The Fatal House-Warming

It was supposed to be the grandest housewarming the world had ever seen, and, from the moment the first gilded coaches and beribboned horsemen came thundering up the road from Fontainebleau to the great wrought-iron gates, the host knew that his plan would succeed beyond even his soaring hopes. The host was Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of the Finances of France, the richest and most powerful subject of the young King Louis XIV. With his new chateau, he was going to offer the king and the world a supreme example of what riches and power and refinement and taste could do in the realms of beauty and well-tempered magnificence.

Originally, there had been an old feudal castle called Vaux-le-Vicomte on this spot where two valleys (vaux) meet, together with a couple of peasant villages, some wheat fields, pastures, swamps and woods, and a river. Then an army of 18,000 men was brought here, furnished with barracks, workshops and a hospital. They were the best craftsmen to be found in the world: masons, carpenters, painters, carvers, gardeners, cabinetmakers, tapestry weavers, bricklayers, hydraulic engineers. All the material they asked for was handed over to them without stint: tons of marble for mantel- pieces and pedestals and busts; tons of lead for the water pipes; acres of slate for the roofs; the finest woods; the finest textiles. For four and a half years, they were steadily at work. They tore down the old buildings, leveled the hills, diverted the river and built a great new chateau with three-foot-thick stone walls and spacious brick outbuildings, the whole set in an immense terraced garden. In the late afternoon of August 17,1661, the work was as good as done. Vaux was ready to be shown off. Nicolas Fouquet was ready to scale the heights of glory.

Opening the door of the king's carriage and escorting him up the monumental steps to the front entrance, he could hear the chorus of admiration and envy rising behind him. The king, the queen mother, the king's mistress, the dukes and duchesses and bishops, the hundreds of nobles and hangers-on who made up the court, all had to agree that they had never seen a building like this.

France's older chateaus were generally built around central courtyards for defensive purposes. Over the centuries, those castles were expanded in helter-skelter fashion, with each generation of occupants adding different features, to strengthen the old walls or to modernize and beautify them.. Vaux, on the other hand, was built all of a piece from a unified design conceived by the noted architect Louis Le Vau. It was not a warlike fortification but a huge country mansion, open and inviting, designed for entertainment on the largest possible scale. The surrounding moat reflected the golden ochre tones which had been applied in a light patina over the walls.

As the ladies in their brocaded gowns and the gentle men with their swords at their sides eagerly passed from room to room - including a spectacularly ornate bedroom designed specifically for the king - they were presented with an unending series of dazzling delights. The interior had been designed and executed by Charles Le Brun, a painter fresh from years in Italy, and he left a touch of sparkling luxurious elegance on everything: the 250 tapestries, the painted wall panels and gilded moldings, the carved and embroidered furniture, the chandeliers, the busts of Roman emperors. All through the decorations a keen eye could see prancing a pack of little painted and carved squirrels: fouquet was the word for squirrel in the patois of the superintendent's native province. And weaving among the squirrels were scrolls carrying his motto, Quo non ascendet? How high will he not climb? From the windows and the terrace on the far side of the building, the south side, the guests saw stretched out before them as far as the eye could see a splendid garden of a new design. Traditional French gardens had been little cooped-up lots, surrounded by walls or hedges. This one was a man-made landscape in which everything, including the chateau, was integrated. It was an adventure to walk among its variegated banks of flowers, and in the trees around it there were tastefully shaded nooks for amorous trysts. The king when he inspected it told its designer, André Le Nôtre, that he knew "how to domesticate nature."

All of the senses were meant to be surfeited. The scent of orange trees in wooden tubs filled the grounds. Servants kept up a steady flow of pheasants, ortolans, patés, bisques, pastries, all prepared under the supervision of Vatel, greatest maitre d'hotel of the age. (He would later commit suicide when a fresh fish he had promised to the Prince of Condé did not arrive in time; but at Vaux everything went swimmingly.) Violinists played airs specially written for the occasion by Jean Baptiste Lully, the most fashionable composer of the day. There was a play specially written for the occasion by Molière, with Molière himself to act in it. There was a lottery in which every guest won a prize of some sort -jewels, horses, swords, paintings.

The guests could not tear themselves away till two in the morning. As they were preparing to go, a last dazzling burst of fireworks lit up the whole chateau in a gigantic blaze. With that, two horses harnessed to the carriage of Queen Mother Anne of Austria reared in terror, plunged into the moat and drowned.

