Louis XIV’s finance superintendent, Nicholas Fouquet, had the château built at colossal expense, using the top designers of the day – architect Le Vau, painter Le Brun and landscape gardener Le Nôtre. The result was magnificence and precision in perfect proportion, and a bill that could only be paid by someone who occasionally confused the state’s accounts with his own. The house-warming party, to which the king was invited, was more extravagant than any royal event – a comparison which other finance ministers ensured that Louis took to heart. Within three weeks Fouquet was jailed for life on trumped-up charges, and the design team carted off to build the king’s own gaudy piece of one-upmanship at Versailles.
Seen from the entrance, the château is a rather austere grey pile surrounded by an artificial moat, and it’s only when you go through to the south side – where clipped box and yew, fountains and statuary stand in formal gardens – that you can look back and appreciate the very harmonious and very French qualities of the building: the combination of steep, tall roof and central dome with classical pediment and pilasters.
As to the interior, the main artistic interest lies in the work of Le Brun, who was responsible for the two fine tapestries in the entrance, made in the local workshops set up by Fouquet specifically to adorn his house (and subsequently removed by Louis XIV to become the famous Gobelins works in Paris), as well as numerous painted ceilings, notably in Fouquet’s Bedroom, the Salon des Muses, Sleep in the Cabinet des Jeux, and the so-called King’s Bedroom, whose decor is the first example of the style that became known as “Louis Quatorze”.
Other points of interest are the kitchens, which have not been altered since construction, and a room displaying letters in the hand of Fouquet, Louis XIV and other notables. One, dated November 1794 (mid-Revolution), addresses the incumbent Duc de Choiseul-Praslin as tu. “Citizen,” it says, “you’ve got a week to hand over one hundred thousand pounds …”, and signs off with “Cheers and brotherhood”. You can imagine the shock to the aristocratic system.
Every fine Saturday evening from May to mid-October, between 8pm and midnight (E13 entrance), the state rooms are illuminated with a thousand candles, as they probably were on the occasion of Fouquet’s fateful party. The fountains and other waterworks can be seen in action on the second and last Saturdays of each month between April and October, from 3pm until 6pm. In the stables, the Musée des équipages comprises a collection of horse-drawn vehicles, including those used by Charles X fleeing Paris and the Duc de Rohan retreating from Moscow.
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