It was six o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 17 August 1661 and the royal carriage was trundling along a shady avenue of trees. Turning sharply to the right, its occupants were suddenly confronted with one of the masterpieces of 17th-century France: the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.
The journey to the grand house 50 kilometers southeast of Paris had been a long one. King Louis XIV, accompanied by his court, had set out from Fontainebleau at three in the afternoon, their cortège throwing up clouds of dust as it clattered its way along the dry roads. It had been a perfect summer’s day and the king stepped out of his coach under a clear blue sky. Standing on the steps of the château awaiting their sovereign, was Nicolas Fouquet, his wife and their friends.
Fouquet had purchased the château in 1641, when he was still a young master of requests in the service of Louis XIII. The estate comprised a medieval manor house, a village, two hamlets, a church dedicated to St Laurence, and a few scattered mills. Attached to the moated mansion was a modest park, a vegetable garden and, further off, a small vineyard. Its new owner largely neglected his acquisition for several years, dedicating his time instead to forging what he hoped would be an illustrious career.
Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances in France and the owner of Vaux-le-Vicomte. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
Then, in 1656, the now widowed Fouquet married for the second time. His new wife was the sole heiress of a very wealthy family. Her inheritance, when added to Fouquet’s personal wealth – largely inherited from his father and substantially increased following his appointment as attorney general and superintendent of finances – made him a very rich man indeed. Fouquet decided to renovate his country estate and, over the next five years, he would transform the dilapidated mansion into a fairy-tale château.
A symbol of power and influence
Vaux-le-Vicomte was intended to reflect the grandeur of Nicolas Fouquet. It would be a symbol of his power, wealth and influence. As superintendent of finances, it was his job to raise the funds necessary for the state to function. While some of this revenue came from taxes, much of it was provided by loans, and Fouquet was frequently obliged to borrow on his own credit to ensure the state was always well supplied with cash. The magnificence of the château and parks of Vaux provided visual proof to creditors that here was a man worthy of their investment and who was perfectly able to pay his debts.
However, Vaux was more than merely a ‘shop window’ for the superintendent; Fouquet envisaged it as a château for pleasure. It would host literary salons, plays and ballets, there was even a room set aside for gaming. It was an experiment in culture, which combined the elegance of a life dedicated to leisure and high ceremony and etiquette, the natural accoutrements to absolute, divinely-appointed monarchy. Fouquet cherished the hope that the château would be used as a royal residence by Louis who, like all kings before him, travelled often from place to place. For this purpose, Vaux-le-Vicomte included sumptuous royal apartments, the décor of which featured figures representing desirable kingly virtues. There was Jupiter for power, Mars for valour, Vertumnus for abundance and Mercury for vigilance. Diana the huntress vied with the Fates for attention, while riding scenes reflected Louis’s love of hunting and war.
Most of the people engaged by Fouquet, an enlightened patron of the arts, to create Vaux-le-Vicomte were already established in their careers. Louis Le Vau had been first architect to the king since 1654. Charles Le Brun, responsible for the stunning decor, was in competition with Nicolas Poussin to become the king’s first painter. Only André La Nôtre, who landscaped the beautiful gardens, had yet to make his name.
Fit for a king’s visit
This was not the first time that Louis XIV had visited Vaux; that was in the summer of 1659. He had been graciously received by the superintendent, a fine repast was served, but it was a simple day out and one without ceremony. Almost a year later, the king returned, this time with his new queen, Marie-Thérèse. They had stopped on their way to Paris from Fontainebleau and enjoyed dinner before pressing on towards the capital.
Now, on this glorious summer day in 1661, Superintendent Fouquet stepped forward to greet his sovereign, smiling as he welcomed the young king to his country estate. The evening’s events were to be a sort of ‘house-warming’ for the château, but they were primarily held to honour Louis XIV. The king entered the château to rest for a while until the heat of the day subsided. The interior was pleasantly cool, but there was a distinct smell of paint in the air, a hint that the decoration was not yet finished.
Louis XIV painted in 1701 by Hyacinthe Rigaud. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Those rooms that were completed reflected the taste of the superintendent. One ceiling featured The Triumph of Fidelity, a reminder of Fouquet’s loyalty to the king during the Fronde, the civil wars that had rocked France in Louis’s youth. Beautiful tapestries, made in the factory established by Fouquet at nearby Maincy decorated the walls. The scheme for the cupola [dome] of the oval salon was intended to depict a “palace of the sun”, in which Apollo, a symbol of light, intelligence and inspiration, represented Fouquet’s “wit and keenness for the arts and letters, his talent and his fame”. In one of the rooms at the back of the house, where it caught the most amount of light, a wall of mirrors was planned, a fashion that had become popular in the 1650s.
Everywhere Louis looked his eyes fell upon the cheeky squirrel (or fouquet in the Angevin dialect), which adorned the superintendent’s family crest. Once, it appeared as a star newly emerging from the heavens, elsewhere it was accompanied by the Fouquet family motto: Quo non ascendet, or ‘whither will he not climb?’ Fouquet was clearly proud of his achievements and he would later describe Vaux as his “primary seat” and where he “wanted to leave a mark of the status I had”.
