After visiting the chateau, we spent a bit of time wandering around in the gardens, French formal gardens designed by André Le Nôtre, the landscape designer for Fontainebleau and Versailles. The gardens here are noted as the 1st formal French garden and the 1st major project for Le Nôtre.
Most of the gardens are walkable, however, you can rent an electric golf cart to get around. The grand canal would take a bit of time to get around on foot so we stopped when we reached it. The best view of the garden is from above in dome which you can access if you purchase the full pass to the chateau.
We arrived at Vaux le Vicomte shortly before it opened on a Wednesday morning and we practically had the chateau to ourselves and during the visit we only saw a handful of people. We opted for the complete visit for 16€ which includes the chateau, the gardens and the carriage museum, the simple visit for 14€ did not include the private apartments or the dome which gives a stunning view over the gardens. You can also just visit the gardens and carriage museum but it would be a shame to miss out on the chateau. Audio guides are extra so we just self toured, there was enough information without an audio guide.
A note on the website indicates that the dome will be closed until July 2012, luckily for us it was open for our visit.
On Saturdays the chateau has special things happening during the warmer months, the fountain show on the 2nd and last Saturday of the month, fireworks on the 1st and the 3rd Saturdays and Candlelight visits. It also looks like the deck the halls for the holiday season. Check the website for current information
“Aussi doux pue sévère, aussi puissant pue juste.” (“Just as gentle as he is stern, just as powerful as he is fair.”)
Sung by an actress, in honour of Louis XIV, at Fouquet’s fête at Vaux-le-Vicomte, 17.August.1661
There was something about Vaux-le-Vicomte that captured my imagination. Maybe it was the precedent-setting level of artistic excellence that Nicolas Fouquet achieved at Vaux, a level that gave rise to the view that without Vaux there would be no Versailles. Maybe it was the dramatic story connecting Vaux, Fouquet and Louis XIV. I had to visit.
After many years of planning and building the magnificent château of Vaux-le-Vicomte was finished. Fouquet threw a housewarming party on 17.August.1661. His most honored guest was his boss, Louis XIV; Fouquet was the king’s Surintendant de Finances. The ballets, theatricals, fireworks et jeux de l’eau dazzled his guests.
The king smoldered with envy at this splendid display of opulence that was not his. Three weeks later he had Fouquet arrested on trumped up charges of embezzlement. At the trial Fouquet was found guilty and banished from France; Louis, thinking it insufficient, changed the sentence to life in prison. This imprisonment gave rise to the speculation that Fouquet was the “Man in the Iron Mask.”
The king had confiscated Vaux, its furnishings and art work. Madame Fouquet was not allowed to return for 12 years. At Versailles Louis XIV would go on to employ the same artists that Fouquet did to create his masterpiece, Vaux-le-Vicomte: Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) as interior designer; Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) as architect; and André Le Notre (1613-1700) as landscape gardener.
Today le château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is privately owned and maintained by le comte and la comtesse de Vogüé. Rent a golf cart to get around; it’s fun!
Vaux le Vicomte was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, that is until the nefarious machinations of Colbert who whispered into the ear of King Louis XIV that Fouquet was guilty of theft to cover up his complicity in the accumulation of wealth amassed, mostly by unscurpulous means, by Cardinal Mazarin to whom he served as a personal servent. After Mazarin's death, Colbert needed to cover his tracks and Fouquet was the target. The King was already envious of Fouquet's popularity and of the lavish chateau he built so it was probably not too hard to convince him of Fouquet's guilt. To add insult to injury, in August 1661 they arranged for Fouquet to throw a party for the King at Vaux le Vicomte where they had him arrested. Colbert lobbied for death but the jury voted for banishment. Fouquet was imprisoned for until his death in March 1680. Although I don't remember it being mentioned at the chateau, from the history of the chateau, Fouquet started building the chateau in 1645 but it wasn't finished until 1661, the same year he was arrested. Didn't really give him much time to enjoy the fully completed chateau...
What I really liked about this chateau compared to the others we saw on this visit was that they did a really good job of displaying the history of the chateau in rooms with audio and visual presentations. And unlike Versailles and Fontainebleau, the chateau still sits in a setting not in a city but surrounded by trees and some of the original grounds.
The 1st stop on your tour will likely be the carriage house which has a display of 18th and 19th century horse drawn carriages in the old stables. The carriage house is included with any ticket to the grounds or to the chateau.
In its way the Chateau is, we think, a finer architectural attraction than Versailles. The North entrance is closed by a wrought iron pillared fence,, the figures resembling telamons (by Lespagnandel). The front gates are not used today. This closed courtyard is faced laterally by outbuildings. Next to the one on west (the stables where there is a carriage museum) is our entrance. Although the ground is sloping down, the house is higher on an artificial mound so that it can be surrounded by a moat which is circulated by diverted river water which also feeds a reservoir to power the gravity fed fountains. On the North side it has a classical face with tall accentuated windows on the ground floor, suggesting that the main floor above is more private. There are two lateral pavilions on each side connected by a central one in the typical French chateau style with steep chimneyed roofs. The South face protrudes at it center, the curve enclosing a large two storied oval Grand Salon heightened by a cupola whose interior top is 60 feet above the ground. Outside is a porch where the first view of the spacious grounds unfolds.
