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Vaux-le-Vicomte: Nicolas Fouquet’s Castle

Nicolas Fouquet, by Sébastien Bourdon (Musée national du château de Versailles) (Photo credit: Larousse)

Nicolas Fouquet

The story of the “City Rat and the Country Rat,” or “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” is not insignificant. Our country mouse is as poor as the peasants who paid the astronomical bill Louis XIV ran up building Versailles. But Louis had seen Vaux-le-Vicomte, the castle Nicolas Fouquet, the “Superintendent of Finances,” had built for himself and Louis XIV was not about to be housed in humbler dwellings than the magnificent château owned by his “surintendant des Finances,” a patron of Jean de La Fontaine, and various authors and artists.

Nicolas Fouquet,[i] marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux (27 January 1615 – 23 March 1680) was “Superintendent of Finances” in France between 1653 and 1661. A lawyer by training, he had risen to prominence rapidly and had been named “Superintendant of Finances,” a position Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin (14 July 1602 – 9 March 1661), who ruled France, could not deny him. Fouquet knew that Mazarin was using his own position as “Prime Minister” to amass wealth, while the “country mice” of France lived in abject poverty.

Le chancelier Séguier, by Charles Le Brun (1655)
(Photo credit: Larousse)


Nicolas Fouquet’s château, Vaux-le-Vicomte,[ii] had been built by the future architect of Versailles: Louis Le Vau, and was decorated by Versailles’ future painter Charles Le Brun, who owed his training as an artist to a powerful individual, le chancelier Séguier.[iii] As for the grounds, they were designed by landscape artist André Le Nôtre. Fouquet had therefore assembled the team that would later build Louis XIV’s castle at Versailles, a community where his father, King Louis XIII, a composer, had a hunting lodge he used as his main residence. Fouquet also owned Belle-Île-sur-Mer, a fortified island where he could live if ever he needed a safe haven. As well, Fouquet had bought several private properties in Paris, “hôtels” or “hôtels particuliers,” and, in 1651, a widower, Fouquet married a very wealthy Spanish woman, Marie de Castille.

A Feast

In 1661, shortly after Louis XIV ascended the throne, Fouquet hosted a fête that could not be rivalled and that convinced Louis XIV, first, that Fouquet was using public funds for private purposes and, second, that he, the King, needed a castle that would be more beautiful than the castle of a mere “subject,” at any cost.

François Vatel, maître d’Hôtel

The fête was a great success. François VatelLouis II de Bourbon-Condé‘s future maître d’hôtel served the finest of foods, including tropical fruit grown in Fouquet’s green house, an orangerielocated on his estate. Louis XIV would ask architect Jules-Hardouin Mansart (16 April 1646 – 11 May 1708) to build an orangerie at Versailles.

Molière and Lully

Moreover, on 17 August 1661, dramatist Molière premièred Les Fâcheux, a comedy and a ballet, at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  The king loved to dance and had discovered a composer who could provide the appropriate music, Italian-born Giovanni Battista Lulli, renamed Jean-Baptiste Lully (28 November 1632 – 22 March 1687). Molière was one of Fouquet’s protégés, but he was also a friend of Louis XIV.

Louis XIV in Lully‘s Ballet de la nuit, 1653 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fouquet Arrested and Jailed

Louis quickly suspected embezzlement (malversation de fonds publics) on the part of Nicolas Fouquet, abolished the position of Superintendant of Finances, arranged for Fouquet to accompany him to Nantes where D’Artagnan, whose full name was Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan (c. 1611 – 25 June 1673), one of his Musketeers (les mousquetaires de la maison militaire du roi de France), took the very wealthy Fouquet into custody. Famed and prolific novelist Alexandre Dumas, père (24 July 1802 – 5 December 1870) used D’Artagnan as the leading figure in his Trois Mousquetaires (1844).

This festive event sealed Fouquet’s fate.Whether or not justice was served, we may never know, but in December 1664, after a three-year trial, Nicolas Fouquet was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to banishment, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment. (See Fouquet, Wikipedia.) Fouquet died at Pignerol (now Pinerolo), in 1680. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who coveted a place as a member of the Conseil du Roi, assembled the material that would serve to destroy Fouquet, a possible rival. Unlike Louis XIII, who let France be governed by prime ministers: Cardinal Richelieu, replaced, in 1642, by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Louis XIV did not want a prime minister.

The Three Musketeers , by Maurice Leloir, 1894 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Athos, Porthos, Aramis & D’Artagnan”
450px-La_masque_de_ferThe Man with the Iron Mask, c. 1872 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, Fouquet served his sentence in the same prison as the man with the iron mask (l’homme au masque de fer), whose identity has yet to be determined, but who was Fouquet’s man-servant for a short period. Rumour has it that the man in the iron mask may have been Louis XIV’s father. Louis XIII is unlikely to have fathered a son. As noted above, he preferred to live with friends in his hunting lodge at Versailles, where Louis XIV, would have  his castle built.

Fouquet as patron of the Arts: Jean de La Fontaine

Jean de La Fontaine, the author of Le Songe de Vaux, tried to help his patron and, as a result, he was not “elected” to the Académie française until 1682. In fact, under Louis XIV, a candidate was not “elected” to one of the forty seats of the Académie, les quarante immortels; one was appointed by the King himself. The Académie française was established by Cardinal Richelieu (9 September 1585 – 4 December 1642) in 1635. It perished in 1793, during the French  Revolution, but was reestablished by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1803.

Vaux-le-Vicomte had been a lesson to La Fontaine who set about writing fables that he called “a comedy immense,” cultivating a discreet form of congeniality with his peers and hosts.  I believe he was the rustic rather than the city rat. Between the lines of his fables, he painted a fresco of his era. However, he did so using anthropomorphism. His animals, the elements, the trees, all were humans in disguise and stereotypes, which protected the fabulist. The Lion may be king, but the King is not a lion and would not want to be. Imagine the ridicule Louis XIV would have brought unto himself, if he had allowed anyone to think that he was an animal, La Fontaine’s lion. La Fontaine therefore wrote

Une ample comédie à cent actes divers
Et dont la scène est l’univers.
Le Bûcheron et Mercure (V.i; V.1)
Thus swells my work—a comedy immense
Its acts unnumbered and diverse,
Its scene the boundless universe.
The Woodman and Mercury (V.i; V.1)


Fouquet’s story is well-known. Absolutism would not allow transgressions. Not only was Fouquet jailed for the remainder of his life, but the possessions he cherished were seized. Under Louis XIV, the only person who could keep a king humble was Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, whose sermons are famous and who emphasized that all of us are mere mortals: memento mori.

[i] Nicolas Fouquet
http://www.larousse.fr/encyclopedie/personnage/Nicolas_Fouquet/187131 (FR)
[ii] “Vaux-le-Vicomte”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013
[iii] Portrait du chancelier Séguier
http://www.larousse.fr/encyclopedie/oeuvre/Portrait_du_chancelier_S%C3%A9guier/181324 (FR)



© Micheline Walker
20 August 2013