Louis XIV traveled to this newly-built chateau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, on August 17, 1661. The owner, Nicolas Fouquet, was throwing a spectacular blowout party for the Sun King.
There was music, dancing, banks of flowers, and the premier performance of the Moliere play “Les Facheux” on the slightly elevated dias of the salon pictured above. (Translation of the title: The Unfortunate, The Regrettable. Yes, the whole evening certainly was all that).
And that’s Moliere, quietly observing the follies of men from his place on the mantle.
Back in 1641, Nicolas Fouquet was a young man on the make in France. At age 26, he was a member of the Parlement of Paris. This was not a debating or advising body; instead it was a sort of appeals court with great powers. It put him in position to get very rich.
Fouquet’s family emblem was the squirrel. His family motto was “Quo Non Ascendet” or “What heights will he not scale.” Heights, indeed. Fouquet climbed relentlessly from his Parlement position until in 1656 he landed the real plum job: Minister of Finance for the Sun King. A squirrel with better judgment than Fouquet might have settled down in a comfy hole and enjoyed the bounty of nuts he had already gathered. But Fouquet was a man of taste and refinement. He liked nice things and he could afford them, so why not have the best?
Fouquet was a patron of the arts and a great friend of artists. Jean de la Fontaine, the brilliant writer of the “Fables,” was a close friend who stayed regularly with Fouquet. He had very nice rooms to live and work in at Vaux-le-Vicomte.
When he landed the ministerial job, Fouquet bought and demolished three villages to make room for his chateau and grounds. Then he relocated the villagers and put them to work hauling, pounding and digging. It was said that he employed a virtual army of 18,000 people in his project.
For his grand chateau, Fouquet hired Louis le Vau as architect, Andre le Notre as landscape designer, and Charles le Brun as painter/decorator. Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first of their many celebrated projects together.
Everybody knew that King Louis XIV was not a man who liked to be upstaged. Fouquet’s chateau looked nicer than anything the king had for himself at the time. During the fateful party on August 17, 1661, Louis was shown into the obligatory King’s Chambers that Fouquet had carefully prepared for him, but the envious king was fuming.
Somebody else saw opportunity in the situation. For some time, Jean-Baptiste Colbert had been insinuating to the king that Fouquet had embezzled funds. The king was only too happy to listen. Some historians suggest that he had already decided to oust Fouquet long before the royal carriage rolled up to the chateau doors on August 17.
Fouquet was arrested three weeks later and put on trial. The painting above, by an unknown artist, shows the grim courtroom scene. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The court sentenced him to exile, but the king overruled the court. Fouquet was sent to prison for the rest of his life. Naturally, everything he owned became the property of the Crown. And Colbert took his place as Minister of Finance, a post he held for many years afterward.
Louis XIV confiscated all the fine furniture and art. He also famously dug up all the plants in the gardens. Most importantly, he took the architect Le Vau, the landscaper Le Notre, and the decorator Le Brun straight to Versailles to work on his own supersized chateau.
Vaux le Vicomte languished for centuries under many owners. It’s now been much restored and refurnished. Three brothers of the de Vogue family are the present owners.
They’ve made the chateau really user-friendly, with very detailed placards in both French and English. The chateau information is my main source for Fouquet’s story. For example, a display shows some of the silver Fouquet would have owned:
A placard explains that Fouquet was never allowed to produce an inventory of his possessions, which would have proven that his expenditures were well within his legitimate income.
It’s easy to imagine Louis XIV entering Vaux-le-Vicomte and pausing under its airy dome.
Louis must have gazed out over Le Notre’s gardens and wondered why he couldn’t have the same thing–or something even better–for himself.
Voltaire later wrote, “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France; at two in the morning he was nobody.”
I wonder why Fouquet’s tragic story has not yet had the full-fledged Hollywood or HBO or BBC treatment. It’s certainly dramatic enough. Maybe there are programs I don’t know about. A visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte tells a remarkable story of hubris, treachery, greed and the absolute power of a king.
Join me next time for more about the famous chateaux of France.