The idea behind Le Notre's French formal garden (this is the first of this type and also his first) is to lead the eye of the viewers as they are walking, disclosing new vistas on all sides with new objects of interest coming into view both close and distant (is this where the idea of the flaneur began?). Do not forget to look back! Use is made of multiple levels, in this case three. The walk begins on the platform of the South facade and its fine stairs. From here the vista to the South looks compact. Descend and walk the path between the box hedges admiring the parterres to the right and left. A central round pool (L'Arpente d'eau) comes into view with small lateral canals. Down a few stairs and we are into the second level. Examine the pool and look around at the lateral paths. (Perhaps take one. There is an area here where Louis XIV first saw a Moliere play). There are oval pools ahead on the right and the left. At their centers are statues of reclining nude figures (you will see this trick used again at Versailles). Now one can see clearly ahead the Grottos and the center of the canal looking (because of its central basin) like a pond. Up on the hill beyond is a large statue, the Farnese Hercules. On some days the gravity feed fountains are in full force as well. A rectangular pool next comes into view. Beyond to the East is a structure that I cannot identify. When the fountains are playing, the pool empties into a cascade. Laterally a few steps lead into the third level and we see the lateral extents of the canal. (As elderly sightseers we did not have the energy to circle the canal and examine the Grottos and their contents or to visit Hercules)
From below the lower pool the water areas in the second level are not visible and the vista is of a landscape in tiers. The waters become dominant in the walk through the middle level with the round pool at the head most prominent. From the pool the upper level and parterres are traversed and their the decorations come to the fore. Ahead a long graceful staircase leads to the Grand Salon. Louis XIV had not such ideas before (gardens, interior decoration, fetes, plays) but he was as bright as he was combative and ruthless, and with little conscience. His afternoon and evening was a quick education! (I think he left early).
While the room arrangement was part of the LeVau achievement, the interior decoration and ceiling paintings was entirely the work of LeBrun, who lived and entertained in the partly finished chateau as did La Fontaine ( a friend of the group). Our traversal of the rooms long ago was a guided tour in French, while fortunately today it is independent (a rented audio guide is very strongly recommended). I assimilated the spoken words but the pace was so fast that I did not get many pictures and took no notes (I was a beginning sightseer at the time). But I did get some pictures in the hall gallery of some of the people associated with the chateau (but not their names), a copy of the names of those who judged Fouquet and their votes and (I think) the Donjon in which he was imprisoned for life by the King who overturned the judgement of banishment. (It is said the story of the Man in the Iron Mask is derived from details of his life sentence which lasted until he died after 19 years). In the delicate blue closet of Madame Fouquet, a painting of Fouquet hangs above the mantel and in the corner is a ancient lacquer jewel cabinet.
We were beginners when we visited. We did not know that a close personal association existed between Le Vau, Lebrun, Le Notre, La Fontaine and Fouquet or that Fouquet was in such a rush to build that he assembled 10,000 workmen and artisans for his project. Or that he set up a tapestry manufactury in Maincy 3 km to the south for LeBrun's cartoons. Louis XIV later moved it to Paris as the Gobelin works. We did not understand what underlay the Hercules motif of this room. We did not photo LeBrun's Hercules ceiling but only did the Hercules statuary on the two colored marble tables that were Fouquet's and the bronze maquet of Girardon's statue of Louis XIV on horseback (behind it is a picture of Louis XV on the wall). There was more but that is all the time we had in this magnicent room. There have been many owners of the chateau and some rooms have been divided and altered. Le Vau did not use the "4 room appartement" style of earlier chateaux. Nevertheless, enjoy what is still on show. It is better and easier than going to the Loire for a day.
LeBrun showed his talents to be the equal of his compatriots in his interior creations, especially seen in the rooms that are intact. The ceiling in Madame Fouquet's closet has an example of his ceiling painting, seen best with binoculars.( There are several ceilings to enjoy, the equal of Versailles). The sky in this one has been redone but the winged mythical females and the surrounds are original. In the "Square Room" the ceiling is beamed and the room paneled. Later owners have left their marks here. It is now a billiard room and the fine table is of 1877 (by Dasson). The first changes were effected by the Marechal de Villars who bought Vaux from Fouquet's widow. He sold off the great tapestries which no longer exist and installed paintings of his greatest battle victories. See him over the mantel (painted by Rigaud). The large Chinoiserie vases are from his time. He and others made many interior modifications to the rooms which were too large for their tastes and altered the grounds to the more English fashion.
This large room is unique in French chateau architecture. Note its great height and the use of mirrors. It is obvious that Louis XIV was impressed. Since Versailles was too large and long for such an unifying architectural ploy, they came up with the immense Hall of Mirrors to satisfy him. The Louis XIV style of furniture and decoration also arose in Vaux (we did not understand this when we visited long ago). The dome ceiling of the room is supported by 16 caryatides, representing the 12 months and four seasons and sculpteded by Girardon! At the pilaster bases are 16 carved Roman heads held by 17C Florentine carved upper torsos. Fouquet had acquired 4 by the time of his arrest. Alfred Sommier found the other 12. Similarly the room has almost no finishing or furniture due to the arrest (but Le Brun's realization plans are displayed). This central Salon artfully connects with the downstairs room sets, the vestibule and acces to the ascending sets of stairs and has a spacious view overlooking the great gardens.