“On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody.”
This quote by Voltaire sums the evening of August 17 in 1661 perfectly up. In the early evening hours of that warm summer day, Nicolas Fouquet’s star shone bright on the firmament over Vaux-le-Vicomte. Only a few hours later, he was a persona non grata. A person one should not associate with for one’s own safety.
Nicolas Fouquet seemed to be that kind person that could not be stopped by anything. Coming from a family of former cloth merchants, he made it to the very top of the French nobility and rose to surintendant des finances. He became the wealthiest man in France and one of the most influential people of the Kingdom.
As Fouquet bought Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1641 it was a place of no special importance. Its location was strategical between the two Royal Residences Vincennes and Fontainebleau, but that was pretty much it. Vaux-le-Vicomte was a old and small castle amidst farmland. Nothing spectacular at all. There was a barn, a winepress, a sheepfold and some stables.
Twenty-years later, Fouquet had turned this quite unimportant place into the greatest Palace of France. Hills were created and others destroyed to create a magnificent garden, fountains placed everywhere, statues flanked the paths. In the middle of all the tamed and adorned nature, a new chateau crowned by a large dome had been build. The architect Le Vau, the painter and decorator Le Brun and the landscape gardener Le Nôtre had all worked together to create a Palace Of Dreams, worthy for a King. It was the first time those three cooperated and what they created is truly magnificent.
There was one small problem however. Fouquet was not the King of France.
Louis XIV had visited Vaux several times already in the previous years. In June 1659, he was there in company of his brother and mother and in July 1660, Louis stopped by with his wife. As he arrived at Vaux in the afternoon on August 17, 1661, it was for a fete meant to honour him, but the whole thing did not went into the direction his host aimed for. Fouquet already had hosted a party only a few days earlier in honour of Henriette de France, which was quite a success, and probably thought this party for Louis XIV would be one too. He was only partly right. While the whole court seemed to enjoy this spectacular party, and while it would go into history as the first fete of its kind, Louis XIV was not amused at all.
It was the official opening-ceremony of the chateau, not too different from how we open things like the Olympic Games these days. Louis XIV arrived in company of his mother and a large part of the court in the early afternoon and was warmly greeted by Fouquet. The Royal Guests and court admired the gardens. Lakes and fountains created a feeling of awe, which was heightened at the sight of the grottos, cascades, flawless lawns, bosquets with blooming and wonderfully scented flowers, and a unique view of the chateau. François Vatel, a master of courtly entertainment, supervised the meal that followed. Only the best of food, the best of wines, skilfully arranged and almost too delicious in taste. It seemed that everyone and everything in Vaux-le-Vicomte was doing their very best to please the King, from the servants, to the flowers that smelled especially sweet, the food that tasted especially good, to the candles that seem to shine especially bright and reflected from the shiniest marble possible.
After the meal was served, the guests returned to the vast gardens to witness the premier of Molière’s Les Fâcheux, The Impertinents. A play about a young man in love that tries to meet his beloved in private, but the guardian of said beloved has a bit of an issue with it. He tries to keep them from meeting during an evening soiree by getting them into silly conversations with nine impertinent people. All of those nine were played by Molière himself. The King loved the play, most likely the only thing he really enjoyed that day, and ordered it to be performed again by Molière’s Troupe de Monsieur in the Palais-Royal.
A large firework display followed above the grottos of Vaux, the twinkling lights reflected in the water of the cascade and canals, making it seem like the whole place sparkled like diamonds. A great artificial whale swam down the canal and let more fireworks off. (Something that was repeated in 1664 at the The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island)
Everyone was in awe once again, while Louis XIV’s mood went downwards. As the night sky turned dark again and the firework display was over, the King returned to the chateau and was greeted by more fireworks. This time fired from the dome of the chateau.
Louis XIV was probably fuming by then. This fete was meant to honour him, but it truly honoured the man who arranged for all of it, Nicolas Fouquet. Who showed off his splendid chateau in such a way, while none of the King’s residences were half as splendid. Especially the too cold and dark Louvre, a place Louis hated. Fouquet was more King than the actual King. Even his bedroom was much nicer than that of Louis XIV. He paid for all of this himself, while Louis needed to beg for money. Money, Fouquet was supposed to get for him. Louis was aware of the whole situation for months already and Fouquet already out of favour, which he did not know, but this evening, this cheeky display of wealth, sealed his fate.
If it had not been for Anne d’Autriche, who calmed her son as he left Vaux at two in the morning, Louis XIV would have ordered Fouquet to be arrested on the very spot.
For the next weeks, this party at Vaux-le-Vicomte was the talk of all of France and it only changed as its host was arrested on September 5 and Vaux confiscated. It was the first party of its kind that set the standards high for all that followed.