The Landscape Guide

Fouquet's fall

Fouquet had before all things in his mind, at the making of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the holding of great fêtes, such as France had never yet heard of. He could scarcely wait till everything was quite ready, but in the summer of 1661 he gave his first great fête in honour of the young, much admired lady, Henrietta, wife of the Duke of Orleans, the king’s brother. Molière, at that time in Monsieur’s company as actor and poet, first introduced his Ecole des Maris at this entertainment. Fouquet seemed overwhelmed with every sort of good luck, and in the year 1659 he became sole “ General Intendant.” His party seemed extraordinarily strong, though certainly for a few months past storm-clouds had been rising, and on 9 March Mazarin had died. In the conferences at his minister’s death-bed the monarchical feelings of Louis seem to have matured and hardened to decision. Soon after Mazarin’s death he summoned his cabinet, and announced that henceforth he was going to be his own prime minister.

Fouquet still did not believe the signs, or the warnings of his friends, while Colbert was steadily working towards his downfall, Nothing could show up the perilous system of Fouquet to hostile eyes more glaringly than the hitherto unheard-of magnificence of his new castle. It was said that Colbert visited it secretly while it was still in course of building, and informed the king of the immense number of workmen and the enormous expenses. The brilliant fête, at which the king was not present, excited his anger and also his greed, and he offered to appear at another one on 17 August. But Fouquet’s fall was a prearranged affair; indeed the king had purposed to arrest his host at his own house while the fête was going on, and it was only his mother who dissuaded him from this. The king arrived, and was received with pomp; but he could scarcely restrain his anger at the luxury which he could not equal. In the grand procession which inaugurated the fête, he saw everywhere the armorial bearings of his minister, an ibex with the proud but ill-starred motto, Quo non ascendet.

After the great feast came the performance, in the garden, of Molière’s piece, Les Fâcheux, at the theatre erected at the end of an avenue of pines. This had been written in fifteen days especially for the festival. Le Brun had painted the decorations; and Pélisson, the well—known prose writer, and Fouquet’s secretary, had composed a prologue for it, which was recited by the best actress of the day, La Béjart. A ballet, suited to the persons of the comedy, was conducted by Giacomo Torelli of Urbino, whose cleverness at decoration and machinery had gained him the name of “ Le grand Jongleur.” After the acting a firework display caused the greatest enthusiasm. At this there occurred an unfortunate accident: two horses belonging to the queen-mother’s carriage shied and were drowned in the great canal. Lafontaine, who wrote an eloquent description of this gala to his friend Mancroi, ends his letter with the words: “ I did not imagine that my account would have such a sad ending.” The poet did not know what a gloomy import these words held; for he and the host of admirers never suspected that, one short month later, their Mæcenas, their friend, and their protector, in strict custody, and accused of high treason, would only just escape a sentence of death, and that his doom of exile for life would only be commuted to imprisonment for life by the king who hated and would not forgive him.

The wonderful beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte flowered quickly but soon faded and was gone, leaving behind only loneliness and neglect. But Fouquet’s name and character never shone so brightly in the days of glory as now in the season of misfortune. Though a strong opposing party might have oppressed him, though his own ambition might have so far misled him that he had become a dangerous servant to the king, and though the new course of the ship of state might have baffled him, he did as a fact acquire a glorious halo, arising from the love, the unwearying faithfulness, and the active help of friends, poets, artists, and men of letters. Fouquet was no ordinary patron; he knew how to make these people his friends. He was really something of an artist himself, and understood what he gave other people to do. It is related of him that, when he was coming out of the sessions room during his own trial and was being led through a court outside, he saw some workmen busy at a well; he stopped and went up to them, and forgetting his own troubles, gave them advice as to how they could start it better, “ for I have some knowledge of these matters.”

The kind thought that he had constantly for those about him was shown in various ways. Corneille, who wrote his Oedipus at Fouquet’s request, says in his preface that Fouquet, who at that time was living at the fine castle of Saint-Mandé, had opened his library in the town (as well as the one in the country) as a waiting-room. Scarcely was the news of his downfall known when a general cry of lamentation arose. Pélisson, who had been confined in the Bastille, wrote from there one pamphlet after another against Colbert, Loret, a journalist who had glorified Fouquet’s life and his festivities in his paper, both in poetry. and prose, published such a violent article against Colbert that he was deprived of his pension. As soon as Fouquet in his prison heard of this, he wrote to Mademoiselle de Scudéry asking her to send an indemnity to his faithful friend.

Lafontaine, who had spent some happy years in Fouquet’s circle of artists, composed a moving poem praying the king to grant mercy. “ The air in your deep grotto is full of laments, the nymphs of Vaux are weeping.” Lafontaine had already begun a small book, in Fouquet’s day of good fortune, wherein he was to sing of the beauties of Vaux in allegorical style. This remained long a mere unpublished fragment, but ten years later he issued it under the title of The Dream of Vaux, and in his introductory verses musically I laments the fate of the unhappy man “ who displeased his king and lost his friends, yet to whom in spite of his fall I dedicate these tears.” In honour of Fouquet he makes four fairies appear, Architecture, Painting, Garden Art, and the Art of Poetry; they approach the Judge’s seat, where Fouquet presides, and plead for the foremost rank. After Architecture and Painting, who advance proudly and certain of victory, Garden Art appears, so fair, quiet, and lovable, that the judges are at once struck by her modest charm. Then when she simply and sweetly spoke of her beauties, all hearts were disposed towards her; and had not Painting brought forward a picture the truth of which Garden Art sadly admitted, showing what she was like in winter, the prize of victory, ultimately carried off by Poetry, would have been awarded to her.

Thus high did Garden Art stand among her sisters, whose best representatives all assembled around Fouquet. “ He was called Le coeur le plus magnifique du royaume, but this meant wounding Louis XIV. in his tenderest spot and incurring his spite.” So writes Sainte-Beuve in his essay. And yet perhaps it was the greatest reward that the prisoner won within his dungeon walls, that Louis could do no better than take into his own service (being as he was the real pupil of his hated minister) that same circle of artists which Fouquet had collected about him, to educate them and fill them with his own spirit—so much so that they never lost their longing and their compassion for him. When in the king’s mind the plan ripened of building at Versailles a royal palace which should eclipse every other, he took Le Vau as his architect, Le Brun as his painter, and Le Nôtre as the designer of his garden; while it was Lafontaine and Molière who contributed to the palace half its glory and splendid shows.