Friday, October 7, 2011

The Fête at Vaux

350 years ago this past August, the most famous fête in French history was given by Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île and finance minister to Louis XIV, who wished to unveil his newly completed château, Vaux-le-Vicomte, to the king and the court. Beside infuriating and humiliating his youthful guest of honor with a display of wealth, comfort and taste far beyond anything the 22-year-old king himself was capable of undertaking, nonetheless had ever experienced, Fouquet by his example also instructed the king on the art of living and furnished him with the template for—and the personnel to create—Versailles, and indeed provided the entire artistic and cultural model for his reign.

If the story were to end there, it would be remarkable enough, but in reality the fête at Vaux occurs in the middle of a train of extraordinary intrigues that were to shape the course of Louis XIV's reign and by extension the fate of France and of Europe. Because of its sumptuous setting and the archetypal motivations propelling its actors, the evening is also one of those episodes in history that would (and did) make appallingly bad cinema. Indeed it reads like a fable from Perrault or La Fontaine—both of whom attended. So, with that injunction in mind, let us begin our tale of "once upon a time."

The appointed day, 17 August 1661, dawned clear and warm. Over 6,000 invitations had been distributed throughout Europe requesting attendance at the fête to be given in Louis XIV’s honor. Thousands of carriages left Paris and by early afternoon traffic on the road to Melun had collapsed. The king, accompanied by his brother, Monsieur, and his mother, Anne of Austria, departed Fontainebleau at three pm and arrived at Vaux-le-Vicomte three hours later.

The royal carriages entered through gates designed by Nicolas Poussin and stopped before the château, the work of the king’s own First Architect, Louis Le Vau. The king retired to the apartment that his future First Painter, Charles Le Brun, had decorated and furnished for him in the western range of the château. The rooms had been painted with arabesques and allegorical scenes which showered Olympian honors upon his host, and were hung with tapestries woven in Fouquet's own private manufactory. The squirrel, Fouquet's devise, and his motto, Quo non ascendit? ("How high will he rise?") were cleverly worked throughout the décor.

The marble sculptures on display were either Antique or works commissioned from Puget and Anguier; there were collections of paintings as well, and of gems and precious stones, cameos and medals, of rare or finely bound books, miniatures, watches, Northern tapestries and Eastern carpets, and also of Oriental porcelains and vases of Egyptian porphyry and jasper, but there was not time enough to view them all.

(Below: the Grand Salon, located beneath the dome and giving upon the gardens, whose decoration was never completed.)

After resting, the king toured the gardens, which had been designed by his own gardener, André Le Nôtre. A village and two hamlets had been razed to accommodate the park; 1200 water jets played into the fountains and over a thousand orange trees had been ranged about the walks and on the terraces.

The royal family dined at twilight while two dozen violinists serenaded with music composed by Lully. The food had been prepared by Vatel and was served upon 500 twelve-piece place settings of porcelain and 36 twelve-piece settings in solid silver, as well as the solid-gold settings reserved for the royal table. After dining, the company attended the premier of Molière’s Les Fâcheux, performed on a temporary stage embowered in an evergreen glade. Between acts, fauns and elves emerged from the greenery, offering diamonds to the ladies. Madame de Sevigné and Jean de La Fontaine were among those in attendance, and each would record their impressions of the evening and in truth Fouquet had retained the author of the Fables to compose an epic poem about the fête, later published as The Dream of Vaux.

Afterward, the guests traversed the parterres along the estate's infinite axis, which met the southern sky nearly a kilometre distant, and assembled before the Grand Canal, where a mock naval battle was staged with reduced-scale galleons. Upon its conclusion, a grandiose fireworks display lit the night sky and was reflected in the waters. Believing the festivities at an end, the royal party returned to the château, now illuminated by hundreds of lanterns lining its cornices. As they drew near, a fountain of rockets streaked from behind the dome, burst overhead and bathed the royal family in a rain of golden embers. Later, lottery tickets were redeemed and miraculously all numbers were winners, the men receiving arms and the women yet more diamonds. Near dawn, a last meal was served and the king departed for Fontainebleau at first light.

