February 6, 2015

Vaux-Le-Vicomte ... the house the Sun King was set on

For or a split second the eyes of the host met those of his guest of honor. Everything, was intended to please:  the barely-finished castle, splendid in its vast acreage of ordered gardens, the exquisite tapestries and paintings, the sumptuous array of food, the music, the play, the fireworks. But the host felt a chilling premonition when he saw in his guest's eyes neither delight nor admiration, but a gleam of envy tinged with hate. The guest was the young King Louis XIV; the host was his Finance Minister, Nicolas Fouquet. There have been parties just as lavish, just as costly, just as gossiped-about. But the chateau-warming thrown at Vaux-Ie-Vicomte by its owner, Fouquet, in honor of Louis XIV on August 17, 1661, went down in history as a thunderous event.

The party was a smashing success. Everybody, it seems, had a good time ... except for the King. The play was by Moliere, the music was by Lulli, the catering was supervised by the renowned maitre d'hotel Vate!' It was all too beautiful, truly fit for a king, but not for a finance minister. Within three weeks, Fouquet was thrown into jail, where he was to languish and die nineteen years later. And the Sun King scooped up everything from Vaux that took his fancy ... ideas, objects, designers-even Vate!' That was when in the field of political philosophy, are lacking in managerial talents."

Versailles was born. Louis wanted a better Vaux. Fouquet had made two big mistakes: spending his money too well and too wisely (whether it was ill-gotten or not remains a moot point); and having infallible taste. After eight years as finance minister, he wanted to build a worthy monument, or as he said:  "It was a place where I wanted to leave a few traces of my station."

His ideas were hardly niggling. A whole village called Vaux was razed in 1656 to make way for the chateau. At one point 18,000 workers were employed. But what made Vaux the marvel that it was, and is, was Fouquet's choice of the illustrious triumvirate-Le Vau the architect, Le Brun the painter-decorator, Le Notre the landscape architect.

Louis XIV had visited the chateau twice before the famous fete (at the suggestion of the perfidious Colbert, who was jealous of Fouquet and angling for power).  Louis' brother, Monsieur, had remarked ironically: "Sire, all you have to do is become finance minister for one year, and you'll have enough money to build."  So, at one point, though Vaux was far from finished, the impatient King sent notice that he expected a formal reception with all the trappings in one month's time. Fouquet, already ill, threw himself into finishing Vaux with a feverish surge of activity. He hastily transferred furniture from his old house; he goaded on the tapestry workers at nearby Maincy (a workshop he had created, later taken over by Louis XIV to become Les Gobelins); he bought more and more statues, furniture, paintings from Rome with the assistance of Poussin. And by the time Vatel had iced the last petit four, Vaux, to all intents and purposes, was finished. Fouquet was really finished.

The arrest was made by D'Artagnan (one of the Musketeers) on September 5 in Nantes; there was a trumped-up trial, and Fouquet was lucky to get away without execution. Many were sympathetic to his cause, especially his friend La Fontaine, who wrote the romantic Elegie aux nymphes de Vaux:

“Fill the air with sobs in your shadowy caves; Weep, nymphs of Vaux, and swell your waves.”

But who could help in the face of the Sun King? Practically everything that could be moved in Vaux had to be sold by Fouquet's wife to pay debts. The King took the lion's share of this lucre, especially the exquisite fabrics, the most voluptuous statues, the tapestries and books. Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre were enlisted to work on Versailles.

Happily, Vaux has pulled through all kinds of chaos, and was opened to the public. With its moat, its sweep of formal gardens, its sloped roofs and huge central dome, it is a rare example of a miraculous combination of talents at the time when France was just rising to her apogee of power, with the influential flower power of French baroque.

Le Brun never had a chance to finish the eighty-eight-foot-diameter dome: the painting was to have depicted Fouquet welcomed by Apollo in his Sun Palace, "like a new star enclosing the shape of a squirrel" (Fouquet's coat-of-arms). The "squirrel," whose family motto was Quo non ascendet (What heights shall I not reach) fell off his perch too soon, and most of his worldly goods disappeared with the downfall.

