In 1641, the 26-year old parliamentarian Nicolas Fouquet, who was then the Master of Requests at the Parlement of Paris, acquired the viscounty of Vaux and the sprawling estate that was attached to it known now as Vaux-le-Vicomte. By 1653, he had risen to the position of the Superintendent of Finances to King Louis XIV, which afforded him access to the greatest artists of the day. He promptly hired master architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun, and garden designer André Le Nôtre to bring their unparalleled vision to the project. Giving them instructions as to the lavishness he expected, Fouquet spent the next eight years financing one of the most resplendent residences with the most sumptuous gardens in all of France at the time.
A Château with an Explosive History
The property was so spectacular, its execution fascinated Louis XIV, inspiring the design of the great palace of Versailles. But it also served as Fouquet’s downfall because the king was jealous and grew more suspicious of the splendor his finance minister could afford. The building and its surroundings influenced the outcome of this story so powerfully, it has become a character in the historically significant plot that pitted an ambitious man against a king. Other owners would follow Fouquet’s abrupt exit but the residence would eventually fall into disrepair. After quite a long period of dilapidation, restoration efforts to bring the château to its former glory began in 1875. It has since been classified as an historical monument and has been maintained as a model of the artistic genius that flourished during the seventeenth century since.
The publishing house Flammarion has honored the story of this famed home that witnessed the comings and goings of the Court of France during its heyday in a breath-taking new book Vaux-le-Vicomte: A Private Invitation released this month. Written by French historian Guillaume Picon and photographed by Bruno Ehrs, the book takes its readers inside the storied château, which has been on my bucket list for many years. Though not as dynamic as walking the grounds or strolling through the rooms in person, the visual feast presented serves as a fitting substitute. Today, the estate is owned by the de Vogüé family, whom you’ll meet a few paragraphs down.
Before the family is presented, there is a lush introduction by Christian Lacroix, who responds viscerally to the subtlety with which the exterior decorations softly and subliminally work their way into the sophisticated interior rooms: “I love the way the light of the sky reflects off the water and inundates the spaces, splashes off the mirrors; the way the colors of the autumn, the setting sun, or summer at its zenith illuminate all the gold, heightened by the candles, furniture and walls; the way the trees of the forest transform into precious woods in the libraries or columns for the chapel; the way the embroidery of the parterres rivals the lush interior draperies and wallpaper and the skillful patterns of Boulle’s marquetry.”
Among the newest generation of family members to protect this historical gem is Alexandre de Vogüé, director of patronage and public relations for Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. In his introduction, he recounts his childhood growing up there, describing how it felt to live with this lushness swirling around him when he and his family enjoyed the salon and dining room on the ground floor each day, though only until 10 a.m. That’s the hour “all traces of our presence had to vanish so that the first visitors would find an untouched historical setting.” Alexandre and his wife have returned to Vaux-le-Vicomte after a 30-year absence in order to join in the family’s efforts to maintain and promote the property. He describes how the history of the place enriches life: “I was enthralled by the story of Nicolas Fouquet; I discovered the world of the history of art, of museums and their curators, private châteaux and their owner-caretakers, and the artisans helping to preserve these buildings.” This last point is of particular importance because the survival of gems like Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is dependent upon meticulous and continuous care.
Thumbing through the pages, an onslaught of patina is palpable. Bas-relief carvings on the exterior are presented in such detail, the gritty surfaces that represent layers built up or eaten away over a great passage of time from an onslaught of weather exude authenticity. The sculptures rising from the grand pediments and lining the gardens glow in pastel shades of coral when bathed in the area’s natural morning light. Their eyes unblinking, their expressions resolute as they play their parts in the allegories dreamed up by the château’s originator. Only because we know how events played out for Fouquet, we can see in hindsight how their blank stares imitate the mood of his cautionary tale as it lumbered to an end. One of my favorite things about this book is that it is much more than a “coffee table book” with luscious photography; it tells the history of the brilliant personality who dreamed the château into being, the two inextricably linked for all eternity.
As all wealthy aristocratic families demanded of the artists designing their mansions during the time in which the château was built, Fouquet expected an abundance of symbols that would aggrandize his family’s lore. The Fouquet coat of arms is rendered in gestures as grand as bas-reliefs above the windows of the château’s north and south fronts, and as intimate as tooled in gold on the bindings of volumes in the library. The luxe symbol with its flourishes and lions surrounding a medallion in which a squirrel walks on its hind legs, its tail curled upwards, appears in myriad other design elements, as well. In the family’s native Anjou dialect, Fouquet means squirrel.
Perhaps foreshadowing the power-greediness that would result in Fouquet’s tumble from fame, his motto, “Quo Non Ascendet,” which means “What heights will he not scale?” is telling. It is details like these, which tie the man’s story to the home he realized, that make this book so rich, both visually and historically. Picon writes of Fouquet’s early rise, “He garnered support for the government among his colleagues during the series of civil wars known as La Fronde (1648-1653) and thus proved his loyalty to the crown. As a reward, Cardinal Mazarin named him Superintendent of Finances in 1653. Fouquet was now one of the most powerful men in the kingdom of France.”