"La Fête de Vaux," as the celebration was called, was meant not only to inspire superlatives; it had a political purpose as well. Fouquet was a man of infinite energy, charm, resources, wit and ambition. For years, at first under the wily eye of Cardinal Mazarin, the chief minister, and for the last five months on his own, he had been in effective charge of the nation's finances. The nation was hard pressed after years of anarchy and war, and it took an almost miraculous skill in juggling figures, wheedling investors, speculating and peculating, to produce the daily supplies of cash needed to pay the army and the civil servants, and keep the king and court living in suitable luxury, as well as fill the capacious pockets of the cardinal, one of the greediest men who ever lived, and of Fouquet himself, the aspiring squirrel. Thanks to his skill, and Mazarin's, France had been able to survive the years of calamity and was now at peace, aspiring to become the mightiest of European nations.

King Louis had announced, after the death of Mazarin, that he intended to take over personal direction of his government, but no one took him seriously. His mother shrugged her shoulders when she heard of it. Fouquet was certain that His Majesty, a hot- blooded boy whose main interests seemed to be chasing stags and skirts, would tire of business in a few weeks and leave the running of the country to him. The festivities at Vaux were intended to show the king just how well qualified Fouquet was to lead.

Rarely has a brilliant man made a more foolish error in judgment. Louis was deeply serious about how he was going to reign (and as he did indeed reign for the next 50 years). He intended to perform his "king job" in as conscientious a way as he expected his subjects to perform theirs. He spent endless hours in his office, he studied and annotated the thousands of documents which crossed his desk with the same calm rigor and assiduity that he applied to every detail of the laws of etiquette which governed every step and every breath of life at his court. He was an absolute monarch, and he was pleased to be one, it made him happy he said once to know that between Je veux, I want, and J'aurai, I shall have, the distance was so small as not to be worth talking about.:

He was very impressed by the fête at Vaux, as its creator had intended, but not at all in the way the creator counted on. Beneath the majestically smiling exterior he knew how to maintain on all occasions, he was boiling with rage, a rage that only grew with each new marvel that was revealed to him.. For some time he had been poring over the account books of the state, and Jean Baptiste Colbert, the clerk who had only recently risen to become Fouquet's second- in-command, had been guiding him down the columns of figures to show him in detail how enormous streams of public money -- his money - were pouring into the superintendent's hands. He himself (the King of France!) was always running short of cash when he wanted to add a wing to his palace in Paris, the Louvre, and here was his servant, his creature, giving him lessons in luxury and extravagance..

He took his leave of Fouquet at Vaux with the same exquisite courtesy with which he had accepted the invitation to come there. Three weeks later, he summoned Fouquet to the Louvre to discuss some details of the loan of 88,000 livres the superintendent had made to him to meet the payroll of his navy. They shuffled through a few papers, quickly settled the details, and Fouquet took his leave. As he was getting into his carriage a few minutes later, Chevalier d'Artagnan, lieutenant of the musketeers, came up to him to announce that he was under arrest, and carried off to the first of the dungeons in which he was to spend the rest of his life.

Vaux, which had come fully to life for one glorious evening, was left to wither in obscurity. No one went to visit it, and most of the precious furnishings and decorations were taken away. The king himself appropriated much, including the statues in the garden and the orange trees. According to the present owner of the property, Colbert walked off with a magnificent collection of tapestries, and had the squirrels taken out of them and his own emblem - the couleuvre, or grass-snake - stitched in The tapestry workshops were moved to Paris, where they have kept working ever since, under the name of the Gobelins.

All the creative spirits who had worked on Vaux were taken away, too. The king had seen, in this grand and lovely ensemble, a model for what he sought: a suitable overwhelmingly visible symbol of his own greatness. He had long had the idea of enlarging the hunting lodge his father had built in the little village of Versailles a few miles to the west of Paris. Now he swept up all of Fouquet's establishment - Le Vau and Le Brun and Le Nôtre, plus a whole. troop of craftsmen and skilled laborers - and put them to work creating a great palace which would be the principal monument of his reign. From that day to this, the mighty of this world have taken Versailles as a benchmark against which to measure their own efforts at magnificence.

For all their talent, however, and all the resources a king of France could put at their disposal, the builders of the new palace could never quite equal the original. For lovers of Vaux, Versailles has never been more than a botched imitation. It is too big and too self-conscious, too formal, too grandiose. Le Brun, who was lively and inventive when left alone by Fouquet, became terribly pinched and academic when he had to work under the constant eye of the king.

