Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
The architect Louis Le Vau surpassed himself. The elegant castle stands majestically, reflected by a large piece of water in the park. The perspective is perfect. The genius landscaper Le Nôtre combined its laws with some of the most innovative techniques of the time such as levelling, water conveyance systems and optics theories. The result is a delicate balance between art and nature, making the garden the most beautiful of Europe today and the first French formal garden in history.
It is hard to imagine that barely 20 years ago in 1641, when Nicolas Fouquet bought the land, it was wild with a few rivers running through it. Turned into a formal canal or diverted and put underground, they feed the pieces of water of different sizes and shapes in the garden.
As much effort was put in the interior decoration of Vaux-le-Vicomte. The owner and superintendent of finance of France – today’s finance minister – chose the painter Charles Le Brun who realized many of its painted ceilings. Fouquet added his tasteful art collection gathered all over Europe, including paintings by Brueghel, Veronese or Poussin to decorate the rooms, such as the one appointed to the king in case he would visit (up until the 17th century, the royal court was itinerant, making it the custom for every grand house to reserve roomed for the king).
The end result can only impress, and even more so tonight. Of all parties in Vaux-le-Vicomte, tonight, the 17th of August 1661, is the most special party! Vaux has never been that beautiful. When the French king Louis XIV arrives, he admires the paintings, the art pieces and stops to study the decorations by Le Brun. In the gardens, many of the 6,000 noble guests in their most beautiful clothes are enjoying the show of the fountains with their water spurting out as it has never been seen before, some ladies are admiring the flowers under the summer sun, and some of the gentlemen are rowing in boats on the canal. Others are attending an exclusive show that the famous play-writer Molière has created for the occasion for the past two weeks: he is now acting on a stage set up in the gardens. Lotteries take place under tents by the canal and the smart and political Fouquet ensured that everyone wins: jewellery, swords, lace…
For weeks, Vatel, the talented maître d’hôtel who was discovered by Fouquet, has been planning and rehearsing to dazzle the king, the Queen-Mother and the thousands of guests. Only the best has been chosen and grown for the occasion. While the nobility is enjoying plentiful of food luxuriously served in silvergilt tableware, the Queen-Mother and the King, are offered a buffet à l’ambigu. Savoury and sweet dishes are all served at the same time in golden dinnerware and presented on the same table conveying abundance and luxury. The musicians are playing and the ball is about to start, before the fireworks are fired in the garden lit by candles.
Tonight, Fouquet seems to be the equal of the king. The Superintendent of Finance is one of the most powerful men of France, and this has happened fast. Of fairly recent nobility – only his father was a gentleman – it is his superior intelligence, boldness and loyalty to the monarchy that helped him climb the social ladder. Working closely with the Chief Minister Mazarin since 1653 to replenish the French treasury to fund Louis XIV’s expensive lifestyle and wars, Fouquet is envied by Colbert, the cardinal’s private secretary. When Mazarin dies in 1661, unexpectedly Louis XIV decides to rule the kingdom on his own, instead of naming Fouquet as Chief Minister. The plot against the superintendent does not take long to unfold.
Despite his network of spies and his friends who warned him, Fouquet cannot believe that he could fall into disgrace. His loyalty to the monarchy goes as far as to sell his title of magistrate of the King, that gave him immunity, in order to lend even more money to Louis XIV very recently.
But jealousy is a strong and unforgiving poison. Colbert was not invited to the party in honour of Louis XIV in Vaux-le-Vicomte, and the young King was simply too impressed that night… Only three weeks later, on the 5th of September 1661, Nicolas Fouquet is arrested by the musketeer d’Artagnan. He is accused of misappropriation of public funds. Fouquet’s lavish parties, luxurious mansions and expensive lifestyle are presented as proofs. His trial that will last for 3 years is a fake orchestrated by Colbert who has become Chief Minister. In reality, Fouquet is ruined by his massive debt that funds his real estate assets and investments to serve the King and the kingdom. The missing millions were actually stolen by Mazarin, but Fouquet’s claims fall on deaf ears. If the man is not completely innocent, having covered many financial stunts by the French state, he is definitely not guilty. His accusers try to charge him with lèse majesté to serve him the death penalty. Actually, even by the end of his trial without due process, his accusatory could not find him guilty of any state crime after three years of procedure. Condemned to exile, the punishment was too little for the absolute monarch and Louis XIV alters it to an even worse sentence: life imprisonment!
For Fouquet, not being able to enjoy his beautiful Vaux-le-Vicomte may have been worse than being deprived from his titles, power and ruined. Instead, he is sent to the fortress of Pignerol in the hostile Alps and jailed in rough conditions with no visits, and not even a pen, nor paper. He dies there 16 years later. As the philosopher Voltaire summed it up: “On August 17, at six in the evening Fouquet was King of France, at two in the morning, he was nobody.”
In the meantime, Vaux-le-Vicomte was emptied from everything, from paintings to sculptures and even bushes to be transferred to royal estates. But Fouquet’s legacy has remained. Not only has Vaux-le-Vicomte been renovated beautifully by his current owners, but Louis XIV was so in awe by its innovative aesthetic and harmony that he requisitioned the team put together by Fouquet for his own grand project. The landscaper André Le Nôtre, the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter decorator Charles Le Brun, as well as Robillart and La Quintinie are the engineers behind the Palace of Versailles…
- The Castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte is privately-owned by the de Vogüe family. The ticket sale accounts for 75% of the budget to maintain the castle and garden. Your visit matters.
- Fantastic animations from games in period costumes in the garden, to an immersive visit of the castle focusing on the Fouquet’s case, and an adventurous exploration of the underground river or lit evenings in the park are available to spice up the visit. In the summer of 2021, a new live animation revolving around Vatel and his preparation of l’ambigu for the King’s party of the 17th of August 1661 will be played. Check the calendar.
- Make sure to have a meal at the castle: very soon, a very short circuit will be put in place to provide the restaurants of Vaux-le-Vicomte with sustainable agricultural products from the 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of agricultural land that are part of the estate.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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