Step Inside the Extravagant French Home That Inspired Versailles
(Bloomberg) -- As soon as he took on the role as director of patronage and public relations for his family’s historic mansion, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Alexandre de Vogüé has been struggling to dispel the château’s origin myth.
“It’s a glamorous story, and it’s super simple to tell,” he says. “Nicolas Fouquet, a wealthy man, stole from the treasury of Louis XIV to build this amazing palace. He put on a lavish opening party, invited the court, the king got super jealous, and put him in prison for the rest of his life.”
The yarn is “great for storytelling,” Vogüé continues, “but it’s very far from the truth.”
To be fair, it’s one that’s been perpetuated through the centuries. Voltaire wrote: “On 17 of August at six in the evening, Fouquet was king of France; at two in the morning he was nobody.”
The reality, however, is that “Fouquet’s destiny had been sealed for three months,” Vogüé says, citing a conspiracy by the politician Jean-Baptiste Colbert who (correctly) viewed Fouquet as a powerful rival, and accordingly poisoned Fouquet’s name with Louis XIV.
Vogüé adds, however, that “when he arrived at his party, with so much extravagance, the king became convinced he made the right decision.”
Along with the premiere of a Moliere play on the fateful night, there was apparently a wild fireworks display, along with a whale that swam the canals and “emitted smoke.”
Even without the origin story, the house—widely considered the most extravagant private home in France—would have a following. Now, in a new book, Vaux-le-Vicomte: A Private Invitation (Flammarion, $85), readers will be able to discover why.
Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, “Fouquet had two passions in life: power and art,” Vogüé says. Fouquet had married heiresses twice. (The first died in childbirth.)
Vaux-le-Vicomte was, in a sense, a way of fulfilling both. After siding with the crown during the French civil wars (La Fronde), Fouquet was rewarded with titles, honors, and positions and quickly rose through the ranks to become superintendent of finances to the king.
Yet, Vogüé says, Fouquet wanted more. Specifically, he wanted to be prime minister.
In the early 1650s, he commissioned Louis Le Vau, the architect who’d first carry out major work on Versailles; André Le Nôtre, the future gardener to the king at Versailles; and Charles Le Brun, the future first painter to the king, and gave them, Vogüé says, “a blank canvas and freedom to do whatever they wanted.”
The only guidance was that they had to “build a house and garden that were striking in their harmony, and they had to be as bold and innovative as possible, because he wanted to blow the minds of the court,” Vogüé continues.
In doing so, Fouquet hoped that the house could become “a powerful propaganda tool to convince people that he should be the next prime minister.”
On top of that, as superintendent of finances to the king, Fouquet was charged with bundling private loans to the state, for which he effectively charged the country interest. “That was absolutely legal and accepted at the time,” Vogüé says.
The result, though, was that Fouquet became almost inconceivably rich. Much of this wealth was poured into Vaux-le-Vicomte.
A half-mile stretch of river was diverted. The roughly 80-acre property’s original mansion was torn down. Trees were uprooted and replanted. And, in 1656, from 600 to 2,000 laborers set to work on the house.
The house was completed in about five years.
Louis XIV had visited twice during construction, Vogüé says, and was appropriately dazzled, not just by the home’s innovative facade and gardens but by its interior.
Le Brun, sparing no expense, based the interior decoration on Italian palazzi.
For evidence of Le Brun’s style, look no further than the King’s Bedchamber, a ceremonial room built on the off chance that the King would decide to stay over. (He didn’t.) The silk walls, the gilded balustrade, and the opulent, stage-like bed are all crowned by ceilings painted by Le Brun and François Girardon, one of the great sculptors of French Baroque.
After Fouquet’s downfall and imprisonment, his mother occupied the house. She in turn passed it to her grandson, who died without heirs, and whose wife sold it to the Duke of Villars, a man who owed his fortune to a series of military successes in the service of Louis XIV.
Over generations, the Villars heirs weren’t quite rich enough to keep the house going. They sold it in 1763 to yet another French aristocrat favored by the crown, the Duke of Praslin.
The Praslins managed to hold onto it through the French Revolution. An heir murdered his wife in 1847, at which point the house slowly, inexorably, fell into ruin.
“It was only inhabited by three families,” Vogüé says. “And then 1875 my great-great-grandfather bought the house and dedicated the rest of his life and fortune to resuscitating it.”
When Vogüé’s ancestor Alfred Sommier bought the house, “the paintings on the ceiling were actually in quite a good state,” Vogüé says. “He thought it was a national treasure because of them, and that’s one of the main reasons he decided to buy it.”
Vogüé estimates that 70% of the home’s original, 16th century interior is still extant.
Additionally, there were precisely six pieces of furniture—two oval tables topped in red and black marble and four busts—left from Fouquet’s time. Vogüé explains that “after Fouquet’s arrest, the king took absolutely everything [else].”
After redoing the château’s masonry and reshingling the roof, an endeavor that required nearly five acres of slate, the Sommiers, enriched by sugar refineries, moved into it in July 1877 and never left.
They began working on the gardens, fountains, and canals, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that everything was back to an accurate approximation of Le Nôtre’s designs.
In 1968, Vogüé’s father opened the house up to the public.
The house, by design, was suddenly transformed from a private home into something else—not quite a museum, but certainly a window into a different time.
As a consequence, “my father scratched his head to answer the question: ‘What kind of story am I going to tell the visitors?” Vogüé says.
“He decided to tell Fouquet’s story, and to focus on one character and one style.”
He began to sell historically incorrect furnishings and replace them with interiors of greater accuracy. “Little by little, he’d sell artifacts and pieces of the collection,” Vogüé says, “to buy, for instance, a 17th century tapestry that could have belonged to Fouquet.”
For the past five years, the house has had a “break-even budget,” says Vogüé. “We don’t lose money—but we cannot, because there’s no more money in my family. It’s as simple as that.”
Together with his two brothers, Vogüé manages the property, which employs about 80 people, eight of them gardeners. He’s the only one who lives on the premises, in an outbuilding.
Vogüé insists that what visitors see is all he knows. “Bizarrely enough, we’ve never really been interested or curious enough to look for things like secret passageways,” he says. “We have a pretty simple life. It might astonish people.”
Still, he says, “I can ride my mountain bike in my garden, and that’s something that’s a huge privilege.”
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