The Chateau of Vaux-Le-Vicomte in Maincy, around an hour from Paris, is one of those places that looks utterly gorgeous in photos but when you see it for real looks even better.
You may have seen it recently and not even realised. If you’re a fan of the TV series “Versailles”, the raunchy bonk-buster serial about the shenanigans of the Royals and aristos of Louis XIV’s court – you’ve seen Vaux-Le-Vicomte. It may surprise you to know that much of the filming took place not at the Chateau of Versailles as you may think. The producers of “Versailles” have really done their homework on the look of the day, from the shoes and dresses and hairstyles to the furnishings and architecture. Whilst the Chateau of Versailles may seem an obvious choice as the location for filming in fact, the décor there is largely 18th century, a hundred years too late for the authentic look sought. Vaux-Le-Vicomte though, has retained its 17th century beauty, and, as the prototype and inspiration for the later Chateau de Versailles – it was the perfect place to film.
The history of Vaux le Vicomte
This is a chateau with an exquisite and electrifying heritage. A tale of passion, betrayal, corruption and despair which shaped the history of France was played out here – you feel it in the kitchens with their gleaming copper pans, in the beautifully furnished rooms with their paintings and tapestries and gilded this and that, in the gardens which look as they had when Le Notre, the king’s favourite gardener designed them. There is an echo of the past here and you can’t avoid it.
Enter those grand gates and climb the stairs in front of the huge courtyard, and there 350 years ago stood the owner, a man called Nicolas Fouquet, waiting to welcome his King to the newly built chateau Vaux le vicomte. It was 17 August 1661, a hot, sultry night. Fouquet had served Louis XIV well and loyally as Minister of Finances, and that night he hoped to wow his King by entertaining him in great style.
Fouquet had invested a small fortune in the design and building of the chateau. He brought together three greats from French history, Le Vau – the architect, le Brun – the painter, and le Notre the gardener. For the first time, a property was built when both the look of the home AND the garden had been considered as a whole package. To the onlooker of the day, it wasn’t just fabulous, it was dizzying in its beauty.
The stunning chateau and fabulous grounds had been in the making for 20 years. The night the King came, it wasn’t quite finished. Painters of ceilings and walls downed tools, masons carving statues swept up and made everything look as good as it could and got out of the way before the king arrived. Even unfinished, the result was stupendous.
The night Vaux-Le-Vicomte drove a King to jealousy
The King’s carriage swept into the courtyard, he alighted and stood at the bottom of the stairs looking up at Fouquet above him, proud of his achievement, quite possibly the most beautiful castle in all of France. The fate of his minister and the chateau was sealed. Never again would anyone stand higher than Louis XIV or have a chateau more beautiful than his.
Instead of staying the night in the bedroom designed especially for him, with a view of a giant crown in a lake, which he was supposed to see upon waking next morning, the king cut short his visit and travelled to his own chateau of Fontainebleau, a journey of three hours by horse and carriage.
Resentful of Fouquet’s opulent display of wealth, incensed by being left at the bottom of the stairs, prey to the whispers of those who sought to remove Fouquet from his position of trusted advisor, the young king had his minister arrested just two weeks later on 5 September 1661.
Louis had everything in the Chateau removed and taken to Versailles – the furniture, paintings, tapestries, ornaments, beds and even the orange trees in their pots in the garden. He also took Le Brun and Le Notre and commanded them to help him turn Versailles, then a glorified hunting lodge, into the incredible monument we see today.
A show trial took place, with accusations of Fouquet’s having swindled his royal master to build his chateau. The allegations were backed up by crooked witnesses and fake paperwork fuelled by jealous ministers who wanted the King’s allegiance for themselves. Fouquet, having supported the young king through thick and thin was exiled. It wasn’t enough for Louis, he recalled Fouquet and had him imprisoned until he died.
Vaux le Vicomte went to sleep and from that day no king every slept there, though it was designed to be fit for a sun king.