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March 7, 2021

Vaux-le-Vicomte: Power, Greed, Corruption and Versailles by Sophie Higgerson

Vaux-le-Vicomte: Power, Greed, Corruption and Versailles by Sophie Higgerson

Sophie Higgerson talks about a mansion so grand it made King Louis XIV jealous and inspired Versailles.


Gary: Today’s special episode is by Sophie Higgerson. Sophie is a PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research focuses primarily on the architecture and urbanism of French and German border spaces, socio-political identity in aesthetic movements, and critical heritage studies. She has previously held internships at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Strasbourg and the Library of Congress, where she catalogued the library’s collection of 18th century French legal documents and researched the enforcement of the salt tax in pre-Revolutionary France.

Today Sophie will recount a dramatic story about Vaux-le-Vicomte. Made by an endlessly-ambitious man, this château was at the center of a changing France, a political scandal and inspired Louis XIV’s Versailles.


Sophie: Versailles is one of the best-known palaces in the world. Its name evokes opulence, splendor, power, and greed. Built on the site of a much smaller hunting palace during the reign of Louis XIV, today Versailles is the largest baroque palace in Europe. The complex covers over 2000 acres. Its expansion began in 1661 and was designed to be the ultimate symbol of Louis XIV’s royal power, perfectly encapsulating the king’s vision of absolutism. He sought to build a new French capital away from Paris from which he could personally rule his empire and maintain power over the nobility. Versailles was thus designed to communicate the complete control of the French king. But it was also designed to overshadow another château that preceded it, Nicolas Fouquet’s Vaux-le-Vicomte. The beginning of Louis XIV’s reign had been marked by war and financial instability. Wealthy, well-connected members of the bourgeoisie could rise to dizzying heights of power by supplying money to the crown. Fouquet, Louis’s minister of finance at the beginning of his reign, was one such commoner. The enormous wealth that he accumulated through his business and political dealings made him many enemies, who suggested that his fortune had come from embezzling state funds. Fouquet used his money to create a lavish palace called Vaux-le-Vicomte, where he patronized France’s leading artists and entertained the king and the court. The chateau was both an artistic passion project for Fouquet and an expression of his social ambition and political power. Threatened and perhaps jealous of Fouquet’s success, Louis XIV had him arrested and imprisoned, and seized Vaux-le-Vicomte. But Fouquet’s palace made an undeniable impression on the king, who transferred all of Fouquet’s artisans, as well as much of Vaux-le-Vicomte’s art, furniture, and other collections, to the new construction site at Versailles. Versailles grew into an enlarged, elaborated version of Vaux, using many of the same architectural and landscape features. The relationship between Vaux and Versailles is a story of artistic innovation, personal ambition, and political intrigue. How a palace built by a commoner became an inspiration for a king is one of the most intriguing episodes in France’s architectural history.

In order to understand the conditions of Fouquet’s meteoric rise and ultimate downfall, we must first visit France’s political history 100 years before the completion of Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, the same year that Louis XIV began his independent reign. Louis’ ascension to the throne followed a century of political turmoil and unrest in France. The Wars of Religion, which were fought between 1562 and 1598, pitted Catholics against Protestants, and was also marked by a dynastic power struggle over the monarchy. These wars culminated with the replacement of the Valois dynasty by the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, who was Louis XIV’s grandfather. A period of reconstruction began in the 1590s, but royal power was still extremely unstable. The monarchy was plagued by massive debts and in 1618, another war broke out– the Thirty Years War. Initially set off by religious infighting within the neighboring Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War eventually drew France into the conflict in 1635. Money again became a problem as the crown sought new streams of revenue to finance the war. The French nobility strongly opposed increased taxation to support the military campaigns. These were directed by Cardinal Richelieu, who was then First Minister of State to Louis XIV’s father, Louis XIII. As a result, the majority of the tax burden fell on the bourgeoisie and the lower classes, although the amount of tax revenue that the crown could generate from them was subsequently quite low. When the French government issued six fiscal edicts intended to increase taxation on the elites in 1648, both the parliament and the nobility rebelled, beginning a civil war within a still-ongoing conflict with the Spanish that had developed out of the Thirty Years War. The nobility fought to protect their noble feudal privileges from the encroachment of the monarchy, while the monarchy sought further social and fiscal control over the nobles. The opposing nobility included members of the royal family; among them was Louis XIV’s uncle, the Duke of Orleans.

