The 17th-century château Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose designers would go on to create the palace of Versailles. Photo: ©John Kellerman/Alamy
In August, 1661, French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet threw one of the most lavish parties of all time at his new château, Vaux-le-Vicomte, southeast of Paris. Dinner was prepared by François Vatel; the entertainment included a play—courtesy of Molière—plus an elaborate fireworks display, all for the King of France, Louis XIV, and his court.
The bedroom where King Louis XIV stayed while visiting the château. Photo: © Ludovic Maisant/Corbis
The king was mightily impressed, especially with the estate, which was the creation of three young talents: architect Louis Le Vau, painter and decorator Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre. While the château is beautifully proportioned and the decor is tastefully rich, the gardens and grounds make Vaux a masterpiece.
The double-height grand salon overlooks the gardens. Photo: Béatrice Lécuyer-Bibal
And it is the gardens that the current owners of Vaux—the Vogüé family—are celebrating in honor of the 400th anniversary of Le Nôtre’s birth. Beginning April 12, there will be a new exhibition dedicated to his work, as well as two new tours that reveal secrets and vistas of the magisterial gardens. Famed French landscape architect Louis Benech will design the flower garden this spring. “Louis is one of the few landscapers who respects history and tries to work with it,” says Alexandre de Vogüé, who, with his twin brother, Jean-Charles, now runs the estate.
Le Nôtre designed an elaborate parterre de broderie to frame the central path. Photo: Béatrice Lécuyer-Bibal
Le Nôtre’s original goal was to design a formal garden that remained the same throughout the seasons, and he achieved this with large, dramatic parterres framed with low boxwood hedges, wide pebble alleys, statues, fountains, basins, grottoes, and a canal. He played with symmetry, scale, and perspective, using a technique called anamorphosis abscondita (“hidden distortion”) to create a sweeping view from the château’s Terrace de Diane that makes the garden appear longer and larger than it actually is.
Details of the formal gardens. Photo: Béatrice Lécuyer-Bibal
“Up until the design of Vaux-le-Vicomte, landscapers were doing less ambitious work,” says landscape architect and garden historian Frédéric Sichet, whose lush monograph on the 1,200-acre park, André Le Nôtre à Vaux-le-Vicomte, will be published by Somogy Editions d’Art in April. “Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first time that a landscape designer oversaw the entire project—the gardens, the fountains, the water, everything. Le Nôtre was given carte blanche. And what he did was a real rupture with what had been done before.”
The castle, set amongst the 1,200-acre park, appears to be floating on the wide moat. Photo: © Himes/Alamy
It also set the tone for what would come. King Louis XIV was so impressed with Vaux-le-Vicomte, he took the triumvirate of Le Vau, Le Brun, and Le Nôtre to the southwest of Paris and launched the construction of Versailles. While working on the royal palace, Le Nôtre also oversaw the design of the gardens for the châteaus of Chantilly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and Saint-Cloud, as well as the renovation of the Tuileries in Paris.
The king, however, was less amused with Fouquet. Convinced that Vaux had been built with money pilfered from the national treasury, the king had his finance minister arrested a few weeks after the infamous fête, and Fouquet spent the rest of his life in jail.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is open through November 11, and during the Christmas season. On Saturdays from May to October, there are candlelight tours of the château and gardens, with dinner on the Terrace de Diane by reservation, and fireworks. For more information, visit: vaux-le-vicomte.com
Source: Architectural Digest
Author: Dana Thomas