But Vaux's interior has been reconstituted exactly as it might have looked in 1661, with Louis Quatorze armchairs, tapestries, objets d'art, chandeliers. The man responsible was Alfred Sommier, a rich sugarrefiner, who bought Vaux in 1875 and raised it from its sorry state to the glory it enjoyed on that fateful day in 1661.
The two centuries between Fouquet and Sommier were not, however, entirely a dark age of decay. "Beautiful things or terrible things can happen to enormous places and this place has known both all the time.  I see the history of Vaux as a series of peaks and valleys, marked by its share of drama, including murder and suicide.

Fouquet's arrest was the first catastrophe. Although his son 'was allowed to live there, the family fortune dwindled, and the estate could hardly flourish.  At his death, who was going to keep such a big place?  Nobody.   But along came a wealthy soldier, the Marechal de Villars, who had lately been made a duke by Louis XIV.  He was looking for a glamorous place, bought Vaux in 1705, and Vaux was on the up again. The good luck did not last long. The duke's son was not interested in the place, and is even suspected of digging up lead pipes in the gardens in order to sell them, thus ruining the irrigation system.

Next takers were the powerful Choiseul-Praslin family, in 1764. Those people were rich but the Revolution came and Vaux went down again. When the local revolutionaries from Maincy politely asked the lady of the manor, now Citoyenne Praslin, to destroy anything recalling the monarchy, she just as politely complied and let them burn a few tapestries and royal portraits. The townspeople would not have dreamed of touching the chateau.

A few weeks later, however, matters became serious when a messenger arrived on horseback with a written order decreeing that the old ex-duchess must leave the chateau within eight days so that it could be torn down. Not giving up without a fight, the plucky dowager whipped off a letter to the Convention, suggesting that perhaps her chateau could be useful to future art students. The Convention agreed that it would indeed be very useful to students, but legal tangles kept things at an impasse. Time passed, and the Revolution was finished. Nothing happened, and Vaux got out of that crisis!

The Choiseul-Praslins (descendants of that courageous old lady) lived grandly at Vaux until 1847, when the fifth duke murdered his wife and committed suicide, in one of the century's great crimes passionnels. It's a sad story because the duke was basically a quite normal man. His wife was very ardent, and they were not made for each other. She was passionately in love with him. “Why are you not in my arms every night?” She complained.

She built up a folly and lived in a completely different world. She wrote thousands of letters on her unrequited love for her husband. And then she became insanely jealous, believing wrongly that her husband was in love with the children's governess. All this became too much for the duke. Understandably driven to distraction by his wife's mad devotion, the duke reacted the way any red-blooded man might: he did away with his wife, and then swallowed a deadly dose of arsenic!

Vaux was once more plunged into darkness. Nearly thirty years later, word got round that the Praslin children were planning to parcel the vast property into lots, tear down the chateau (almost a white elephant without its gardens) and auction off the land. The prefet of nearby Melun, a cultivated man interested in art, heard about the sale and informed Sommier, already becoming known as an art collector. One look at the abandoned chateau, and the industrialist was thunderstruck by the beauty of the architecture, by the painted ceilings and murals. Vaux was sold to the sole prospective buyer at the auction-Sommier. "And up goes Vaux again!" shouts Vogue triumphantly. Until his death thirty-three years later, Sommier devoted himself to restoring Vaux and its gardens. The next hint of disaster to the chateau was the institution of income tax in 1913. Not that it was immediately dramatic. But fortunes started disappearing, and it was getting awfully difficult, if not impossible, to keep up big places like this. Enter Patrice de Vogue, who was given Vaux by his father and moved in 1967, taking it as a sort of sentimental responsibility. Even with tax relief and state benefits, I knew hecouldn't keep Vaux up alone. He had to have help.  Letting the public in was the obvious solution. Eighty thousand visitors paid their four francs to cross the moat into Vaux in the first "open season" from April to October, 1968.

Vaux has impressive trumps to draw: it is only forty miles from Paris; it has the biggest gardens of any chateau, with the exception of Versailles, of course; and it is the most completely furnished big chateau open to the public in France.

As for ghosts, they are the spirit of the people who have lived here and devoted their lives to the place ....


frenchtoast said...

Thank you. Lovely.

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

You are always welcome.