The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is located in Maincy, about 50 kilometres southeast of Paris and is fascinating both by its architecture and gardens, as well as by its history.
Purchased by Nicolas Fouquet in 1641, the estate that was only a small castle at the time, but the man was already an ambitious 26-year-old member of the Parlement of Paris and an avid patron of the arts, attracting many artists with his generosity. Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, was moreover the Superintendent of finances of young Louis XIV. He commissioned architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape designer André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun to work together on a large scale project.
Constructed from 1658 to 1661, the château is an influential work of architecture of the time as are the gardens pronounced visual axis. To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages and the displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. (It is said eighteen thousand workers have been employed at Vaux).
The château was lavish, refined, and dazzling to behold, and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. But this did not last. On August 17, 1661, Nicolas Fouquet organized an incredible feast in the honor of King Louis XIV, then aged 23. A fabulous dinner event organized by François Vatel, an impressive firework show and fountains display.
Fouquet’s intentions were to flatter the King: but his plan backfired. The celebration had been too impressive and the superintendent’s home too luxurious. Jean-Baptiste Colbert led the king to believe that his minister’s magnificence was funded by the misappropriation of public funds. Colbert, who then replaced Fouquet as superintendent of finances, arrested him.
Later, Voltaire was to sum up the famous fête thus: “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody.” Nicolas Fouquet will be jailed for the rest of his life and die in 1680.
Louis XVI will soon commission Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre to reinvent one of France’s major landmarks: Versailles … and this is why it is often said that without Vaux, Versailles would not be such a splendor.