The Royal Château of Fontainebleau, 35 miles south of Paris, began as a home for Francis I. He was crowned king in 1515, just as the Renaissance dawned in France. He was a great patron of the arts, employing numerous artists and writers. He convinced Leonardo da Vinci to come to France and collected work by Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael. Francis was also a prolific builder and Fontainebleau was his largest palace. The design and decoration reflects the Italian influence, with elaborate paintings, woodwork, plasterwork and sculpture adorning every surface.
I became a little obsessed with chandeliers today. I lost track of how many pictures I took of them.
We had to leave Fontainebleau far too early, with only a glance at the gardens. But the spectacular Vaux Le Vicomte was waiting. The drive to Vaux gave us our first real look at French suburbia. It was startling and disappointing to find it looks just like American suburbia. Tract houses, grocery stores and McDonalds look identical to ours. The only difference was the language in the signs. We aren’t the only ones responsible for modern urban sprawl.
You approach Vaux Le Vicomte through a long tree lined road. Driving down it feels like being transported into a fairy tale. In a stroke of marketing genius someone came up with the idea of opening the chateau and gardens at night, lit entirely by candle light. We arrived in time to have a picnic on the grass across the street before touring Vaux right at sunset.
According to the castle’s website,
“Vaux was the tragic setting for the downfall of Fouquet, a faithful minister who paid the price of life imprisonment, because of an embezzlement he did not commit, because of the jealousy of others and also because he went a little too far in bestowing lavish hospitality.”That sentence is oh so very French, in syntax and in historic style. As a financial secretary Nicolas Fouquet was in a position of prestige and power. He used his fortune to create in Vaux le Vicomte the most spectacular castle in the region. Fouquet proved to be a brilliant businessman, juggling Louis XIV’s debt, financing the military, and keeping a healthy profit for himself.
“Yet, this brilliant man, always an ardent and loyal supporter of the King and the Cardinal had too great a faith in his own charmed destiny and did not stop to consider the envy and suspicion his high rank and wealth inspired in the minds of his more ambitious detractors.”How many others fell into this trap as well? Fouquet became embroiled in controversy when the financial disorder of the kingdom became increasingly difficult to manage. When Cardinal Mazarin, the First Secretary, died, Fouquet was accused of embezzlement and anti-royalist plots by Mazarin’s private secretary Colbert. Fouquet chose to disregard the warnings to curtail his lavish lifestyle and he became a convenient scapegoat. Louis XIV ordered Fouquet’s arrest and used Vaux as justification. The king asked to see Vaux and Fouquet hosted a spectacular feast featuring theatrical entertainment and firework. His personal motto Quo non ascendet ("What heights will he not scale?") was shown to full effect at the elaborate event. The king had his ammunition and Fouquet was soon arrested. Voltaire later wrote of the event, "On 17 August at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody."
Fouquet was arrested three weeks later and his trial dragged on for years. He was finally sentenced to life imprisonment by Loius XIV to prevent him from divulging state secrets. Fouquet remained in prison until his death 19 years later and his story was linked by writers such as Alexander Dumas to that of the man in the iron mask.
Vaux is what remains of the royal intrigue and it has been preserved as a monument to beauty and excess. Touring the rooms lit only by candle light adds to the grandeur.
Once again I found myself photographing chandeliers. It's difficult to describe how beautiful they are.
Beneath the palace is the kitchens and cellar, also dramatically lit.
Outside you are allowed to wander the acres of gardens, accompanied by candle light and classical music, until midnight. The evening was magical.