Château Vaux-le-Vicomte - The Model for Versailles
About 50 kilometres south-east of Paris near the city of Melun (in Brie) is a fabulous château built in the 17 eme siecle, Vaux-le-Vicomte. How this château came about and and how it became the model for Versailles is a fascinating story centered on the man who had Vaux-le-Vicomte built, Nicolas Fouquet.
Nicolas Fouquet (27 janvier 1615 - 23 mars 1680) was descended from a line of parliamentarians upon whom the French crown came increasingly to depend and whose services were rewarded with appointments to high office. Fouquet's own father, François Fouquet, had been a trusted advisor to Cardinal Richelieu on maritime and commercial affairs. Nicolas Fouquet was viscount of Melun and of Vaux.
In 1648 the Royal (the State treasury) collapsed. Debts run up by the French crown with private financiers, in anticipation of tax returns, were not honored. Naturally, the collapse of the treasury resulted in a withdrawal of investments and the flight of private investors.
These troubled events lay behind Cardinal Mazarin's appointment of Nicolas Fouquet as Financial Secretary in 1653. Fouquet's mission was to replenish the empty treasury. An able and ambitious man, Fouquet had already risen rapidly. Cardinal Mazarin was "the power behind the throne" of King Louis XIV. Louis XIV (5 septembre 1638 - 1 septembre 1715) reigned as King of France and King of Navarre from 14 mai 1643 until his death. He inherited the Crown at the age of four, but he did not actually assume personal control of the government until the death of his chief minister, Jules Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661.
Fouquet owed his success to his keen intelligence, his daring and to his loyalty to the throne. To these gifts were added extreme generosity (not always free from self-interest), a lively, winning manner, and an overweening ambition to live amid luxury and refinement. He loved the arts, letters, poets, flowers, pictures, tapestries, books, statues, in short, beauty and pleasure in every form. He showered artists with gifts, commissions, and encouragement, and in this way, attracted a distinguished circle of men which included, among others, poéte La Fontaine, playwright Moliére, landscape architect Le Nôtre and building architect Le Vau.
Fouquet's objective in 1653 was to bring about a return of capital to fund Royal spending. In this he was successful, finding the ready money required each day to supply the needs of the administration and the war, to cover the cost of court entertainments, and to satisfy the colossal greed of Mazarin. Every loan Fouquet negotiated on the money markets, on behalf of the King, was guaranteed by his own personal fortune. As was the custom, indeed, as was the case with Mazarin himself, France's foremost speculator and embezzler, a large part of the profits naturally fell to Fouquet.
Yet, this brilliant man, always an ardent and loyal supporter of the King and the Cardinal had too great a faith in his own charmed destiny and did not stop to consider the envy and suspicion his high rank and wealth inspired in the minds of his more ambitious detractors. Neither did he suspect the determination and diligence with which Louis XIV, vain, insecure and jealous, would pursue his aim to reign absolute, nor the insult his own intellectual independence and luxurious lifestyle represented to the proud young King.
Fouquet's duties led him often to work in close association with Cardinal Mazarin's private secretary, Colbert, a descendant of a dynasty of prominent merchant bankers, accumulating considerable profits of his own on the business undertakings of the crown. Colbert was a scheming man, jealous of Fouquet, and determined to play on Louis XIV's insecurity and jealousy to undermine Fouquet. (Go here to see a plaque on the home of Colbert's beau père, brother-in-law, Charron, on Île-Saint-Louis in Paris.)
On the death of Mazarin in 1661, Fouquet had no doubt that his own decisive contribution to the recovery of the kingdom's finances would earn him the position of First Minister, as successor to the Cardinal. At the same time, Louis XIV, a young man of twenty-two, under the influence of Colbert, decided to abolish the post, and consequently to deprive Fouquet of it. Colbert's plan advanced to overthrow the Financial Secretary, Fouquet, to "dress himself in the minister's robes", and "raise up his own edifice on the ruins of the secretary's."