Act II
Some three weeks later, Louis XIV celebrated his 23rd birthday, the fifth September 1661, by ordering the musketeer d'Artagnan to arrest Fouquet for treason and embezzlement. Yes, d'Artagnan is indeed the same musketeer immortalized by Alexandre Dumas' novel, a slew of Hollywood swashbuckler films and the eponymous candy bar; he was also a close friend of Fouquet and wept while carrying out his orders and later he would periodically visit Fouquet in prison until his death. Fouquet, 46, had been lured by the king and his minister-factotum, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to Nantes, for fear that news of his arrest could reignite the Fronde, the opera-buffa insurrection that had dragged on fitfully throughout the king's youth.

As surintendant des finances, Fouquet (above) was the richest and in many ways the most powerful man in France, and had expected to rule after the model of Richelieu upon the death of the Cardinal Jules Mazarin that spring. Mazarin, a brilliant Italian-born cleric-politician, had been de facto regent for the child-king Louis XIV, lover of the king's mother, Anne of Austria, rumoured by many to actually have been the king's natural father, and indeed assumed that role upon the death of Louis XIII. In the opaque financial structure cobbled together by his predecessors, Fouquet oversaw the royal treasury as if it was his own fortune, and essentially it was. He borrowed and lent for the state on his own personal credit and personally appointed and directed the royal tax farmers. The position was ripe for abuse and was abused accordingly, and French kings had always been paupers compared to their finance ministers.

Intelligent, ambitious and headstrong, the young Louis XIV (above; pastel portait by Charles Le Brun) was instructed by Mazarin in the ways of power, and with wise foresight Mazarin ensured the king's future success by also forming Colbert (portrait below, attributed to Jacques Aved) as the loyal, diligent and capable bureaucrat-advisor par excellence. In essence, Fouquet's arrest was a carefully plotted coup d'état which was necessary to permit the king to actually govern France himself. Colbert, Mazarin's protegé, was also determined to rise to power through service to the king, and saw in Fouquet the perfect target upon which to pin blame for Mazarin's own colossal embezzlement, of which he was also a benefactor.

The young king's ambition, his love for the memory of Mazarin and trust in Colbert's manifest competence and the evidence his spies had uncovered, as well as the affront of Fouquet's smug, self-satisfied figure, led him easily into the plot. The arrest had actually been decided in March of 1661 when, along with evidence of his embezzlement, Colbert presented proofs that Fouquet was courting the king's own mistress, the beautifully simple-minded Louise de la Vallière. The conspirators patiently bided their time until autumn, when both grain and taxes were harvested, and the ill-considered ostentation of the fête at Vaux was simply salt in the king's festering wounds. Indeed, Louis XIV was reportedly so furious while at Vaux that he was only dissuaded from arresting Fouquet there and then by his mother, who said such an act would remain unpardonable in the eyes of history.

Fouquet was brought to Vincennes and his show trial, which Colbert organized, selecting the judges and harrying them mercilessly, required nearly three years to reach a verdict of banishment, infuriating the king. He cynically rejected the verdict as overly harsh, "commuting" Fouquet's sentence by ordering him imprisoned in the fortress of Pignerol for life. Despite the outcry from Fouquet's many partisans, the point had been made and Louis XIV had established his authority; most importantly, he had secured control over the royal finances. His reign, which had started almost two decades earlier, in 1643 at the age of four, had finally begun.


  1. I visited Vaux as a student (at Fontainebleau) and loved it. The layout of the gardens is brilliant, with the terraces camouflaging the slope. But I would have loved, more than anything, to have attended this famous fete.

  2. Yes, Vaux is indeed wonderful--I well remember my first visit, how staggering it was! A perfect jewel, majestic but still comprehensible; you can stand almost anywhere on the grounds and have a sense of the whole, and so effortlessly imagine the fete. Versailles doesn't have the same impact at first encounter, because it's simply too vast to take in at once.

  3. I will never forget my visit to Vaux. The finest designed garden of the Baroque period.

    Versailles is the perfect example of overkill!! The gardens were so vast (without rhyme or reason) that Louise had to have a pamphlet to show his visitors how to best see the gardens!

    Loved this post!

  4. Superbe! L'architecture est absolument magnifique.

  5. Reading this makes me want to see the movie version (Vatel) again. I too had the good fortune to once visit the place. So few people were there that day which made it all the better.