The Fronde was put down in 1653, and the Franco-Spanish War ended in 1659, but this period of intense instability had a marked effect on the young Louis XIV. His father had died in 1643 when Louis was just 4 years old. Louis was a child at the time of his accession to throne. Because of this, the kingdom was ruled under a regency by his mother Anne of Austria and her First Minister, Cardinal Mazarin. However, this period of civil war and financial instability made young Louis acutely aware of the limitations of royal power. He was impressed with the need to consolidate control within the kingdom, and when his mother’s regency ended and he assumed personal control of France, he sought to establish himself as an unassailable and independent ruler. The regency formally ended when Louis reached the age of majority, 13, in 1651, but Cardinal Mazarin continued to hold power as First Minister until his death in 1661.

The experience of the Fronde had also instilled a personal hatred of the French capital of Paris in the young Louis. During the civil war, he and his mother had twice been forced to flee the city. At another point, they were held under virtual house arrest in the royal palace by the Parisian mob. As king, Louis would seek to live elsewhere and build a palace away from the city from which he could exercise perfect control, not only over the unruly nobles who had opposed his reign, but over the whole of his kingdom.

But establishing the crown’s independence would require extricating it from a complicated fiscal system that relied on support from members of the bourgeoisie. Because of the near impossibility of extracting tax revenue from the nobility, the monarchy was forced to rely on middle-class financial operatives. These bourgeois men supported the royal fiscal administration and supplemented the money that could be generated from taxation through personal loans to the monarchy. Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances, was one of these middle-class men who financially supported the royal administration. Fouquet was one of three bourgeois men who served as ministers to the king when Louis XIV began his personal rule in 1661 at the age of 23. Although Fouquet was eventually able to purchase noble titles for himself, he was a commoner by birth. Many government officials were a part of this noblesse de robe, a class of untitled nobility whose members could afford to live luxurious lives like the French elites in enormous rural chateaux. One of Fouquet’s roles as Superintendent of Finances was to find money for the monarchy. Because of his wealth and credit, he had the power to sway bankers to lend money to the French crown. However, as Fouquet was not a born member of the French nobility, he did not have access to traditional lines of power and authority, and his financial and political success raised suspicions among the nobility.

Financial officials at this time could become extremely wealthy by serving the crown while continuing to pursue their own interests in trade, commerce, and investments. Fouquet himself was enormously rich. He had made his money partly from his political career and the high offices he held, partly through his own business dealings in colonial and mercantile speculation, and partly from two auspicious marriages to the daughters of other wealthy bourgeoise families. However, the practice of lending money to the crown left financial officials like Fouquet open to charges of corruption. Periodically, the crown would arrest and prosecute its own creditors, including private French citizens, to get rid of them and the debts that the monarchy owed to them.

Fouquet had maintained a close relationship to royal power throughout the Fronde. He had stayed loyal to Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin throughout the civil war and had lent money to Cardinal Mazarin in 1656 when France was facing a massive defeat at the hands of Spaniards. Fouquet’s critics believed that he intended to reimburse this loan from state funds, which he would have had access to as Superintendent of Finances. But in spite of these suspicions, Fouquet was well-liked by much of the French nobility and artistic scene in the years immediately after the Fronde. After the fighting stopped, Fouquet was able to unite many factions of the French elite through their common desire to return to the culture and luxury of courtly life. Contemporaries describe Fouquet as a charming bon vivant who loved art and literature, and in spite of his commoner background, his artistic patronage made him very popular among the elite.

In the aftermath of the Fronde, Fouquet was France’s only major artistic patron, and he wanted his palace to be the country’s new artistic capital. Fouquet had a well-known love for beautiful buildings and supported an entire cohort of artists, designers, and writers around him. He attracted the most notable artists of the age because of his pure love of the arts and his generosity. Fouquet would financially support artists with stipends, and many artists felt that under his patronage, they were free to create art for art’s sake and were not forced to follow a pre-dictated set of principles or preferences.

