The gardens at Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte were designed by French landscape architect Andre Le Nostre. // © 2014 A. Chassaigne
It’s a problem a lot of people would like to have: How do you restore a 17th-century French chateau that has been in your family for more than 100 years? For Alexandre de Vogue and his brother, solving the problem has been a labor of love.
De Vogue gave up his life as a tour guide and mountaineer several years ago to go back into the family business, and that meant getting serious about bringing Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte back to its glory days as one of France’s finest Baroque chateaux. It’s a move he doesn’t regret.
“I realized that I had a huge patrimony and for years I had turned my back on it,” said de Vogue. “I decided that it was time to face up to it. The domain had been in my family for 140 years and my father and brother were already working on it.”
Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte, considered a model for Versailles, has a colorful and even tragic history that began in 1641 when France’s Minister for Finance, Nicholas Fouquet, started building it with a fortune he had married into.
Fouquet spared no expense in creating a visual and cultural masterpiece. He hired the best architect, painter and garden designer he could find and put them to work. The result was a chateau that ushered in the era of Louis XIV style.
When Vaux le Vicomte was completed in 1661 at enormous cost (and the destruction of several nearby villages), Fouquet invited the king, Louis XIV, for an evening of revelry and celebration that was capped by a huge fireworks display and the lighting of 2000 candles.
The king came, but he was not amused. Three weeks later Fouquet was arrested and thrown into prison, accused by the king of embezzling money to pay for the chateau and even plotting to overthrow the monarchy.
Louis XIV then ordered the three masterminds behind the construction of Vaux le Vicomte architect Louis Le Vau, landscape designer Andre Le Notre and painter-decorator Charles Le Brun to build him an even grander chateau on the site of his old hunting lodge in Versailles.
The king also confiscated all of the artwork, furniture, tapestries, statues and paintings from the property and installed some of it at Versailles, which is 20 times larger than Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte. He even tore out Fouquet’s orange trees and had them taken to Versailles.
The reason for the king’s pique is not entirely clear, but at age 22 and newly installed, he was perhaps too susceptible to palace intrigue and maneuvering, even when it was later shown that the charges of embezzlement were false. Or, as some say, perhaps he was simply envious, thinking that one of his ministers was living more lavishly than he was.
The writer and philosopher Voltaire later summed up the situation, saying, “On August 17, at six in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at two in the morning he was nobody.”
Fouquet, after an agonizing three-year trial, was exiled to a prison high up in the French Alps, where he died at age 65 in 1680. He never saw his chateau again.
Revival and Restoration
Over the years, Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte, which is 35 miles southeast of Paris near the tiny village of Melun, passed through several hands and fell into disrepair. In 1875, Alfred Sommier, who made a fortune in the sugar business, bought it and set about restoring the property to its former though short-lived glory.
Today, Sommier’s descendents, the de Vogue family, have made it their life’s work to restore the chateau to what Fouquet envisioned it to be and very nearly made it, although the plaster was still drying and the paint was still wet the night Louis XIV made his fateful visit.
“Our main objective is to restore the image of a dynamic, historic house,” said Alexandre de Vogue, who with his brother Jean-Charles is in control of the day-to-day restoration process. “Our goal is to give visitors the experience of what it was like to live in a private house in the 17th century.”
To that end, a video is constantly screened along the wall of one of the dining rooms showing what costumed dancers might have looked like at that fateful party for the king in 1661. And once a year, visitors to the chateau can dress up in period costumes for a contest.
The main house is divided into two halves. One side was for the family that owned it, the Fouquets, and the other side was exclusively for the use of the king. Providing a suite of rooms for the king was normal practice in aristocratic houses of the time, since the king traveled frequently.
The chateau’s 100 rooms are 80 percent restored, according to de Vogue, with 400 hundred windows scheduled to be replaced in the next three years. The addition of giant glass doors in front will give visitors a better view through the main hall out to the gardens in back.
Interestingly, the tops of some of the doorways inside seem lower than normal, which suggests that people back then were shorter than they are now. De Vogue agrees.
“You can also notice this by observing the size of the beds,” he said. “They’re much shorter for this reason and also because people used to sleep in a half-seated position. They believed that their souls were in their heads and must always be above their hearts to be saved in case of death during sleep.”
And because the chateau is situated on a raised platform in the middle of a vast estate, the kitchen, normally underground, is above ground with natural light streaming in through the windows. For refrigeration, the kitchen help would bring in huge chunks of ice during the winter and store them underground in sealed containers to be used later.
Of special interest is the restoration of the inside of the Grand Dome, where Le Brun planned a gigantic painting that was never completed after the king arrested Fouquet. The original drawing will now be projected onto a nearby wall in high definition.
Historic Landscape Design
The gardens are designed to give the illusion of being larger than they are, although they occupy most of the chateau’s 1,200 acres. For example, the ends of the reflecting pools closest to the main building are narrower than at the far end, which gives the entire garden a longer look.
“Up until the design of Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte, landscapers were doing less ambitious work,” said garden historian Frederic Sichet. “Le Notre was given carte blanche (full authority) and what he did was a real rupture from what had been done before.”
Le Notre built the gardens along a central axis more than four football fields long from the back windows of the chateau to a colossal statue of Hercules in the far distance. It was said that it took an army of men to move the statue into place.
The chateau has appeared in the movies, most notably as the home of the villain Hugo Drax in the 1979 James Bond film “Moonraker.” It has also served as background for such films as “Marie Antoinette” and “Valmont” and was the location, ironically, for a French television series about the American Revolution.
The de Vogue brothers have rented out the chateau for special occasions, like the wedding of basketball player Tony Parker and television star Eva Longoria in 2007, an extravaganza that featured fireworks, thousands of candles and a band playing 1970s rock favorites.
But it’s the past that interests Alexandre de Vogue. Sometimes when he’s walking through the chateau alone he says he thinks back to three centuries ago and to the man who created Vaux le Vicomte but never got to enjoy it.
“I think of Fouquet being so proud and finally seeing his dream come true,” says de Vogue. “I can imagine him having an eye on everything during the construction and decoration of Vaux le Vicomte, giving advice and orders to the three artists that made them come up with the gem we know today.”
Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte is open to visitors from March until mid-November, but there are also special events open to the public during the holiday season. The estate is closed on December 25 and January 1.