“No peeking! Keep your eyes covered,” the Count called to us playfully over his shoulder as he steered the golf car up the garden path. “I’ll tell you when to open your eyes…not yet…not yet…okay…OPEN! Voila!” The Count slowed the golf cart to a stop. Towering on the pedestal before us was the powerful statue of Hercules, mythological son of Zeus. In 1661 Andre le Notre positioned this statue on the hillside as an exclamation point to emphasize the enormity of this Baroque garden. The Count called out, “Hercules minus a loin cloth!” and we giggled as he told the story of the return of the statue to the garden and that when the first crate was opened, right there in full view was Hercules’s larger than life privates! “Cover it quickly my mother said!” Still chuckling we turned our gaze and there in the distance – about a thousand yards away – stood one of the greatest chateaus in France, the 17th century masterpiece Vaux le Vicomte. I.M. Pei was right when he said that the site of Vaux “give us the feeling of forever.”
Earlier on this warm sunny autumn afternoon my cousin and I had driven about an hour from Paris to “Vaux.” After passing through the nearby village of Maincy, we proceeded down an avenue lined with plane trees that made me feel as though I was on a Hollywood set. Still admiring the trees I suddenly heard my cousin shout out, “There it is! There’s Vaux!” And as we came into the clearing there at a distance stood the storied chateau.
We were at Vaux not just to see the gardens, but as my cousin said, “to experience them.” He added that Vaux is the greatest garden in the world. When I asked him what he meant by that, he answered, “Because it is the purest.”
We were also at Vaux because the Count and Countess de Vogue, the owners, had invited us to tour the gardens, have dinner and enjoy the splendor of the candlelit evening spectacle followed by fireworks. Yes, we wore our silly smiles and pinched ourselves. Sweet delights awaited us.
The Count and Countess received us warmly and led the way across the graveled promenade, safely across the watery moat and up the terraced stone steps into the Chateau’s vestibule. The enormous doors are made of glass and we had hardly taken in the startling beauty of the salon when the garden suddenly pulled us into its grip and glory. To be in this moment, on the threshold of this magnificence, is to experience a feeling of awe never understood or felt before. You can’t speak. There are no words. You are now held gently in the hands of an extraordinary beauty and grace.
Vaux le Vicomte is steeped in 17th century French history and it is fair to say that a trip to France is not complete without a visit to Vaux. Every inch of the estate is a masterpiece. It was the creation and brain child of Nicholas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finance to Louis XlV, at a time when France was immersed in unending conflict. With his sublime and intuitive taste the Superintendent amassed priceless collections of paintings, furnishing and sculpture unrivaled in France.
To create his dream Fouquet brought together three of the most talented artisans of their day: Louis de Vau, the famed architect, Charles Le Brun, a painter who supervised the interior decorations, sculptures and paintings; and Andre le Notre, an important garden designer.
Andre le Notre descended from a family of gardeners and grew up living in the king’s garden, the Tuileries, in Paris where he followed both his father and grandfather as the head gardener. He was tutored in painting by Monsieur Vouet and studied architecture with Francois Mansard. But it was while working in the Luxembourg Gardens for Maria de Medici that he began to hone his skills. When he turned 40 years old Nicholas Fouquet gave him his first big break and Vaux eventually became his greatest achievement. It was here that he skillfully blended the new theories of geometry, perspective and optics and refined his own architectural style. He loved the beauty and feeling of symmetry and gently folded in unique elements of mystery, surprise and discovery. There are five golden apples in this garden. Can you find them? A central axis that reaches toward a distant horizon creates order and holds the design together. The measured space is filled with water trickling down cascades, water spraying from fountains and luminous grottoes. There are rectangular parterres of swirling broderies, boxwood tracery, flowers and just beyond, the chateau mirrors itself in the Grand Canal. Double rows of trees and tall hedges flank the exterior pathways. This arrangement provided shade; suntans weren’t appreciated back then. Edith Wharton’s description of a garden being charmingly independent of the season could equally apply to Vaux.
The symbolism here is mighty and evokes memories and strong feelings. The squirrel, the lion and a crown represent the king and his superintendent. A fountain in the shape of Louis XlV’s golden crown fills one pool. Lions spew water and cradle squirrels in special niches. The “escurel” (old French for squirrel) was Fouquet’s emblem and his motto: “Quo non ascendant,” or “What heights will he not scale” would appear to be an accurate description of the curious creatures that scamper about, climb and descend great heights rapidly – just as Fouquet did.
In addition to Andre le Notre many of the 17th century greats can be found in this garden: La Quintinye, Moliere, Vatel and le Fontaine. It was la Quintinye who created the potager but it was Moliere and Vatel who engineered, with Fouquet, the new standards of entertaining inside and outside in the garden. To impress, coerce or persuade, it all happened here. And in an effort to impress the king Fouquet unwittingly sealed his fate.
Over the last several hundred years Fouquet’s financial dealings have received continued scrutiny. Some say he was dipping into the kingdom’s coffers to cover his building expenses. Others say, nonsense, he and his wife were independently wealthy. Nevertheless, war is expensive and in his financial position Fouquet had a reputation to protect. Respectability mattered and equaled credit worthiness in the eyes of the important financial community of lenders. But the one who really mattered, sadly, as history tells us, saw things differently. A taste maker of his day, Fouquet naively outspent and out-lavished everyone around him, including the Sun King, Louis XlV, as he created an estate and gardens of enduring taste and style. This all happened in the early years of Louis’ reign as he was just beginning to establish himself. After many years of work the chateau and gardens were almost at the point of completion and Fouquet seized this opportunity to unveil his masterpiece and impress the king. He held a gala – a three day affair – with entertainments that included gastronomic delights, theatrics, multiple sparkling fountains and cascades, exquisite formal parterres filled with swirling patterns of boxwood and ships gliding in the canals. Thousands of candles lit up the chateau and gardens in the darkness and colorful fireworks exploded in the sky. There was even a mechanical whale floating in the Grand Canal. Maybe it was the crown shaped fountain that was the final straw. Or maybe it was the whale. Or maybe the plot had already been hatched. Whatever it was, Louis’ jealousy choked his good sense. Within weeks the king’s destructive envy was in motion. He had Fouquet arrested and stripped of his position, wealth and power. Fouquet never saw the light of day again. Louis didn’t stop there. He helped himself to Fouquet’s objects d’art – the paintings, the sculpture, the decorative art, and the furnishings…whatever he wanted he took. And, he took Fouquet’s dream team – the genius of Vaux: le Notre, le Brun and le Vau – the three masters who had become friends and collaborated to create a masterpiece that would tell the world of the greatness of their patron, Nicholas Fouquet. One can only imagine the sadness they felt as they were transferred from Vaux to Versailles, which at the time was a small hunting lodge. At Versailles Louis XlV mandated a greater glory for himself. He wanted them to outdo Vaux, which in essence meant they were to out-do themselves. But it was not to be. Even long after, Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain remarked when she visited Vaux, “It’s more beautiful than Versailles.” Louis XlV thought he’d carted it all away, but he didn’t He couldn’t rob Vaux of its heart – and it is still there today.
Vaux le Vicomte’s chateau and gardens are open to the public every day. Many fun and adventurous activities are planned throughout the year – some will even make you feel as though you’re back in the 17th century.
You may get lucky and see the Count and Countess cruising through the gardens in their golf cart – up to Hercules and back down the long center promenade. But either way, stay for the fireworks and just like my cousin and I, you will enjoy an evening to remember. So, go experience Vaux, look for the hidden apples and see for yourself what lit up Louis XlV.