To achieve this end, and also perhaps to divert attention away from his own profiteering, Colbert laid the entire blame for France's "financial disorders" at Fouquet's door. Louis XIV, insecure and jealous, may have welcomed this move, for, in destroying the Financial Secretary, there was reason to believe that the memory of Cardinal Mazarin, who had been his godfather, and an intimate friend of his mother, would be cleared of all suspicion.
With each passing day, Colbert sowed seeds of distrust in the young King's mind. The routine repairs on the ramparts of Fouquet's property of Belle-isle-en-Mer were, for example, used by Colbert to persuade the King that the minister was at the head of an anti-Royalist plot.
In spite of the many warnings Fouquet received from his friends, he did nothing to reduce either the luxury of his life-style or the audacity of his financial scheming. These Colbert constantly denounced to the king as obstacles to the salutary management of Royal funds.
With all of this palace intrigue as a backdrop, Fouquet had hired architect Le Vau and landscape architect Le Nôtre and the planning and construction of Fouquet's château-Vaux-le-Vicomte was done.
By May 1661 the King's mind was made up. The Financial Secretary was to be thrown into prison as soon as he had supplied the treasury with the money he had promised. The king persuaded Fouquet to sell off his duties as Attorney General at the Parliament of Paris a move which deprived Fouquet from legal protections. To throw his future victim off the scent, Louis XIV expressed a desire to return to Vaux-le-Vicomte to admire the latest improvements of which the whole court spoke with praise.
It was at Vaux-le-Vicomte then, against the background of France's most beautiful château, that Fouquet gave an incomparable fête in honor of his King on 17 août 1661. Guests were enchanted by the promenade, dinner, theatricals and fireworks. Moliére's play, Les Fâcheux was produced for the first time at Vaux-le-Vicomte during this féte. The extravagance of these entertainments has often been mistakenly understood to have been the chief cause of Fouquet's downfall. Voltaire, himself a guest, wrote; "On 17 août at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody."
Three weeks later, on 1O septembre, at Nantes, d'Artagnan, captain of the King's musketeers, arrested Fouquet on the orders of Louis XIV and brought him before a specially convened emergency court.
Despite the pressure brought to bear upon the magistrates by the King - "the court performs arrests, not services!" was the righteous retort of Fouquet's judge, d'Ormesson - the trial, falsified in part by Colbert, dragged on for more than three years, and turned gradually to Fouquet's advantage. Public sympathy was strongly with Fouquet, and La Fontaine, Madame de Sévigné and many others wrote on his behalf. The King was counting on the death penalty, but the majority of the judges were for banishing Fouquet. This was tantamount to an acquittal, for Fouquet would have found freedom beyond the confines of the kingdom.
For the first and last time in French history, the head of state, in whose hands lies the power to pardon an offender, overruled the court's decision, not to lighten the sentence, but to increase it. Louis XIV sentenced his former minister to life-imprisonment. By this denial of justice, he placed under lock and key certain sensitive state secrets to which he suspected Fouquet was privy. This theory has led a number of authors, among them Alexandre Dumas in "Le Vicomte de Bragelonne" to link the fate of Fouquet with that of the man in the iron mask.
Fouquet was dispatched to Pignerol, a small fortified position in the Alps of Savoie, dominated by the tower of the fortress in which he was to be imprisoned under close surveillance until his death on 23 mars 1680.
The memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, written sixty years later, contain the following epitaph, inspired by the contrasts in the life of one who, "after eight years as Financial Secretary, paid for Mazarin's stolen millions, the jealousy of Tellier and Colbert, and a touch too much gaiety and magnificence, with nineteen years of imprisonment." Of Fouquet's brilliant but short-lived career, there remains Vaux-le-Vicomte.
While Colbert successfully played on Louis XIV's insecurity and jealousy to bring down Fouquet, the king, recognizing the beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte, hired Fouquet's landscape architect Le Nôtre and building architect Le Vau to convert his hunting lodge, Versailles, into the splendid palace we know today. In that sense, Fouquet had the last word.
Vaux-le-Vicomte from the back, looking from les jardins.
The statue of Hercules is in the distance in this photo.
Chateau De Vaux-Le-Vicomte