The Landscape Guide

The garden of Vaux le Vicomte

About the middle of the century, on the threshold of a new age, there stood out  conspicuously a man who by virtue of his personality seemed to exhibit the spirit of his time—both the arrogance and the autocratic defiance characterising that period: this was Fouquet, the Finance Minister of Mazarin. Fouquet’s delusion, and the snare that led to his fall, was that he—although having the finest instinct for what the future held in matters of art and science—failed entirely to realise what the embryo monarch would prove himself to be. So in blind security Fouquet rushed to his fate. There was an element of noble tragedy in his career. A shining example to Louis Quattorze, who knew himself to be his pupil but never acknowledged it, he was nevertheless overthrown by the king.

Fouquet was in the prime of life and at the zenith of his powers, when at the beginning of 1650 he arranged a contract with the architect Le Vau to build a castle called Vaux le Vicomte in his own viscounty, at Melun. He was still under forty, and he had no reason to doubt that by favour of Mazarin he would soon be appointed First Minister of Finance, and he supposed that the rivalry of Colbert might be easily ignored. The young king, carelessly enmeshed in his love affairs and other pleasures, did not appear to feel the least desire to take the reins of state into his own hands. In order to clear the ground for castle, garden, and a proper open space round them, it was necessary for Fouquet to buy three villages, and to pull them down. The place grew with astonishing quickness over its foundations, The powerful financier had inexhaustible wealth at his disposal, so he pressed on the work eagerly. It is said that at times as many as eighteen thousand labourers were employed together, and the cost was computed at sixteen million livres.

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Vaux-le-Vicomte is a fine building with pavilions about it, and has a wide moat all round (Fig. 390)— the natural thing for any country place, for almost without exception the neighbouring castles of recent erection were still made as water-castles, for instance Ruel, Liancourt, and Louis the Thirteenth’s palace at Versailles. In front of the castle was the wide entrance court, the cour d’honneur, cut off by a handsome semicircular balustrade and fine trellis barriers, to which the broad carriage roads of the park led. The stabling on both sides of the court covered kitchen places and vegetable plots. On the other side of the house, erected on terraces that were built up artificially, there was a vestibule inside the moat, which was bordered by a balustrade. From here there was a very good view of the greater part  of the garden, which had perhaps been begun before the foundation stones of the castle were laid.

As early as 1625 the editor of Claude Mollet’s work, Le Théâtre des Plans et Jardinage, dedicated it to Fouquet, and in it speaks of the wonderful garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte, where “they very delightfully allow art to strive with nature, and every day bring fresh beauties and new treasures." The work at the garden must at that time have been carried on with much eagerness, and it is certain that it was in great beauty when the castle was finished. Fouquet secured the then famous painter Charles Le Brun to decorate his castle and the other rooms at the villa. Le Brun then recommended to the Minister of Finance his young friend André Le Nôtre, who had, like himself, studied painting. He had got to know and like him through their common teacher, Simon Vouet, and he admired his imaginative fancy in decoration and his knowledge of garden art. Le Nôtre owed his scientific knowledge to his own home. His father was superintendent of the Tuileries Gardens, Here in Vaux-le-Vicomte André was to win that rank as an expert which was recognised half a century later all over Europe.

Mademoiselle de Scudéry, who describes Vaux in her novel Clélie, says soon after the place was completed: “ The most wonderful thing is how this garden lies between two shrubberies, which agreeably break the view.” This fine observer has here caught the peculiarity of the garden. We can stand with her on the terrace of the castle, whence a drawbridge leads over the moat (Fig.:391). 

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On both sides of the castle there are parterres decked with fountains, intentionally made in simple lines so as not to distract the eye too much from the fine parterre de broderie that lies below the house. To right and left there are flower-gardens, which are worked out with much play of fountains (Fig. 392). 

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The greatest admiration is caused by “la fontaine de la couronne,” which balances on the shining waters a crown of water-spouts: there is a round fountain at the end, and the parterre is finished off with two small, narrow canals. Hence one goes down by the main path through a watery road. On both sides there are lawns edged with flowers and decked with fountains, and the water finds its way into a great square basin. If one stays to look from the terrace, the bright ribbon of the canal can be seen glittering from the depths below. This canal ends the garden abruptly, and has no bridge: it widens into a large basin, behind which the natural hill rises somewhat steeply. A triangle, regular but ending in a semicircle, occupies a space in the park ground.

The hill is marked out and ornamented with grotto-work, fountains, and water-beasts right up to the top, where the imposing scene ends with a huge figure of Hercules and a great column of water. This limitation of the background corresponds to the confinement of the sides with shrubberies. On the left of the castle the ground rises; and this is made use of for a terrace, approached in the side-garden axis by a small piece of ground with a cascade and a fine ascent of steps. On the other side are shrubberies with trellis bordering the walks, and here are found either flower-lawns or gardens, or paths with fountains, or what is called a water-theatre. Leaving the castle terrace and going down through the water road to the terrace of the great canal, the visitor is met with a surprise. At the dividing wall of the castle, and so not visible from there, a cascade appears, a contrast in life and movement to the peaceful gleaming line of the canal. But such cascades are not only the adornment of the lowest of the terraces, which is sunk between two high places, they also enliven the scene from the hill where the great Hercules stands with a view of garden and castle (Fig. 393).

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Two important currents of thought that in every field were dominating men’s minds at this period were now adopted by Le Nôtre, who saw how to use them in his gardens from the very beginning and how to blend them. The one represented the spirit of discipline, of firm, distinct, defined rule, of proportion: this idea found expression in literature in the work of Boileau, in politics in the ever-increasing monarchical sentiment, in fashionable life in etiquette cultivated to the very extreme of refinement. In opposition to this, however, there was the unrestrained and constantly growing desire for variety, for change. The society which was subjected willingly and consciously to this spirit of discipline, and found therein the expression of its highest culture, the fixed form and rule of life, would have grown old before its time, indeed would have died of sheer boredom, had it not been for its constant search—so often perplexing to us—for novelty and change, which rendered its votaries continually breathless and excited. Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first attempt to combine these two requirements.

French gardens before then had the severe axial order, even from the time of Du Cerceau, but the terraces in his day presented the same or similar pictures, each separately; the parterres again were exactly alike, and symmetry was marked in the repetition of the same lines. When then in the seventeenth century Italian influence began to be felt in a new direction, there was no real mastery of the novel idea of the whole and its parts. The cascades at Saint-Cloud and Ruel lie at the side in their own special axis, with no relation to that of the house, and the famous “ variété “ at Ruel is, as a whole, unrestful and scattered. But Le Nôtre perceived that the most important thing was to create a magnificent scene which could be viewed as a whole from the house, and demanded this character of being visible before anything else, although its main lines might show all sorts of variety in parterres and in water: for this garden was intended to serve for royal fêtes and the display of magnificent costumes, exercises, and fireworks; every- thing and everybody must be seen. But for a picture a frame was needed, and this was provided by shrubberies that each separately constituted a private garden, in which more and more variety would be found to answer the most extravagant demands.


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Vaux le Vicomte. The point where the central axis meets the cross axis.