Fouquet used his wealth to design an enormous palace as his noble seat, the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet had inherited the land from his father, and he quickly set about redesigning the property to be an appropriately noble chateau for a man of his power and renown. Beginning in 1658, he spent enormous sums of money redesigning the chateau, landscape, and decorations at Vaux. Unlike other nobles who would slowly remodel their families’ country estates over time, Fouquet approached the project as a complete and simultaneous renovation. He employed artisans to work on every aspect of the project at once in order to create a total work of art. At Vaux, every element was perfectly integrated to communicate Fouquet’s good taste, enormous wealth, and political power.

Fouquet had the talent of choosing artisans who were perfectly suited for the job. He first employed the architect Louis Le Vau in 1657 to redesign the existing site and begin work on the palace. For the interior decoration, he chose the painter Charles Le Brun, who, in addition to choosing furniture and furnishings for the building, decorated the walls and ceilings of the chateau with allegorical paintings. For the gardens and landscape, Fouquet selected André Le Nôtre. The three men deployed many innovations in design and decoration at Vaux. Together, their work turned the property into an artistic jewel marked by perfect proportions, luxurious décor, and near-constant references to classical mythology. Le Nôtre’s garden, with its long axes and far-off vanishing point, was decorated with sculptures of Greek and Roman gods and heroes, accented by grottoes and terraces, and studded with fountains and water features. Le Nôtre used perspectival tricks of elevation to make the garden appear much smaller than its true size; only once the visitor was walking down its main axis away from the chateau would they realize how vast the landscape actually was. The interior of the chateau was lavishly decorated by Le Brun, whose paintings of classical allegories were supplemented with art from Fouquet’s extensive personal collection, which included works by the artists Paolo Veronese and Nicolas Poussin. Both the interior and the exterior of the chateau sported Fouquet’s family coat of arms and motto– a squirrel above the Latin phrase quo non ascendet, meaning “Whither shall he not climb?” While the emblem is taken from the definition of the word foucquet, which in the western French dialect of Angers meant squirrel, it is impossible not to remark how apt this image was for a man of Fouquet’s power and ambition.

The chateau itself, which was designed by Le Vau, is an excellent example of baroque architectural design. The chateau’s construction drew on classical architectural principles such as symmetry and geometric regularity. Its façade is decorated with columns, arches, and beautiful sculptures. The building itself is situated at the end of a north-south axis that continues behind the chateau into the gardens. It is built entirely of stone, a relatively new design style at the time, and is capped with a hipped, four-sided mansard roof. In the center of the building to the rear, the mansard roof gives way to an enormous dome which covers Vaux’s central oval salon. The main chateau sits on top of a moated platform, a reference to earlier medieval chateau design, and is reached by two bridges aligned with the north-south axis. The main chateau has an ample forecourt in front of the entrance to the building.

The elevation of Vaux-le-Vicomte is perfectly symmetrical, with two rooms in the center of the building flanked by wings on either side. In addition to their exteriors being identical, these two wings are also nearly symmetrical in the layout of their interior rooms. The front façade of the building is decorated with classical sculptures and a relief in the triangular tympanum over the front door which depicts Apollo and Demeter. These were appropriate gods to grace Vaux’s façade, as Apollo was the patron god of the arts, and Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and bounty. The front façade is also decorated with sculpted lions and cherubs surrounding a coat of arms in the center of the tympanum. The profiled heads of Roman emperors appear above the colonnade, and Fouquet’s signature squirrels are repeated in a second, lower Doric frieze. The rear façade of the palace is similarly decorated with sculptures and carvings. Over the tympanum at the back of the chateau, which faces the gardens, is a sculpture of a winged angel, perhaps representing Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. She is surrounded by war trophies, which may allude to the triumph of peace over the recent civil war. The classical architectural references continue on the inside of the chateau. Under the great dome, the main salon is richly decorated with Corinthian pilasters, a frieze showing the twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve sculpted figures balancing baskets of fruit and flowers on top of their heads. The themes of these decorations are clearly order, wealth, and prosperity, and their Greek and Roman stylistic origins communicate that France is the new inheritor of the power and good taste of the classical civilizations. The wall decorations in the Salon d’Été recall Roman wall paintings and similarly show images of foliage and classicizing figures. Almost every room on the first floor is decorated with one of Charles Le Brun’s ceiling paintings which show eagles, angels, and scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Several rooms, including the library and the Blue Salon, also have wall paintings that depict Louis XIV’s coat of arms. As a complete work of art whose architecture, gardens, furnishings and decorations were all perfectly integrated, Vaux represented a return to courtly life and style after the Fronde and showcased Fouquet’s artistic patronage.

