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General view of the château

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a baroque French château located in Maincy, near Melun, 55 km southeast of Paris in the Seine-et-Marne département of France. It was built from 1658 to 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV.

The château was in many ways the most influential work built in Europe in the mid-17th century and the most elaborate and grand house built in France after the Château de Maisons. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of a new order: the magnificent manner that is associated with the "Louis XIV style" involving a system of collective work, which could be applied to the structure, its interiors and works of art and the creation of an entire landscape. The garden's use of a baroque axis that extends to infinity is an example of this style.[1]

Contents

History

Rhythmic massing of the entrance front.

Once a small château located between the royal residences of Vincennes and Fontainebleau, the estate of Vaux-le-Vicomte was purchased by Nicolas Fouquet in 1641. At that time he was an ambitious twenty-six year-old member of the Parlement of Paris. Fouquet was an avid patron of the arts and attracted many artists with the gifts and encouragements he poured on them.

When Fouquet became King Louis XIV's superintendent of finances (Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry (France)) in 1657, he commissioned Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre to renovate his estate and garden to match his grand ambition. Fouquet’s artistic and cultivated personality subsequently brought out the best in the three.[2]

To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages. The displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. It was said to have employed eighteen thousand workers and cost as much as sixteen million livres.[3]

The château and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. At the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event organized by François Vatel, and an impressive firework show.[4]

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Fête and arrest

The château was lavish, refined, and dazzling to behold, but these characteristics proved tragic for its owner: the king had Fouquet arrested shortly after a famous fête that took place on 17 August 1661 where Molière's play 'Les Fâcheux' debuted.[5] The celebration had been too impressive and the superintendent's home too luxurious. Fouquet's intentions were to flatter the King: part of Vaux-le-Vicomte was actually constructed specifically for the king, but Fouquet's plan backfired. Jean-Baptiste Colbert led the king to believe that his minister's magnificence was funded by the misappropriation of public funds. Colbert, who then replaced Fouquet as superintendent of finances, arrested him. [6] 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." La Fontaine wrote describing the fête, and shortly afterwards penned his Elégie aux nymphes de Vaux.

After Fouquet

The gardens.

After Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The king seized, confiscated or purchased 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-Vicomte, the palace and gardens of Versailles.

Madame Fouquet recovered her property ten years later and retired there with her eldest son. In 1705, after the death of her husband and son, she decided to put Vaux-le-Vicomte up for sale.[7]

For sale

The Maréchal de Villars became the new owner although he had never even set eyes on the place. In 1764, the Maréchal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants would maintain the property for over a century. It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the château was the scene of a murder in 1847, when Charles Laure Hugues Théobald, killed his wife in her bedroom, but this did not happen at Vaux-le-Vicomte but at the Paris residence of the Duke.[8]

In 1875, after thirty years of neglect, the estate was sold to Alfred Sommier in a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the renowned architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to work on the preservation of Vaux-le-Vicomte. The château remains a private property — owned by the comte de Vogüé — but, designated by the state as a monument historique, it welcomes visitors.[9]

Features

Entrance showing moat

Like many châteaux in the north of France, Vaux-le-Vicomte is surrounded on three sides by a rectangular moat, with the axial arrival avenue continued across a bridge to the open forecourt. The structure is symmetrical and tightly integrated, with a slightly projecting central block and end pavilions, and two returned wings that project forward. Traditional tall slate roofs emphasize each structural element with a pyramidal cap.

At the rear, the structure is dominated by the projection of its central oval salon, which rises the full height of the house, under an oval dome.

Gardens

17th-century engraving of the parterres as first laid out

The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, as the woodlands are mature, than it was in the seventeenth century when the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.

Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, stretching nearly a mile and a half (3 km),[10] with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.[11]

The site was naturally well-watered, with two small rivers that met in the park; the canalized bed of one forms the Grand Canal, which leads to a square basin.

Le Nôtre created a magnificent scene to be viewed from the house, using the laws of perspective. Le Notre used the natural terrain to his advantage. He placed the canal at the lowest part of the complex, thus hiding it from the main perspectival point of view.[12] Past the canal, the garden ascends a large open lawn and ends with the Hercules column added in the 19th century. Shrubberies provided a picture frame to the garden that also served as a stage for royal fêtes.[13]

Anamorphosis abscondita in the garden

Le Nôtre employed an optical illusion called anamorphosis abscondita in his garden design in order to establish decelerated perspective. This technique is a projection of forms beyond themselves. The most apparent change in this manor is of the reflecting pools. They are lengthened so as to appear closer to the viewer. From a certain point afar, the distortion created in the landscape elements is corrected and the eye perceives the elements to be closer than they actually are. This point for Vaux-le-Vicomte is at the rear of the château. Standing atop the grand staircase one begins to experience the garden with a magnificent perspectival view.[14]

From the top of the grand staircase, this gives the impression that the entire garden is revealed in one single glance. Initially, the view consists of symmetrical rows of shrubbery, avenues, fountains, statues, flowers and other pieces developed to imitate nature – these elements exemplify the Baroque desire to mold nature to fit its wishes, thus using nature to imitate nature. The centerpiece is a large reflecting pool flanked by grottos holding statues in their many niches. The grand sloping lawn is not visible until one begins to explore the garden, when the viewer is made aware of the optical elements involved and discovers that the garden is much larger than it looks. Next, a circular pool, previously seen as ovular due to foreshortening, is passed and a canal that bisects the site is revealed, as well as a lower level path. As the viewer continues on, the second pool shows itself to be square and the grottos and their niched statues become clearer. But, when one walks towards the grottos, the relationship between the pool and the grottos appears awry. The grottos are actually on a much lower level than the rest of the garden and separated by a wide canal that is over half a mile (almost 1 km) long. According to Allen Weiss, in Mirrors of Infinity, this optical effect is a result of the use of the tenth theorem of Euclid’s Optics which asserts that “the most distant parts of planes situated below the eye appear to be the most elevated.” In Fouquet’s time, interested parties could cross the canal in a boat, but walking around the canal provides a view of the woods that mark what is no longer the garden and shows the distortion of the grottos previously seen as sculptural. Once the canal and grottos have been passed, the large sloping lawn is reached and the garden is viewed from the initial viewpoint’s vanishing point, thus completing the circuit as intended by Le Nôtre. The many discoveries made as one travels through the dynamic garden contrast the static view of the garden from the château.[15]

References

External links

Coordinates: 48°33′53″N 2°42′50″E / 48.564851°N 2.714°E / 48.564851; 2.714


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