Monday, 11 July 2011

Vaux le Vicomte-power and disaster

Last weekend Jean-Claude and I drove towards Paris and then out to visit one of the seventeenth century's greatest achievements - the Chateau Vaux le Vicomte, a truly amazing place with a chilling story behind it. It was never a fortified chateau or a royal residence. Instead it was an extravagant undertaking from a gifted and charming lawyer who aimed too high and fell so low.

Nicolas FOUQUET (1615-1680) who ordered the construction of Vaux-le-Vicomte was descended from a line of parliamentarians, rich and enterprising.

In 1648 the State treasury collapsed and so Cardinal Mazarin appointed Nicolas Fouquet as financial secretary in 1653, his mission to replenish the empty treasury. Fouquet had already risen rapidly, remaining true to his family emblem, the squirrel, and to his motto, "Quo non ascendet" ("What heights will he not scale?").

Fouquet owed his success to his great intelligence, his daring and to his loyalty to the throne.He was good looking, had a lively, winning manner, and an overwhelming ambition to live amid luxury and refinement. He loved the arts, letters, poets, flowers, pictures, tapestries, books and statues. He showered artists with gifts, commissions, and encouragement, and in this way, attracted a distinguished circle of men which included, among others, La Fontaine and Molière, Le Nôtre and Poussin, Puget and Le Brun.

Nicolas 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 he negotiated on the money markets, on behalf of the King, was guaranteed by his own personal fortune.

Fouquet brought together the artist Le Brun, the architect le Vau and the landscape gardener Le Notre to create a magnificent property which outshone all the rest, including that of the young King Louis XIV. The construction took five years with thousands of workers. The 'dream team' of three were later hired by the King to create the Palace of Versailles.

Yet, this brilliant man, always a loyal supporter of the King had too much 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, such as Colbert. Neither did he suspect the determination and diligence with which Louis XIV would pursue his aim to reign absolute, nor the insult his own intellectual independence and luxurious lifestyle represented to the proud young King.

He often worked in close association with Cardinal Mazarin's private secretary, Colbert,who had accumulated considerable profits of his own on the business undertakings of the crown.

On the death of Mazarin in 1661, Fouquet was certain that his own decisive contribution to the recovery of the kingdom's finances would earn him the position of First Minister, successor to the Cardinal. At the same time, Louis XIV, a young man of twenty-two, decided to abolish the post, and consequently to deprive Fouquet of it. At the same time, Colbert decided to overthrow the finance minister, Fouquet.

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 welcomed this move. Each day Colbert sowed seeds of distrust in the young King's mind and 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.

It was May 1661 and 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, and sold off his duties as Attorney General at the Parliament of Paris which removed him from all but the jurisdiction of his peers. To throw his future victim off the scent, Louis XIV expressed a desire to return to Vaux to admire the latest improvements of which the whole court spoke with praise.

It was at Vaux, against the background of France's most beautiful château, that Fouquet gave an incomparable "fête" in honor of his King on 17 August 1661. Guests were enchanted by the promenade, dinner, theatricals and fireworks. The extravagance of these entertainments wasn't lost on young King Louis. Voltaire himself wrote; "On 17 August at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody."

Three weeks later, on 1O September, at Nantes, d'Artagnan, captain of the King's musketeers, arrested his friend 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 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 the advantage of the accused. Despite having no access to any papers, fouquet's prodigius memory served him in his own defence. 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, who had 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 ensured order within France for half a century to come, and at the same time placed under lock and key certain sensitive state secrets to which he suspected Fouquet was privy.

Fouquet was sent to Pignerol, a small fortified position in the Alps of Savoie, where he was to be imprisoned under close surveillance until his death in 1680. He was denied any comfort or books. His wife had been sent away from the chateau while the King helped himself to tapestries and furniture and garden ornaments and paintings. It would be ten years before she was allowed back and she was not permitted to see her husband, far away in prison.

The chateau has gone through several families and was rescued from ruin. JC and I viewed Fouguet's stables which are now a carriage museum, the State Appartments, and Fouquet's appartments. We went up inside the great dome to come outside and look over the roofs and decorations to the outbuildings and marvellous gardens which employ false perspective so cleverly.

It's a sad story of a talented and honest man who was set up by a spiteful King and malicious colleague. A high price to pay for weath and good taste. It's definitely worth a visit and you can view it at night too when on Saturdays during summer, 2000 candles are laid out in memory of the great entertainment that signalled the end of Fouquet.


Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, contributions and feedback.