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Vaux-le-Vicomte, the chateau that was the model for Versailles
Everyone has heard of the Palace of Versailles, one of the most sumptuous palaces ever built and a monument to the power and wealth of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte is smaller and less well-known but is a gem in its own right. And it was the inspiration for Versailles in many ways.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is near Melun, an hour’s drive southeast of Paris. Originally a small chateau, its fortunes changed when Nicolas Fouquet, a young member of Parliament and patron of the arts, bought it in 1641. He became Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances in 1657 and began to develop his property. By 1661, he had transformed it into a splendid Baroque chateau and garden. They remain among the finest in France.
Fouquet wasn’t the first to celebrate his ambition and good fortune by building a palace. But he pioneered the teamwork among three great artists: the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun, and the landscape gardener André Le Nôtre. They worked together for five years and created a harmonious ensemble of house and garden.
The story doesn’t have a happy ending. Fouquet held a lavish fete at Vaux-le-Vicomte in August 1661 at which Louis XIV was the principal guest. The king had already decided to have Fouquet arrested following accusations of embezzlement by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (who then stepped into Fouquet’s job). The extravagant fete and the magnificent chateau convinced the king that the allegations were true. It’s likely that jealousy also influenced the king’s judgment.
Fouquet received a life sentence and died in prison in 1680. His chateau was seized and Louis XIV confiscated most of its contents. He also commandeered the Le Vau-Le Brun-Le Nôtre trio and set them to work on an even grander project – the palace and garden at Versailles, which opened in 1682.
The work at Vaux-le-Vicomte was the making of the landscape gardener, André le Notre, in particular. His use of formal geometric patterns, long vistas, and fountains, statues and other architectural features greatly influenced 17th– century European garden design. The gardens at Versailles were his apogee but Vaux-le-Vicomte is a masterpiece, too.
Le Vau and Le Brun also went on to greater fame under royal patronage, their careers boosted by their work for the ill-fated Fouquet and then on Versailles.
Vaux-le-Vicomte fell into disrepair in the 18th and 19th centuries but a large-scale renovation began in 1875. Today, the privately-owned chateau and its gardens have been restored to their former splendor and are open to the public.
Credit Photo © Eric Pouhier
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