Versailles, of course, became the seat of the French government, and over the years it was remodeled so often that today it is something of a caricature of its original state. Not so Vaux-le-Vicomte. It remains basically unchanged since that magical August night in 1661 and therefore embodies the melancholy fascination of an enchanted castle in a fairy tale, where a wicked fairy stopped all motion at a stroke of the clock.

It has not survived without the vicissitudes of time, however. The house was empty for a few years after Fouquet's disgrace. But the king, though ferociously unforgiving to the man. did not let his rancor spill over onto the family. He eventually let Mme Fouquet move back in. She was a courageous and accomplished woman who soon got things back into working order. But she could not bear the memories, and eventually sold the place to Marshal de Villars, one of Louis' more successful generals. His son in turn sold it to another noble family, that of the Duke of Choiseul-Praslin, who kept it for a hundred years. But then, in 1847, there was a dreadful scandal when the current duke murdered his wife and killed himself. Disgraced, the family left the chateau dark and shuttered for decades.

In 1875, a young man named Alfred Sommier, who had made a fortune in sugar, was looking for a home within commuting distance of Paris to replace the one which the Germans had destroyed during the Franco- Prussian War five years earlier. He was a lover of beautiful things, and he fell passionately in love with this beautiful house. He bought it and spent the rest of his life restoring it to something like its original state. The walls were solid but the floor beams were rotting, and he replaced them with girders like those used to build the Eiffel Tower. The gardens had reverted to hay- fields, and the huge lead water pipes had been sold. But detailed plans and drawings still survived from the 17th century, and with their help everything could be restored, down to the last clump of box.

Sommier let the Choiseuls take away all their fashionable Louis XVI furniture and haunted auction rooms for examples of the older, statelier Louis XIV style. At one auction he found himself bidding for the archives of the Marshal de Villars against a Marquis de Vogüé, who was a descendant of Villars' sister. A mutual friend later introduced them at a club, and the social-climbing esthete and the aristocrat decided to join forces. Sommier bought the papers, lent some of them to the marquis, and in the course of time married off one of his daughters to one of the marquis' sons. Their grandchild is the current owner of the estate, Count Patrice de Vogüé. Like his great-grandfather, the count has given up almost everything else in life for Vaux-le-Vicomte. "It is a house worth going crazy for," he says. "I understand perfectly why Fouquet took leave of his senses here. When you start on something like this, you have to finish it, no matter what the consequences." When he inherited the property, he was "too proud to sell the greatest house in Europe." In 1968, he opened the garden and the ground floor to public visits. He and his family moved into an apartment in what had once been a sheep barn. The stables were made over into a carriage museum, where the horse-drawn vehicles of three centuries are lined up brightly painted and polished. In April 1984, the rooms of the upper floor were thrown open to visitors, too, and. Fouquet's bed was re-created for one of these rooms. Constant pilgrimages to the auction houses bring their steady crop of treasures, like the four seventeenth-century copies of tapestries plundered by the king.

Vaux has become a major tourist attraction; more than a quarter of a million people troop through the gilded halls and the immaculate gardens every year. They like not only the glitter and the grandeur, but the more workaday air of the rooms in the basement: the kitchen and pantries and wine cellar, and rooms for wood cutting and silver polishing and sewing and washing and all the activities that kept the luxurious life upstairs in motion. On Saturday nights in the summer, the whole building is lit with a thousand candles, and the light, so much softer and richer than electricity, helps to conjure up a vanished past. "I want ghosts to walk here," says de Vogue.

It is the ghosts who make this chateau unique and explain its hold on visitors. Crowds making the tour of the house always linger in the basement by glass cases which fill out Fouquet's unhappy story. He was dragged through a rigged trial which lasted three years before the judges, under shameless pressure from the king and Colbert, found him guilty of a variety of crimes. He was condemned to confiscation of his property and banishment, but the king, outraged that the death sentence had been withheld, intervened and sent Fouquet to prison for the rest of his life.

Did Fouquet get a raw deal from history?