Fouquet was determined to translate this spectacular success into a veritable palace set within great gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Picon calls the property “a mirror of his ambitions, both political and artistic.” But he would enjoy only one grand occasion during which he could gloat over what he had achieved: the inaugural fête he produced on August 17, 1661, in honor of Louis XIV. “Three weeks later, on September 5, Fouquet was arrested in Nantes by d’Artagnan, second lieutenant of the king’s musketeers,” Picon writes. “His fall would nourish legend and collective imagination, conflating the famous prisoner with the myth of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask.’ Condemned for misappropriation of public funds and lèse-majesté [the insulting of a monarch] in a sham trial orchestrated by Colbert, Fouquet saw his banishment transmuted into life imprisonment by order of the king. He died in the Fortress of Pignerol in 1680.”
This would not be the only man Jean-Baptiste Colbert would ruin. He would set his sights on Louis Le Vau less than a decade later, wrongly accusing him of embezzlement in order to escalate a personal feud he had with the architect. The persecution bankrupted Le Vau, who died penniless in 1670, only nine years after the grand debut of Vaux-le-Vicomte, one of his most magnificent buildings.* Picon expertly describes the scope of this “extraordinary project” in the book, saying that accounts vary as to the number of workers engaged in the effort, but it is estimated that the kingdom’s grandest construction project at the time employed between six hundred and two thousand laborers. Of course we know now that Versailles has since eclipsed the residence in its grandeur.
When Fouquet was arrested for misconduct, some decorations were unfinished, such as the ceiling in the grand oval salon, but enough of the resplendent elements were in place that the residence inspired awe in his fellow courtiers. The effort was a heavy lift. Outside, Le Nôtre had to create a garden ex nihilo [out of nothing] on a scale like nothing seen before. Inside, Charles Le Brun, who would become one of the most gifted painters of his generation, “developed the first major decorative scheme of the Grand Siècle with brilliant allegorical compositions responding to Fouquet’s quest for pomp.”
In the sections of the book in which the interiors are featured, the visual luxuriousness becomes a golden odyssey through a gilded world that signaled privilege at the highest level. Fine tapestries woven at Gobelins, trompe l’oeil, boiserie, bronze statuary, and meticulously carved stone tell the story of the evolution of the château. Staying true to the trajectory of Fouquet’s history, in Chapter 4, “The Court at Vaux-le-Vicomte,” Picon describes his position as a patron of the arts, and the notoriety of his properties as major centers of artistic and literary influence.
Fireworks at Vaux-le-Vicomte
He then provides details about the party that sealed Fouquet’s fate in “Vaux: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He sets the stage with Louis XIV’s arrival in the late afternoon of August 17, 1661, accompanied by the queen mother, Anne of Austria, and his entire court. Once the hottest part of the day had passed, a tour of the gardens drew admiration from the aristocrats, who were then led indoors for a dinner planned by Fouquet’s steward Vatel. It was an ambigu, which is described as “a medley of dishes served together in accordance with the latest fashion, all accompanied by the music of twenty-four violins.” A play by Molière followed the meal; then the fireworks began, which “set the sky ablaze with fleurs-de-lis and other motifs.”
Fireworks segued to rockets being blasted into the sky over the dome as the guests walked back to the château where a light meal of fresh fruits awaited them. As was the custom during grand events of that era, the attendees didn’t depart until dawn. “The incredible lavishness displayed by Fouquet was well beyond that of the king himself,” Picon writes. “According to the account of the Abbott of Choisy, in the carriage taking him back to Fontainebleau, Louis XIV muttered to his mother, ‘Will we not make these people cough up their ill-gotten gains?’ This strongly supports the idea that the party marked the beginning of the end of Fouquet.” Picon quotes Voltaire, who summed it up aptly: “On August 17, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody.”
This whiplash terrified many of Fouquet’s aristocratic friends, one of whom was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné. We know this because she was an avid letter-writer who holds the rank of France’s first woman of letters. By sending chatty missives to her family and friends, she served as a remarkable witness to that era and rendered the major players in it immortal. In one exchange, her cousin Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy, was digging for dirt about his cousin and Fouquet, who had been expressing interest in her. She set him straight in a letter dated July 19, 1655: “I think, in the end, he will weary of renewing a subject in which he is so little likely to succeed. I have seen him twice during the past six weeks, on account of a journey I had to take. This is all I can say, and indeed all I have to tell you upon this subject. Be as careful of my secret as I am of yours; it is as much your interest as mine to be so.”
