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Tuesday, March 07, 2006


A must-visit for any student of landscape architecture or design, Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is located about half an hour outside of Paris, in Maincy.

Famous for its water features, and nicknamed "Little Versailles," Vaux-le-Vicomte began life as nothing more than a small castle outside of Paris, located between the royal residences of Vincennes and Fontainebleau. That changed when it fell into the hands of Nicolas Fouquet in 1641. The 26-year-old son of French parliamentarian François Fouquet, Nicolas was a rapidly rising star and financier in the French parliament and became Attorney General of France in 1650. He married Marie de Castille in 1651, daughter of a wealthy family and a member of the nobility. On the surface, young Fouquet had everything: lands, title, a position in government. A charming and intelligent man, he was well-liked and respected by his peers. But he was "new money" and lacked the status granted with true nobility. So Nicolas Fouquet set out to make his little castle outside of Paris into a palace befitting one of nobility - an ostentatious display of wealth meant to garner the appreciation and approval of those higher than he on the social scale.

Sadly, this ambition was to be his downfall.

In 1653, due to civil war and the war with Spain which immediately followed, France found her coffers dangerously slim. Through his shrewd financial wheelings and dealings in parliament, Fouquet had caught the eye of the French regent, Cardinal Mazarin, who appointed him to the post of Minister of Finance. Fouquet proved an adept man for the job, and through his good credit and the position he maintained as Attorney General, France began to see more money coming in and her treasury growing. Fouquet's fortune grew as well, and he began expanding his home. To realize his grand vision, the minister chose renowned architect Louis Le Vau, interior designer Charles Le Brun and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, and in 1657, the cornerstone of what is modern day Vaux-le-Vicomte was laid. By 1661, thanks in large part to Fouquet's ability to recognize genius, one of the finest châteaus and gardens in all of France had been accomplished. The residence sits at the foremost end of the property, a majestic château surrounded by water, with lands stretching back seemingly as far as the eye can see; an impressive show of wealth by any means of measurement.

The house is a jewel, beautifully appointed, featuring murals, trompe l'oeil and gold gilt, with angels, cherubs, lions, and the Fouquet family mascot, the squirrel. There's even a stage, upon which some of Moliere's plays were first performed. But the gardens are the true masterpiece of Vaux-le-Vicomte. They sweep back from the house a full 3 kilometers and are divided into a series of terraces, each somewhat hidden from the next by differences in height. Elegant parterres give way to neatly bordered flower beds and water features graced with grand sculptures, a huge wall of water capped with winged horses and gargoyles, grottos, lakes, and fountains, framed on all sides by the lush forest. There's even a Roman bridge spanning a creek. The epitome of French landscape design, the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte are a perfect and prime example of gardening at the height of the age of elegance.

Fouquet opened his new home to his friends and the artists he patronized. A lively, engaging man, Fouquet loved the arts and letters, patronizing the artists of his time and showering them with gifts and money to show his admiration. Among his many friends in French society were the poet Jean de La Fontaine, playwright Molière, painter Nicolas Poussin, sculptor Pierre Puget, and poet and novelist Paul Scarron. Renowned chef François Vatel, himself, ran Vaux's kitchens.

Unfortunately, as France's wealth - and that of Fouquet - grew, Fouquet drew the jaundiced eye of French Minister of Internal Affairs, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The most prominent member of a merchant family, Colbert was an ambitious and driven man whose personal fortune was acquired via shadowed and somewhat questionable sources. Colbert had an eye on the post of Finance Minister and was jealous of Fouquet's popularity and wealth. He competed with Fouquet for the attentions of Mazarin, currying enough favor to become the personal and financial confidant of the cardinal. Through his connections to the palace via the war office, he also had the ear of young Louis XIV and never missed an opportunity to appeal to the king's vanity and to disparage Fouquet's extravagances, painting him as dishonest and seeking to usurp the popularity of the court. The ploy worked, and Louis grew increasingly jealous, suspicious, and angry with his rich and glamorous Minister of Finance. In 1661, Mazarin died and Colbert sealed his place with the king - and Fouquet's fate - by revealing to Louis the location of a hidden portion of Mazarin's great wealth. All that stood between the Finance Minister and death had gone.

A loyal servant to the crown, Fouquet was oblivious to the full extent of Colbert's maneuvering. Louis had requested a tour of the recently completed estate, and Fouquet thought to win back favor with a grand fête in honor of the monarch on August 17, 1661. The party started with the official opening of Vaux-le-Vicomte in the presence of the king and queen mother. A huge feast was served, and after the heat of the day, everyone toured the gardens. Another meal was served upon their return, followed by the outdoor performance and premier of Moliere's comedic ballet Les Fâcheux and a grand display of fireworks. As Louis and the Queen Mother made their way back to the château, a last volley of rockets shot up from the rear dome, forming a giant arch of flame. It was the final nail in Fouquet's coffin. The king, driven by jealousy and incensed at Fouquet's great popularity and the grandness of an estate that eclipsed any of the royal palaces, would have had Fouquet arrested on the spot, were it not for the advice of the Queen Mother, who recognized Fouquet's popularity and influence among members of the court. A plan was devised to trick Fouquet into selling his title of Attorney General, and with it, all the protection it afforded him under the law.

Fouquet went to bed that evening convinced of the party's success and his favor with the king. In September, he accompanied Louis to Nantes, secure in the assurance of the king's esteem. But as he left Louis's chambers, he was arrested and taken to prison. A lengthy trial followed, during which Louis "stacked" the panel of judges and pressed hard for Fouquet's execution. But public sentiment ran strong for Fouquet, and some of the judges held out against the king. After 3 years of unfair and embittered trial, Fouquet was sentenced to banishment, but Louis - fearing Fouquet's ability to raise an army against him - ordered the sentence changed to imprisonment for the remainder of Fouquet's life. He was taken to the fortress of Pignerol in the Alps of Savoie, where he remained until his death on March 23, 1680. For his part, Louis hired the designers behind Vaux-le-Vicomte and commissioned from them a palace on a scale nearly half again as large on the western edge of Paris: Versailles.

Sixty years later, Duc de Saint Simon wrote of Nicolas Fouquet in his memoirs, penning an epigraph of the man 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." Despite the jealousies that led to his death, Fouquet's achievement still remains a model for formal landscape design and the pinnacle of French elegance, Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Vaux-le-Vicomte may be reached by car or train, thirty minutes from Gare de Lyon or by RER-D from Metro station Châtelet, on lines 1, 4, 7, and 11. Take the train to Melun and a taxi from Melun the 6km to the estate. Recorded tours of the residence are available in other languages, including english. A proper visit will require half a day. Food is served in a dining hall near the entrance, and unlike most tourist attractions, the food at Vaux is quite decent and does not taste like fast food. To see Vaux in all it's majesty, I strongly recommend you go during the second and last Saturday of the month, when the fountains are run from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, weather conditions allowing.

Images & text copyright 2006 - all rights reserved


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