The Lost Château of Nicolas Fouquet
by Alain Gayot
A minister of finance throws a lavish party for a French king. As a result, he is thrown into prison for life. It sounds like a scene inspired by a Dumas novel, but in fact, the minister's life — coupled with the author's liberal imagination — is said to have inspired “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
The minister: Nicolas Fouquet. The king: Louis XIV. The crime: misappropriation of funds, although the charges were trumped up. The real reason for Fouquet's incarceration, or at least the straw that broke the royal camel's back, was the king's envy over the magnificent château where the party was held.
In the mid-1660s, Fouquet was riding high. Called into service to rescue a bankrupt nation, he used his personal fortune to guarantee loans and make sure the bills were paid. When he wasn't attempting to balance the books, he was working on a project whose splendor would cause his downfall, inspire the palace at Versailles and influence château architecture throughout Europe.
Fouquet was a poet as well as a man of numbers, and his intention was to create a spectacular meeting place for people who loved arts. Armed with money he inherited from his father and first wife, he handpicked the men who would design his dream: architect Louis Le Vau, painter/interior designer Charles Le Brun and landscape architect André Le Nôtre. He gave them free rein, and five years later they gave him a château that would revolutionize aesthetic thought.
Each of the three artists left a distinctive fingerprint on the project. Veering away from typical château architecture, Le Vau conceived elements such as a several-story rotunda containing an Italian-style salon instead of traditional galleries. And with his brushstroke evident on virtually every wall and ceiling panel, Le Brun transformed the interior into a museum. But while the château is grandiose, the landscaping is even more impressive. Five hectares were cleared and the village of Vaux, two hamlets and an old château razed so that Le Nôtre could lay out the gardens and gravity-fed fountains and waterfalls on an axis measuring almost two miles.
While Fouquet was occupied overseeing the elaborate construction of Vaux-le-Vicomte, his demise was in the works. Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France, believed Fouquet a threat to his power and convinced Louis XIV that Fouquet was misusing funds and plotting against the throne. Desirous of absolute power, the king was glad to have a reason to unseat the influential Fouquet. He had already decided to throw Fouquet into prison when he asked to see Vaux-le-Vicomte.
Fouquet had heard rumors of the grumbling against him, but he was foolish and paid no heed. Instead, on August 17, 1661, he threw a fête so fantastic it put the king's Parisian events to shame. It didn't help that the château greatly exceeded the royal palace in luxury and originality. Less than a month after the party, Fouquet was arrested. The court condemned him to exile, but Louis XIV did not think the punishment was harsh enough and had the sentence changed to life imprisonment.
The king had the château emptied of its valuables — tapestries, statues and paintings. Not only did he appropriate the château's furnishings, he commandeered its creators. Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre were requisitioned to craft a palace at Versailles. Originally a modest hunting lodge built for Louis XIII in 1624, it would soon become a stronghold that would fulfill the king's personal agenda, superceding Vaux-le-Vicomte and becoming the center of power in France.
As for the château itself, it was sequestered for 12 years before being returned to Madame Fouquet. Over the decades it was occupied by numerous owners, and it was bequeathed to the nation during the French Revolution to save it from destruction. Fallen to disrepair, it was put up for auction in the mid-19th century and purchased by Alfred Sommier. Since that time the château has been masterfully resurrected, along with the gardens, which took 50 years to restore using drawings of the original grounds.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is now privately owned by Sommier's great-grandson, Comte P. de VOGÜÉ, and is open to the public. Its opulence is still awe-inspiring: the gilding alone is worth a trip. On Saturday nights in season, Candlelit Evenings recreate the ambience of the festivities held in 1661 in honor of Louis XIV — 2,000 candles illuminate the house and gardens at dusk, classical music is played in the garden and a Champagne bar is available.
In addition, on the second and last Saturdays of each month, you can witness the fountains and waterfalls fed by gravity from an underground water reserve. While there, we recommend taking in the view of the grounds from the top of the dome and visiting the gift shop. Unlike typical shops at tourist destinations, this one is quite tasteful, featuring regional arts, crafts and produce. We also suggest exploring the grounds; if you have only one day to visit, renting a golf cart makes this manageable.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is located about 34 miles (55 kilometers) southeast of Paris. You may take the train from Gare de Lyon to Melun. From Melun it is a 3.7 mile (six-kilometer) taxi ride to the château.
Note that the estate is closed from November to March. Dates vary so check official website for more details.