It was a series of letters written to Simon Arnauld de Pomponne, who had been exiled because he was a client and close friend of Fouquet’s and had married one of the controller’s cousins, that describes events surrounding Fouquet’s trial. She was so detailed about the affair because she saw it as her duty to keep Pomponne informed. On November 27, 1664, as the trial wore on, Mme de Sévigné was among a group of women who wished to see the beleaguered superintendent as he exited the courthouse.
“I must relate to you what I myself did,” she wrote to Pomponne. “Some ladies proposed to me to accompany them to a house exactly opposite the Arsenal, where we could see the return of our poor friend. I was masked; but my eye caught him the moment he was in view. M. d’Artagnan was at his side, and fifty musketeers about thirty or forty steps behind him. He appeared thoughtful. The moment I saw him, my legs trembled, and my heart beat so violently, that I could scarcely support myself. In approaching us to reenter his dungeon, M. D’Artagnan pointed out to him that we were there, and he saluted us with the same delightful smile you have so often witnessed. I do not believe he recognized me; but, I own, I was strangely affected when I saw him enter the little door. If you knew the misfortune of having a heart like mine, I am sure you would pity me…”
Less than a month later, Fouquet’s sentence was handed down and he was packed off to prison in Italy, delivered there by d’Artagnan. Mme de Sévigné was bereft. “Can anything be more dreadful than this injustice?” she asked, adding, “M. d’Artagnan was his only comfort on his journey.” Fouquet died in prison nearly 16 years after he had been incarcerated. In her last letter on the subject, Mme de Sévigné shared news with Pomponne about the unsuccessful attempts of Fouquet’s wife, mother, and sister to see him, and then she let the subject go.**
It’s no wonder rumors swirled that Fouquet was attracted to her, as she was a beloved member of the aristocracy. I could truly feel the essence of her world (and his, of course) in this wonderful book filled with the glamour and luxury of a bygone era. I’ve spent a great deal of time reading about their influence on history, but even if you know little about them, the book will guide you along because such care was taken to weave the human aspect of the château’s history into the fabric of this story. I truly enjoyed the richness of detail at every turn, including the captions. Case in point is the description of the above photo of the sculpture Hercules at Rest. Picon notes that the monumental piece was planned by Le Nôtre as the vanishing point for the garden’s perspectives but it was never put in place during Fouquet’s ownership. It wasn’t installed on the grounds until 1891, thanks to the determination of Alfred Sommier to have it placed there.
“Executed by the sculptor Joseph Tournois after a drawing by Charles Le Brun, it is modeled on the celebrated Farnese Hercules,” he explains. “Hiding the three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides behind his back, the demi-god leans on his club, allowing himself a moment of rest after accomplishing his labor. Embodying strength and moral virtue, the myth of Hercules, which was already celebrated in the decorative schemes inside the château, exalted the glory of the Superintendent of Finances who by implication assumed the virtues of this heroic figure.”
As is the case with many stately homes, the members of the current generation of de Vogüés must be creative in financing the upkeep of the storied property. “Conceived by three great artists, Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun, Vaux-le-Vicomte was the backdrop for the misunderstanding that turned Louis XIV against Fouquet, thanks partly to Colbert’s work to undermine Fouquet,” Picon writes. “This explosive combination of art and politics, taken to the highest level, gains Vaux-le-Vicomte an emblematic place in the history of France. Alexandre, Jean-Charles, and Ascanio de Vogüé are animated by a shared vision to transmit this unique legacy to the greater public. Like their father before them, they face the recurring challenge of finding the funds necessary to conserve Fouquet’s masterpiece.”
For those of us who value historical architecture, theirs is a noble undertaking. “While seeking to increase the number of visitors, the family is particularly attentive to the role of cultural mediator which falls to any historical dwelling,” Picon writes. “As stewards of this immense cultural heritage, they recognize the vital importance of making it accessible to everyone.” This book, which I highly recommend, advances this effort, particularly during this time in history when most of us are relegated to armchair travel where going abroad is concerned. It certainly wafted me to Maincy for a number of very enjoyable hours, turning a gloomy afternnon into a panorama of gloriousness.
If you are so inclined, you can contribute to the preservation efforts on the property’s website. You can buy the book in the U.S. from Rizzoli or from Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores. All of the text from the book quoted here © Vaux-le-Vicomte: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion, 2021; and the photographs noted with his name © Bruno Ehrs.
*There’s more to the story about Colbert’s deceitfulness regarding Le Vau, which has to do with the Institut de France, another building the great architect designed. You can read about it in more detail in this previous post and in my last book The Modern Salonnière.
**In an essay for my next book, which is currently being written, I’ll wander around Paris with Mme de Sévigné, whose legacy was made so much easier with the invention of the postal system in Paris on August 8, 1653, when she had returned to the city as a young widower to become one of the main players in the capitol’s most renowned salon of the day. My other books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns. As well as an author, I am a journalist and content strategist.