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Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Part 3


The Feast of August 17, 1661

Vaux-le-Vicomte was to become the setting for one of the most lavish fêtes — or grand celebrations — of the 17th century. Though the affair was extremely refined, and dazzling to behold, it was also rich in hidden drama. The King had asked to visit, to throw Fouquet off the scent of his impending doom; secretly he had decided that Fouquet would die. Overcome with joy at the chance of parading Vaux-le-Vicomte before the sovereign whose faithful servant he remained, Fouquet assumed that he would take over the post of prime minister vacated by Cardinal Mazarin.

Young Louis XIV
Young Louis XIV

It was a beautiful summer's day. Nicolas Fouquet and his wife officially opened Vaux-le-Vicomte in the presence of the King, who had expressed a desire to see the recent improvements, together with the Queen Mother and part of the Court.

After the heat of the day died down, the guests followed their Royal Highnesses into the gardens and marveled at all the lakes and fountains, at the lawns, terraces and flowers, at the awesome grottoes and cascades and at the peerless view. Returning from their walk, a meal was served in the château, then everyone hurried to the edge of the woods for the entertainment; "Les Facheux", a ballet-comedy written and played by Molière. As the curtain went down, a fireworks display started over the grottoes, reflected in the mirror-like surface of the Great Canal, where a giant whale let off more fireworks. After the last explosion, the King headed back to the château when suddenly hundreds of rockets shot up from the dome of the building, forming an arch of flame in the night sky.


Banquet scene from the movie Vatel
(Click image to enlarge)

This enchanting and unprecedented celebration, the model of royal fêtes to come, marked the high point of Fouquet's career, as he himself had no reason to doubt. Only the King, the Queen Mother and Colbert knew that he was in fact only hours from his fall. For Louis XIV to witness such applause going to someone else, to visit a home more luxurious than his old palaces, and a magical garden, were trials for his self-esteem that were hard to endure, and they fueled his desire to destroy the minister. Were it not for the Queen Mother's advice he would have had Fouquet arrested on the spot.

Later Voltaire was to sum up the famous fête thus: "On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France; at two in the morning he was nobody."

Two weeks later Fouquet was arrested. He was never to leave prison alive. After a trial which dragged on for three years, his judges were inclined to commute Fouquet's sentence to banishment. However, incensed by the possibility of Fouquet's freedom, king Louis overturned the court and imposed perpetual imprisonment, which Fouquet served until his death on 23 March, 1680 at the Citadel of Pignerol, a small fortified edifice in the Alps of Savoie.

The memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, written sixty years later, contain an epitaph inspired by the contrasts in the life of one who, "after eight years as Financial Secretary, paid for Mazarin's stolen millions, the jealousy of Tellier and Colbert, and a touch too much gaiety and magnificence, with nineteen years of imprisonment." Of Fouquet's brilliant but short-lived career, there remains Vaux-le-Vicomte.

NEXT PAGE » The Legacy of Vaux-le-Vicomte


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