the country had ever seen.  Exquisitely timed, the show began with arcs of liquid light that illuminated the entire garden, followed by fleurs-de-lis made of sparklers that provided light for a mock naval battle on the grand canal, while an artificial whale packed with firecrackers and smoke bombs glided slowly across the water.  As the party returned to the main house, the king was welcomed with a second shower of fireworks shot from the great dome.  The court was seated and presented yet another meal set with new musical performances.

The crystal chandeliers

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No one had ever seen such a lavish spectacle, and the court was thunderstruck with awe. As Voltaire famously summed it up, “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France.”

But as Voltaire ominously continued, “But at two in the morning he was nobody.”

 

* * *

Paris was still breathlessly gossiping about the gala when the news broke that Fouquet had been arrested.

What happened?

Fouquet had made two fatal mistakes.  First, he had risen so high, so fast, that he was bound to have aroused jealousy and made dangerous enemies.  And so he had—the king’s great minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert feared that Fouquet was becoming too powerful and moved to poison Louis XIV against him.

But worse, Fouquet’s plan to dazzle the king was a wild miscalculation.  Without meaning to, he had outshone the Sun King. And that was a crime Louis could not forgive.

Louis went from room to room silently fuming that his servant had somehow managed to build something so magnificent. He ground his teeth seeing the lushness of the gardens and the richness of the décor, which made his own palaces look unrefined by comparison. By the time the livid king stormed back to his carriage for the return home, Nicolas Fouquet’s fate was sealed.

After a few discreet preparations, Louis sent d’Artagnan—the heroic Captain of the Guard whose exploits were chronicled in Alexandre Dumas’s historical novel, The Three Musketeers—to arrest Fouquet on charges of embezzlement.  Moreover, the king confiscated over 100 tapestries, statues and paintings from the château, as well as all the orange trees from the gardens. And significantly, Louis gathered up Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun, the same team that built Vaux-le-Vicomte, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: build me something even better.

And that is how Versailles came to be.

But the story hardly ends there.  Over the next three years Fouquet fought with all his resources to clear his name, in a “trial of the century” that is still regularly the topic of legal monographs in France today.  Louis instructed Colbert to assemble a hanging jury—a group of Fouquet’s political enemies that could be trusted to convict.  Colbert went further; he denied Fouquet access to a lawyer, and both manufactured and destroyed evidence at will.  Even so, the jury was not completely convinced of Fouquet’s guilt, and finally recommended exile.  At this point, Louis intervened directly exercised royal prerogative, and had Fouquet’s sentence “commuted” to life in prison.  Fouquet was shipped off to the prison fortress of Pignerol near the Italian border. Pignerol was also where France’s famed “Man in the Iron Mask” was imprisoned, leading some to believe that Fouquet was the Man in the Iron Mask. Fouquet remained there until his death in 1680.

The cellars beneath the house evoke the prison where Fouquet spent his final years

In the meantime, Fouquet’s wife Marie-Madeleine de Castille burst into heroic action to save her family, preserve the family fortunes, and if possible clear her husband’s name. Accounts suggest that she was able to spare her young children from the king’s wrath by directly petitioning the queen.  She published and distributed pamphlets attesting to her husband’s innocence, drawing the ire of the royal censors.  Moreover, she went to court for the return of the family’s property, finally succeeding after 10 years of legal battles.  All the while, she did an outstanding job of managing the estate under circumstances that can at best be called “difficult.”  She was only allowed to visit her husband once before he died in prison.

* * *

Today, Vaux-le-Vicomte is an easy visit from Paris, and should not be missed.  Again, it’s not just that it’s beautiful—oh my God it’s beautiful!—but that promotes a clear sense of harmony, proportion, and balance to go with its overall sense of luxury. It was the product of a single artistic vision, created by an artistic team with exceptional taste.  Moreover, it is the direct ancestor of Versailles, and has all the magnificence of that royal palace with less than one-twentieth of the crowds.  Alfred Sommier purchased Vaux at auction in 1875 and launched the colossal task of restoring the abandoned estate to its former glory. His descendants, Jean-Charles, Alexandre and Ascanio de Vogüé, continue the restoration work today.

This image from Vaux-le-Vicomte’s visitor website gives a good sense of the scale of the estate, with the first tier of gardens to the south.

As a postscript… given this cast of exceptional characters, reversals of fortune, and intrigue at the court of the Sun King himself, how has no one turned this into an opera?  I mean, Nicolas Fouquet’s story brings together nearly an endless parade of famous, over-the-top personalities and throws them together into a story that comes off as an exceptionally refined episode of Game of Thrones. Or an operatic episode of the series Versailles… which is, after all, filmed at Vaux-le-Vicomte. I have to believe that such an operatic project would have legs….

 

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