50 kilometers Southeast of Paris is the matrix of every classic European castle: Vaux-le-Vicomte.
50 kilometers Southeast of Paris is the castle whose magnificence signed the death warrant (or at least the warrant of arrest) of its first owner.
50 kilometers Southeast of Paris is found the largest private castle in France.
Let’s resume: the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte was built from 1658 to 1661, with the help of the most outstanding artists of the time – Le Nôtre, Le Vau and Le Brun, to name a few. The castle’s owner is Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances of Louis XIV.
On August 17, 1661 Nicolas Fouquet held a party in honor of King Louis XIV. Legend has it that the splendor of the festival was such that the young King Louis XIV took umbrage. Jealous of the opulence displayed by his host, Louis XIV said to his mother in the carriage bringing him back to Paris “Ah, Madame, will we not apprehend of all these people?”.
On September 5, 1661, Nicolas Fouquet was arrested. The finance minister was accused of embezzling vast sums of money. After a fantastic trial, l’Ecureuil (the Squirrel) – Fouquet’s nickname – is imprisoned for life in Pinerolo, a fortress battered by the mountain winds. His coat of arms are scraped on the pediments of Vaux-le-Vicomte, his property is seized by the King and his poor fate – ignored at the time – gives birth to many legends, including that of the Iron Mask.
The castle, having suffered some vicissitudes, survives the French Revolution and is finally purchased during an auction in 1876 by a single bidder, Alfred Sommier. The Sommier family undertook the restauration of the castle and its gardens, and Patrice de Vogüé – part of the Sommier family by marriage – decides to open the castle to the public in 1968.
Beyond the tragically romantic destiny of its first owner, Vaux-le-Vicomte, with its beauty and its architectural biases, the estate becomes the masterful model of classical architecture of which all the castles of importance are inspired.
To begin with Versailles, under the severe aegis of Louis XIV.
The principles of the French garden were born in Vaux-le-Vicomte: embroidered flowerbeds, basins, canals, caves, waterfalls and sculptures. This all plays with the laws of perspective and optical effects. The way in which the elements are interspersed in the gardens, their distance from the castle, their height and length, makes them look closer than they actually are.
From an architectural point of view, the whole is surprising – and nevertheless of a rare harmony – with absolutely monumental commons, moats which have no other function than to be decorative, two rows of rooms running east and west, where the other contemporary castles at the time have only rooms in succession arranged in a single row.
The combination of the building and the surrounding gardens is simply incredible. Perspectives cross the castle to let the visitor admire a view of 4 kilometers punctuated with flowerbeds and pools.
The rotunda lounge is a marvel of originality. It is this, placed in the center of the building, allows for a magnificent view, the castle being pierced with a spotlight of sun between courtyard and garden. Above the rotunda lounge is the dome, a technical feat which makes Vaux-le-Vicomte recognizable by all.
The most amazing element remains, to me, is the sweet and serene energy that emerges from the space. I think this is due to the love the owners have for their castle: it is a family that owns and maintains Vaux-le-Vicomte, and that is what it feels like.
Would I be tempted to say “magnifies”? Yes, absolutely. Vaux-le-Vicomte caresses its visitors and uses treasures of inventiveness in order to live up to its rich heritage. Unlike other French castles, the welcome is familial and warm. Children can dress up when visiting the castle. Events are organized during the summertime or at Christmas. The size of the castle, however imposing, disappears before the conviviality of the space, and that changes everything. Vaux-le-Vicomte is certainly an institution in France, but avoids perfectly the pitfall of being rigid or crushing.
Go and visit the model of all the classical castles of Europe: let yourself be astounded.
December 13, 2019
Photos by Maurice Chair
Blue dress by The Micsologyst