Fouquet had commissioned a chateau that encapsulated not only his wealth, his love of the arts and his power, but also France’s new-found stability after the Fronde. But at the beginning of Louis XIV’s reign in 1661, Fouquet was in a tenuous position. While Fouquet lived in luxury and increasing extravagance as his power and wealth grew, most of the nobility and the king himself were cash strapped and living relatively poorly. On the one hand, Fouquet had many admirers who appreciated his love of art and culture, but there were many others who held suspicions about Fouquet’s ambitions and the source of his wealth. Louis XIV himself was increasingly unsettled by his finance minister’s lifestyle. While Fouquet had been able to purchase a noble title for himself, that of Viscount of Melun and Vaux, he was still a member of the bourgeoisie by birth, and his social ambition was a cause for royal concern.

Fouquet had another powerful enemy who was particularly well positioned to cause his downfall– Jean-Baptiste Colbert, another royal minister and public official who became First Minister after Cardinal Mazarin’s death. Both Fouquet and Colbert were seen as having equal claim to ministerial power after the Cardinal’s death, especially because Louis XIV was so young. However, Louis XIV shocked the country by declaring that although Colbert would remain as his first minister, he himself would rule the kingdom personally, establishing himself as an independent monarch at the age of 23. The king did not dismiss his ministers, and he used Colbert to keep tabs on Fouquet’s dealings and finances, likely with the pre-set intention of eventually eliminating Fouquet and clearing the crown’s debts to him.

Louis had seen Vaux-le-Vicomte twice while the chateaux was still under construction, but soon after he declared his personal reign, he was able to see the completed masterpiece. In August of 1661, Fouquet hosted a grand spectacle for the nobility specifically in honor of the King. Six thousand people were invited to the party, which included the debut of a new play by Molière, a ballet performance, an elaborate feast, and a fireworks spectacle in the chateau’s garden. At the end of the evening, Fouquet offered the chateau and its gardens as a gift to the king, who promptly refused. While Fouquet had intended to honor the king by hosting him and his court, Louis considered the fête to be an insolent display of wealth and power by a private citizen. The fête was a clear indication that Fouquet’s ambition knew no bounds, if not evidence that he had embezzled state funds to pay for his lavish palace and party. His ambition was too great, and left in charge of finances, he would clearly be a liability to the security of the crown. Louis and Colbert seized the opportunity of the party to quickly bring about Fouquet’s downfall. Voltaire later wrote of the celebration of Vaux that, “On 17 August at six in the evening, Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning, he was nobody.”

Fouquet did not suspect that Colbert might be angling for his demise, nor that the king was supporting Colbert’s investigation of him. Had Fouquet known, he likely would not have sold his political position of Procureur General earlier in the summer of 1661. That position had protected him from trial by the parliament, and after it was sold, he was liable to be arrested and investigated by the government. Less than one month after his celebration at Vaux, on September 5, Fouquet was arrested and taken into custody. 10 days later, the king announced that he was dissolving Fouquet’s ministerial position, that of superintendent of finances, and intended to direct the royal fiscal administration by himself. Fouquet was officially charged with corruption and embezzlement of state funds, but in many ways his true crime had been that of lèse-majesté: having offended the king through his ostentatious display of wealth.

