Outshining the Sun King

Guardian, 9 July 2008

 

The year 1661 started off well for Nicolas Foucquet. As France's finance minister he had played an important role in ending the long war against Spain and he expected very soon to become Louis XIV’s prime minister. His new château at Vaux le Vicomte would not only be a statement of his achievement, but also launch a splendid new era for the country. To show it off, he decided to put on the party to end all parties. The guest of honour was the king himself. On August 17, Louis XIV arrived from his nearby summer residence at Fontainebleau with the entire French court. 

Six thousand guests dined off silver plates, feasting on food prepared by France’s greatest chef, Vatel. A play, written for the occasion by Molière, was performed against a backdrop of spectacular fountains; the king’s favourite composer, Lully, provided the music; and the evening ended with the greatest firework display that the age had ever seen. But everyone agreed that the most extraordinary sight by far was Foucquet's château. It possessed a magical, heart-stopping beauty: you could not help but look at it.

‘A new age of peace’

How the young king admired this miraculous building. But it enraged him, too. He was furious that one of his subjects should have dared to build a palace that far outshone any of his own. So he arraigned Foucquet on trumped-up charges and had him incarcerated for life in the Alpine fortress of Pignerol. He then confiscated the statues, pictures and tapestries of Vaux, even the orange trees in its gardens. But the biggest theft of all was the team that had created the château – architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and gardener André Le Nôtre. Sending them off to Versailles, where his father, Louis XIII, had kept a simple hunting lodge, the king ordered them to build a château for him there that would far eclipse the one they had already completed for Foucquet.

Compelled to implement the king’s vision of majesty, the trio kept the stone quarries of France working overtime, as they turned out vast, ornately decorated façades, terraces and parterres. But although they certainly broke all previous records in terms of size and scale, they did not come even close to the enigmatic appeal of what they had already achieved at Vaux.

To the extent that their work mirrored the wishes of two exacting but very different masters, perhaps this is not surprising. While Louis XIV wanted a great palace that would project the majesty of the greatest sovereign in Christendom, Foucquet imagined a monument that might serve as an ideal of harmonious civilisation in the new age of peace.

'With style, wit and charm'

 

A miracle of perfect measure, the great dome that greets you offers an impressive solidity, yet in its effortless elegance seems almost light enough to float to the sky. In the summer, swallows and swifts swoop about it, gliding on the hot air currents. This is a place that animals seem to favour. The golden carp that swim in the decorative moat provide a living counterpart to the stone fishes and water gods that inhabit the giant ponds in the gardens, where an occasional peacock can be seen strolling by, or a squirrel scurrying perilously along the top of a hedge.

The squirrel is a special creature at Vaux le Vicomte. It features on the coat of arms of the house’s founder, along with the motto, Quo Non Ascendet – To where will he not climb? It was the risk-defying aspect of the animal that most appealed to Foucquet, not its habit of burying acorns for another day. If he had shown the kind of prudence that now makes his symbol the logo of a French savings bank, maybe he would have made it to the top, but then Vaux would have remained only a dream.

The presiding principles of the place are wit, style and charm. It raises the clever conceit to a high art, gently playing with its visitors. From the house, you gaze upon a splendid prospect of fountains and parterres that give way to a grassy slope and trees in the far distance. Marking the limits of this terrain is a giant statue of Hercules. It seems a brief, pleasant walk to reach. But halfway your progress is halted by what at first seems to be a river, but is actually the Canal de la Poêle, which stretches about 1,000m side to side. Invisible until you are upon it, and lined on both sides by tall but slender chestnut trees, this expanse of water – along which glide boats in the shape of giant swans – lies in a hidden gorge, a parallel but separate domain providing a retreat within a retreat. To reach the statue now, you must make the lengthy detour around one end. 

When I last visited Vaux, I did so to find myself overtaking a tall, grey-haired woman with a walking-stick. Lean and wiry, she looked as if she had a lifetime of such expeditions behind her. She paused to regain her breath. “It’s such an illusion,” she said in an Australian accent as I caught up with her. “I didn't realise there was all this to come. This place could do with a few bridges.” But soon she was off again. “Never mind. You can always go further than you think.”

© Charles Drazin 2008.

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