Disappointed in his thirst for blood, Louis at least had the satisfaction of seeing Fouquet go down in the public record as a thief and a waster of the public sub- stance. This verdict has been repeated by generations of historians, who have treated Fouquet as a brilliant but dishonest megalomaniac whom Louis was well-advised to replace with the honest, hardworking Colbert, the man who restored the economy of France to what in the seventeenth century could be called prosperity.. Recently, a scholar named Daniel Dessert has checked into the original records, and he reports that his research indicates that Fouquet has been getting a very raw deal from the historians. It is true that he had a colossal fortune of some 15 million livres when he was arrested, not all of which was necessarily acquired in strictly legal ways. His debts came to about the same sum, and the most interesting thing about them is that almost all the debts were incurred to pay off the king's pressing bills. Dessert suggests that one reason for building Vaux was to reinforce the public delusion that Fouquet was boundlessly rich. Wary investors at that time would not put out a sou for a government bond unless it was countersigned by Fouquet; they assumed he would back up the otherwise worthless paper with the very real property that he had so ostentatiously acquired.

According to de Vogüé, the final answers to the questions about the relative criminality of all these great men are locked up in the private papers of Colbert. Unfortunately they are still in the possession of Colbert's descendants, who apparently do not choose to make them available to researchers suspected of a prejudice in favor of the wicked Fouquet.

As for the wicked Fouquet himself, it did him little good to know that he had been wrongfully accused and judged. The cold vengeance of the king carried him off to a dark dungeon in the gloomy, wind-buffeted fortress of Pignerol in the Alps. There, alone, with no one to talk to but his jailers, with a few miserable items of furniture, with scant pen or ink or paper, the lower halves of his windows covered with blinds so that he could not send signals to some hypothetical friend in the mountains, suffering from sciatica and liver trouble and fever and piles, he lived on like a poor squirrel for more than 15 years.

Even in the 17th century this was considered cruel and unusual punishment, and there has been much speculation about the king's obstinate insistence on keeping Fouquet locked up when he was offering pardons to others who had been convicted of more heinous crimes than fiscal fraud. Conspiracy theorists have been drawn to the case like bees to honey, and they all agree that Fouquet, who at the time of his power knew everything, must have known some secret so horrifying or so shameful that the king could not bear the thought of his ever being able to divulge it. But they cannot agree on what the secret was. Most of them insist that it must have had something to do with another great mystery surrounding another prisoner who according to some not thoroughly reliable sources supposedly was at Pignerol during some of the years Fouquet was there. This was the famous Man in the Iron Mask, who, it is said, lived in solitary confinement under strict guard in a variety of prisons until he died in the Bastille in 1703. As legend has it, more money was spent on his incarceration than for any other prisoner in the whole history of the French monarchy, and his guards were under orders to kill him the moment anyone saw his bare face, which no one ever did. Louis XIV is said to have revealed, on his deathbed, the prisoner's identity to his great-grandson Louis XV, and Louis XV in turn to his grandson Louis XVI, but the latter took the secret to the guillotine during the French Revolution, unless as some say or he whispered it to the executioner before his head fell..

Speculation has raged for 300 years over the question of who this wretched man might have been. Candidates have ranged from a bastard son of Anne of Austria, by Cardinal Mazarin or the Duke of Buckingham, to none other than Fouquet himself. In The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexandre Dumas the elder identified the prisoner as the twin brother of Louis XIV whose face had to be kept hidden lest someone get the idea of putting him on the throne; an idea which sprouted in the wily mind of Aramis, d'Artagnan's old musketeer buddy who had become general of the Jesuits. It was Aramis then who orchestrated the house-warming of Vaux-le-Comte, using it as the setting of a gigantic plot to kidnap King Louis and substituting his brother who could then, without anyone being the wiser, go on to rule France, splitting the profits with Fouquet and the Society of Jesus. For a while the plot worked perfectly, the king was secured by levitating the bed to which he had retired for a rest through a hole in the ceiling, and his twin was putting on a great show which fooled everyone, including his mother. But then it all went wrong, Fouquet was too soft-hearted to play the role he had been assigned, and d'Artagnan as usual set everything to rights.

It all contributes to the aura of romance which surround and softens the formal elegance of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Especially when the light is dim, at sunset or when the fog settles in, the whole sad story of Fouquet, his greatness and his fall, seems to haunt the stones. Other chateaus have seen more noble and world-shaking actions. At Vaux nothing ever happened, except that one great thing, that fatal house-warming. Wars and revolutions have passed it by. The only time its modern alarm system has gone off was once when several hundred thousand insects from a nearby forest flew in great clouds toward the candlelit windows and disturbed the infrared sensors.

All this magnificence, built for great ends that came to naught overnight, is impregnated with the sweet melancholy of the might-have-been.

©19 83 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine August 1983