While Fouquet languished in prison, Louis XIV set about making other administrative changes that would all but ensure Fouquet’s conviction. On November 15, he ordered the creation of a new tribunal system to try financiers suspected of corruption– a change specifically targeted to influence Fouquet’s upcoming trial. The king himself chose the judges for this new tribunal. Fouquet’s trial dragged on for three years, from 1661 to 1664. While Fouquet still had his defenders among high society during this time, it was clear that the tide had turned against him. Whether or not he was actually guilt of corruption remains unclear, but his 20th-century biographer Daniel Dessert has shown that at the time of his arrest and trial, Fouquet’s debts were far greater than his assets, suggesting that while he may have been in financial straits after funding the construction of Vaux and hosting a lavish party, he had likely not embezzled any money from the royal administration. In 1664, Fouquet was finally convicted of the charges brought against him by the monarchy. The death penalty had originally been sought as the punishment for his crimes, but some judges on the tribunal were still sympathetic to Fouquet, and they handed down the punishment of banishment. This was not enough for Louis, however; the king himself commuted Fouquet’s sentence to life imprisonment. Fouquet was sent to the prison fortress at Pignerol, now in modern-day Italy; his assets were seized, and his wife and family went into exile. He died in prison on March 23, 1680.

During the course of Fouquet’s trial, both Louis XIV and Colbert consolidated their power. The king placed Colbert in charge of supervising the construction of a new chateau that would not only eclipse Vaux’s grandeur but serve as a fittingly luxurious seat of power for the French monarchy– this chateau would become Versailles. Louis had chosen the site, just 12 kilometers outside of the center of Paris, for his new court and capital. There, a small royal hunting lodge was dramatically expanded under his and Colbert’s supervision. Colbert first transferred the three artisans who had collaborated to create Vaux-le-Vicomte and placed them on the royal pay roll: André Le Nôtre, Louis Le Vau, and Charles Le Brun all subsequently set to work creating Versailles’s gardens, buildings, and interiors, respectively. The incredibleness of Vaux as a precedent in this context cannot be understated: although it had been built by a commoner, Vaux had attained such a level of luxury and elegance that it became a model for Versailles, and thus for an entire aesthetic of absolutism that lasted well through the end of the 1700s.

Versailles was designed using elaborated plans that had originally been implemented at Vaux. In building the new chateau around the former hunting lodge at Versailles, Louis Le Vau implemented the same principles of symmetry, rationality, and classicism that he had previously used at Vaux, but on a much larger scale. The façade of Versailles, similar to that of Vaux, is a repetition of classically inspired elements such as pilasters, columns, and sculptural elements. Le Brun’s principle of interior cohesion achieved through painting and decoration was continued throughout the state apartments at Versailles, where rooms were themed after classical gods and heroes. Le Nôtre similarly evoked methods and designs that he had implemented at Vaux in Versailles’ much larger garden, including long perpendicular axes, enormous fountains, and decoration with classical statues and sculptures. After Fouquet was imprisoned and Vaux became the property of the monarchy, Louis also ordered that many of Fouquet’s belongings be transferred to Versailles. Much of Fouquet’s art collection, furniture, botanical specimens, and even 1200 individual trees were moved from Vaux to Versailles to decorate the new seat of royal power. Though there are many similarities between Vaux and Versailles, scholars have remarked on one crucial difference. Vaux was closed in on itself, a perfect but limited, isolated property that was meant to be incredibly elegant but was made for a single man by design. On the other hand, the design of Versailles suggests that the palace and its grounds expand beyond their own physical boundaries, communicating the universality of Louis XIV’s power. Versailles was designed to be the center of the cosmos. This astronomical allegory continued all the way to the person of the king; inspired by Apollo, whose figure also appeared at Vaux, Louis XIV adopted the guise of the Sun King to direct power from this celestial palace.

The relationship between Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, much like the relationship between Fouquet and Louis XIV, was one of ambition, power balancing, and one-upmanship. Fouquet’s demise and Louis XIV’s rise are emblematic of the political struggles of the late 17th century, and the incredible artistic production that occurred at the same time. While Vaux still stands today, it has been entirely eclipsed by Versailles both as a historic site and as a modern tourist attraction. But understanding the relationship between the two chateaux illuminates the continuity that existed even in a deeply unstable period of French history. Versailles, a symbol of absolutist power and decadence, was born from the royal need to consolidate power politically and eclipse middle-class luxury aesthetically. In the words of Claire Goldstein, Versailles was revolutionary not despite its bourgeois roots, but because of them.