The court now visited the gardens, sprawling parks divided by wide pathways and populated by exquisite statues, flower gardens and cooling fountains. A canal, formed by diverting the River Anqueil, was overlooked on either side by cascades and grottoes. According to contemporary thought, humankind could tame and improve upon nature, a conceit that was certainly justified here.
(Photo by Josephine Wilkinson)
An impressive display
Following the walk, the party returned to the château, where a lottery was held at which there were only winners. Everyone then sat down to dinner. As French composer Jean-Baptise Lully’s band of 24 violins played gently in the background, Louis was served pigeon pie, filleted capon and stuffed breast of veal with salads and oranges imported from Spain, all accompanied by a selection of the finest wines.
“The delicacy and choiceness of the dishes served were outstanding,” wrote Jean de La Fontaine, “but the graciousness with which the Superintendent and his wife did the honour of their house was even more so.” In this, Fouquet’s maître d’hôtel and cuisinière François Vatel was indispensable. He had organised the various entertainments, overseen meals and refreshments and coordinated the programme to ensure that everything was done correctly and on time.
After supper, the court repaired to the gardens once again, settling in front of the grille d’eau, where a stage had been erected. They were to be treated to the premier performance of Les Fâcheux, which had been especially written for the occasion by Molière. He had been commissioned by Fouquet only two weeks earlier and, not having had sufficient time to write and rehearse a full play, he had been obliged to improvise. He appeared in his ordinary clothes to explain his dilemma before announcing that the very presence of the king was enough to create the magic that would allow the performance to go ahead. Suddenly, rocks, terms and shrubs burst into life as the actors emerged and the play began. The scenes were interrupted by dance-interludes composed by Pierre Beauchamp and Lully, thereby inaugurating a new style of theatre in France, the comédie-ballet.
At one in the morning, as Louis made his way back to the château, a sudden burst of fireworks lit up the sky, a hugely expensive extravagance. Another meal was served, again to the accompaniment of 24 violins, before the king and the court took to their carriages for the journey back to Fontainebleau.
The impressive gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte. (Photo by Josephine Wilkinson).
“Everything at Vaux conspired to please the king,” La Fontaine enthused, adding that “the Nymphs of Vaux always had their eyes on the king, his health and good looks ravished them all.”
However, as glorious as the evening had been, it was to have an unhappy sequel. The grandeur of Nicolas Fouquet, his power and even the beauty of his house, rekindled unhappy memories for the king. Louis had been deeply affected by the Fronde, which had threatened his royal authority as the parlement, the nobility and even his own princely cousins rose up to claim the supremacy they thought was theirs by right. For several months now, one of Louis’s finance ministers, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, had whispered in the king’s ear disturbing words about the superintendent’s loyalty and honesty. Louis, still too young and jealous of his authority, was unable to discern Colbert’s true motive, which was to bring about Fouquet’s downfall so that he could replace him. Instead, Louis saw Fouquet as an upstart who sought to eclipse him, an over-mighty subject who had to be subdued; the king had planned Fouquet’s downfall even as he accepted his invitation to the fête at Vaux. Three weeks after this sumptuous event, Fouquet would be arrested and, three years after that, he would be imprisoned in the sinister fortress of Pignerol for the rest of his life.
Louis fully understood, however, the value of art, architecture and pleasure as a means of representing power. He wanted a château of his own, a testament to his sovereignty, the quintessence of his character and authority. He would renovate his father’s small hunting lodge, which lay among the marshes and forests near the village of Versailles. He would recall the architect, the painter and the gardener who had collaborated at Vaux and together, they would create a palace where many of the motifs found at Vaux, the wall of mirrors, the image of the sun and the figure of Apollo, would come together to form an eternal monument to the magnificence of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
Vaux-le-Vicomte has featured prominently in many film and TV sets, including the BBC’s drama Versailles. (Canal Plus/BBC)
Vaux-le-Vicomte on screen
Vaux-le-Vicomte is frequently used as a film set, and can be spotted in films, such as Moonraker (1979), where it provides the setting for Hugo Drax’s house; and in Jean de La Fontaine, Le Defi (2007) and Versailles, le rêve d’un Roi (2008), both of which portray Fouquet’s lavish entertainment. Parts of the gardens, meanwhile, can be seen in films such as Vatel (2000) and Marie Antoinette (2006).
It has also provided sets for two productions of The Man in the Iron Mask, directed by Mike Newell (1977) and Randall Wallace (1998). In Newell’s version, Fouquet appears as a character played by Patrick McGoohan, and the château is featured prominently in many scenes, especially those leading to the denouement. On each occasion, the choice of the château for the setting was inspired, as it was once believed (incorrectly) that the mysterious prisoner in the iron mask was Fouquet.
Most often, the château is used as a ‘stand-in’ for Versailles and can be seen as such in The Affair of the Necklace (2001) and Marie Antoinette (2006). Le Roi Danse (2000) features the oval salon as well as several of the chambers, while the château frequently makes its appearance in the new TV series, Versailles (2016, 2017).
Josephine Wilkinson is currently working on a biography of Louis XIV, which will be published by Pegasus Books.