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Stories from our Travelers

A Chateau, A Vicomte and Louis XIV

by Cynthia Sewell

[From Winter 2008]

The splendid Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte lies at the heart of French Brie, a pastoral countryside of vast arable fields. Commissioned by Nicolas Fouquet, the Chateau tells a story of greed, ambition, extravagance, social aspirations, royal power and imprisonment.

Nicolas Fouquet had been financial secretary under Chief Cardinal Jules Mazarin. His vast fortune was founded on the dangerous habit of confusing the credit of the state with his own. As a young financial minister, he enriched the greedy Cardinal, the King, and himself. Fouquet’s success was a product of his great intelligence, his financial scheming and his loyalty to the throne. A generous and affable man, he also was known for his social aspirations and his desire to live amid extravagant luxury and refinement. His motto, "quo non ascendet" ("What heights will he not scale?") informed his life. In 1656, Fouquet decided upon the construction of Vaux, the palace that would symbolize his achievements. He chose as architect, Louis Le Vau, and as landscaper, Andre Le Notre.

Le Vau made Fouquet’s Chateau the definitive masterpiece of early Louis XIV style. It is majestic in its impact, with lateral pavilions fully integrated into the composition as a whole. Numerous chimneys grace high roofs and a raised ground floor surveys the extensive gardens. The Chateau is the central feature of a grandiose landscape, an archetype of immense influence throughout Europe over the next 150 years.

The gardens at Vaux represent the first known work by Andre Le Notre, a kind of preliminary study for Versailles. When Fouquet acquired the estate at Vaux, there was nothing but meadowland, rivers, woods, a few hamlets and an old Chateau. On this virgin land, Le Notre could give full rein to his genius. Hills were flattened, dells filled in, and rivers diverted.
In the gardens, Le Notre showed himself master of perspective, with terraces, urns, boxwood hedges, fountains and orange trees that were later removed to Versailles.
A stylish mystification also seems to play into the architecture of the grottoes and border of the outer basin. The sunken Grand Canal is even hidden from view. In niches of the grottoes stand sculptures of river-gods, some of the most important statuary still found at Vaux.

Fouquet would not enjoy for long his architectural masterpiece. A connoisseur of lavish tastes but sadly lacking in political judgment, Fouquet expected to become First Minister following Mazarin’s death. Instead, Louis XIV decided to take power into his own hands and abolish the post. Furthermore, Fouquet had alienated the Controller-General of Finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and, even worse, had made advances to one of the King’s favorites, Mlle. Louise de la Valliere.

On August 17th, 1661, the unwitting Fouquet threw the most sumptuous of festivities among the Baroque splendors of Vaux. Hoping to impress the young Louis, he only succeeded in offending his monarch more deeply by the extravagance. Dinner was presented on a solid gold service at a time when the royal silverware had been melted down to repay expenses of the Thirty Years War. The King’s disapproval was so intense that on September 10, 1661, Fouquet was arrested, his property confiscated, and his brilliant team of designers put to work on Versailles. Fouquet only spent a few short weeks at his Chateau, spending the remainder of his life in prison.

From the end of the 19th century, successive owners of the Chateau have tried to restore the gardens to their original state. Current owner, Patrice Compte de Vogue continues this work. The Compte and his family reside on the estate to this day.

Details:
How to get there: The Chateau is about a 45-minute car ride east of Paris. There is also a train/Chateau bus connection.

Hours of operation: The estate is open daily from March-November from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Candlelight visits every Saturday from May –October. Special Christmas and holiday celebrations. For more information on visiting Vaux, go to www.vaux-le-vicomte.com

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