An August Extravaganza

For weeks and days, he had been getting ready for one hell of a party. He was the finance minister after all, and married to a rich heiress, so he had plenty of money available to put on the best possible event. His new château was the height of opulence. One of his great achievements was to hire French craftspeople instead of importing talent or goods from outside the country. He hired a landscaper, an architect, a painter, a playwright, a poet. But these weren't any random, lowly employees--they were the best. Le Notre. Le Vau. Le Brun. Molière. La Fontaine. Big names.

The magnificence was meant to impress the guest of honor, the "god-given one," the king. It had already been quite a year for the king. His prime minister Mazarin had died in the Spring and instead of appointing a new one, the king said he'd do the job himself. He also had a pregnant queen and a sweet, retiring new mistress. Definitely time for a party.

What else was needed for the party? Orchestras, rockets, a giant shell that could carry a person across water, magnificent tapestries woven on the premises, horses and diamonds for door prizes, 6000 guests, stuff like that. He was tickled that Le Brun had painted his personal emblem, the upward-climbing and nimble squirrel, on the corners of the elaborate ceilings. He paced. He lounged. He gave orders, and more orders. He was ready.

The day came. Guests arrived. In fact they had been turning up all week. But the guest of honor would not come until evening. When the light of the low sun made the front gates blaze up in gold, the king and his family arrived.

He proudly showed them around his beautiful home. "Sire, it would be my honor to offer you the choice of anything that you see. It shall be my gift to you." The king was taking it all in. He was impressed, but not in a good way. The king smiled anyway. He wondered, Where was all this Stuff from? How did this guy afford luxury after luxury? This place was way nicer than the king's own palaces. As they started to tour the grounds the king smiled some more. And he said to his mother, "I think we must... take this guy down."

It was evening. The exquisite grounds were lit by torchlight. Fountains sang. Scores of precious orange trees stood proudly in their tubs. Music was everywhere. The host thought it was going well. And it was time for the performance. Molière came forward, acting distraught. The playwright addressed the king. "Your majesty, the entertainment for this evening needs your divine help. I've done everything I can but I have failed. If only some heavenly intervention were possible your Majesty--your own!"

The king raised his hand slightly, a slow, heavy gesture. The nymph in the seashell moved across the water and the audience gasped. Lights and players exploded across the terrace to begin the show! It was called "The Bores" and was so hilarious. Afterward, hails of explosions shook the grounds, and the music welled up sweet and fine. The king walked through the rockets to the midnight feast, his face lit as from a raging forest fire. It was an incredible occasion--hard to believe.

Please press play... then imagine the party here.

This is my version of the true story of Nicolas Fouquet, Finance minister to Louis XIV, who gave the fête at his château, Vaux-le-Vicomte, on August 17, 1661. 19 days later the king had Fouquet arrested. He had a long, long corruption/embezzlement trial, and then he was sent far away to a prison where he lived out his days. He died in 1680. Of course the party was not the sole reason he got into trouble. Louis XIV was suspicious of and disliked Fouquet for a number of reasons. But the ostentatious party was pretty much the last straw.

Whatever Fouquet took from him, he gave his king something tremendous--the idea of a château fabulous beyond compare. Something bedecked with expensive orange trees, something with fountains and grottoes and vistas, something involving Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre, something that would become Capital V Versailles. Thanks Fouquet.

  • Antonia Fraser: "Was it so wise to demonstrate wealth and magnificence in excess of that of the sovereign?" [Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, Doubleday 2006.]
  • Lucy Norton: "He [Louis XIV] was, like all his courtiers, overcome by the beauty of Vaux and the splendour of the fête; but to him Fouquet appeared not as a generous host and future collaborator, but as a self-evident thief who had enriched himself from the treasury over the years the king was hard pressed to find money for the country's essential needs." [The Sun King and His Loves, The Folio Society 1982.]
  • Nancy Mitford: "His [Fouquet's] sins were not visited on his children. His daughter, the Duchesse de Béthune, was always kindly received at Court; under Louis XV, his grandson the Maréchal de Belle-Isle became a rich and respected soldier while his, Belle-Isle's son, Gisors, was a French Sir Philip Sidney." [The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles, Harper & Row 1966.]
  • I also remember the Anne Somerset book about the Affair of the Poisons that I blogged about in February, though sadly I do not own it.

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