Thursday, October 1, 2015

LOUIS XIV | Finance Minister Fouquet's Folly (Updated Dec. 10, 2015)

Lion loves lioness at Vaux-le-Vicomte. I love them both. The lion
 surely stands for Fouquet, whose self-esteem then was high. On the
opposite side are two lionesses looking on enviously... nice touch.
Photo by Alice Tepper Marlin.
Last month Alice and I visited the village of Cély-en-Bière in Seine-et-Marne, France, which is about ten miles south of Melun (famed for its pioneering habitability act of 1851), through which one drives to get to the castle at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Anyone who has been to the castle and gardens remembers it forever.

The gorgeous château is the primary physical legacy of Nicolas Fouquet, the first Minister of Finance, then called Superintendent of Finances, under Louis (Roi Soleil) XIV.

Vaux inspired Versailles, which was bigger but not better.

We stayed in Cély-en-Bière, which is just above Fleury-en-
Bière, to the west of Barbizon. Vaux-le-Vicomte is at upper
right, via Melun - easy to get to and easy to leave. Vaux-le-
Vicomte is painful to leave, a marvel of surprising design.
Fouquet's life is simultaneously an inspiring study of someone who excelled in château-design and of someone (one of many) who excelled at financial manipulation but had a blind spot relative to the risks he was taking of irritating His Majesty.

Serendipitously, at the East Hampton Library Authors Fair a few weeks ago I purchased Ina Caro's book on her travels with her husband Robert Caro in France, The Road from the Past. It includes the story of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte and its inspired owner and designer Fouquet.

Ina Caro spares nothing in her description of the dubious methods by which he enriched himself as Cardinal Mazarin's agent and then young Louis XIV's finance minister.

But later, after Fouquet's construction of Vaux-le-Vicomte leads to his downfall, she is sad that a man of his talents ended up languishing in prison.

Ina Caro at the East Hampton Library Authors
Night, August 2015, with the book she signed
for Alice and me.
Caro vividly describes his career as one of steady accumulation of money and power, and Fouquet's use of the money and power to pursue artistic talent, beautiful homes and gardens, and women.

Fouquet's French biographers - based on a skimming of several books about him - seem to avert their eyes from the acquisition phase of Fouquet's rise to power. Ina Caro, having spent many years of her life researching the ascent to power of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson - as Robert Caro's much-appreciated research team of one, relishes this part of the story, Fouquet's ascendance to near-royal power.

On the other hand, Caro is distressed at his last decade of disgrace and imprisonment because Fouquet deserved better than, say, Boss Tweed, who also ended his life is poverty and disgrace but did not have any major social contributions to show for his plunder of the public purse, unless the Tweed Courthouse, paid for several times over, counts.

The most-sold biography of Fouquet at
Vaux-le-Vicomte, by Jean Christian
Petitfils.
Fouquet was no Tweed, as Ina Caro clearly shows when her keen eye tears over at the sight of Fouquet in Pignerol prison - offering to help with the design of the prison gardens, and noting to his keeper that there was a time when people eagerly sought his views on such matters.

Nicolas Fouquet was born to a family of aristocratic lawyers in Paris. He was prepared for a career in law by - natch! - studying with Jesuit priests until he was 13. Then he became an apprentice lawyer, admitted as avocat at the Parlement de Paris. He rose to assume several posts and at 20 years old he (or his family) purchased the position of maître des requêtes for 150,000 livres. In 1640 he married a wealthy woman, Louise Fourché, who died a year later.

From his youth, he was destined to be a wealthy man - he started life with a hefty fortune that was used in part to buy his first job, and he added to it with dowries from his first and second marriages.

Georges Bordonove's bio raises the
question Ina Caro seeks to answer -
how best remember Fou[c]quet?
We in the United States in 2015 may feel superior to the age of Louis XIV, when public posts were openly bought and sold. But access to many public positions depend on connections that outsiders can only obtain through large campaign contributions. The two systems are not so different.

In the United States, the patronage route to higher office is supplemented by the parallel career path, ouverte aux talents in Napoleon's words, via the civil service. Such a route also existed in Fouquet's day, as is evident from the story below of the team that built his masterpiece, the château at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Fouquet's life has been the subject of many dramatizations, most famously as the employer in Pignerol prison of Eustache Dauger, "the Man in the Iron Mask", whose name was never spoken or written. Dauger served as one of Fouquet's valets, as described in Alexandre Dumas' novel, The Man in the Iron Mask. Dauger is identified by different researchers as the true king, or identical twin brother or biological father of Louis XIV, or other people.  Fouquet is variously portrayed as a hero or villain:
  • He is a hero in Alexandre Dumas' novel The Vicomte de Bragelonne, where he is depicted sympathetically. Aramis, an ally of Fouquet, tries to seize power by replacing Louis XIV with his identical twin brother. Fouquet, loyal to the crown, foils Aramis' plot and saves Louis, but is nonetheless punished by Louis.
  • He is a villain in James Whale's film The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), adapted from Dumas' novel, in which Fouquet tries to keep secret the existence of the King's twin brother. Fouquet, played by Joseph Schildkraut, is made to die when his coach drives over a  cliff. The film was remade many times.
  • He is variously portrayed by Robert Lindsay in Nick Dear's play Power, in the historical novel Imprimatur by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, and in Roberto Rossellini's The Taking of Power (1966).
The facts are that in the 1642-1650 period, Fouquet held various posts in the provinces, and then with the army, under the chief minister (to Louis XIII and then Anne of Austria as regent until Louis XIV was crowned) Cardinal Jules Mazarin. As Mazarin's officer, Fouquet in 1650 was able to buy the important position of procureur général to the Parlement de Paris. When Mazarin was in exile because of the rebellion of the Fronde, Fouquet remained loyal to him, protecting his property and keeping him well informed.

Upon Mazarin's return, Fouquet was given - at his request - the office of Superintendent of Finances (1653), which meant that he negotiated with the financiers who lent money to the king. Fouquet's wealth was greatly increased by a dowry of 160,000 Livres from his marriage in 1651 to Marie de Castille, from a family of wealthy Spanish lawyers, and by Fouquet's financial dealings for Mazarin.

Fouquet's own credit and self-confidence strengthened the credit of the government, while his high position at the Parlement (where he remained procureur général) meant he could settle investigations with lump-sum payments. As Minister of Finance, he was in a position to obtain money for Mazarin to pay for his wars and greedy courtiers.

Fouquet sometimes met the demands upon him by borrowing money for Mazarin on his own credit. As often happens, the intermingling of funds - begun as a generous impulse to assist his boss - turned out to offer opportunities to Fouquet that he quickly learned to utilize.

The word "Fouquet" means squirrel (Fouquet's family coat of arms showed a squirrel with the motto Quo non ascendet? "What heights will he not scale?") and this symbol can be found in many decorations at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Nicolas Fouquet gathered his nuggets from the royal purse in order to pursue some ideas of his own, one of which was to have the ability to lend again when needed. In this environment it would have been hard to detect fraud if anyone had wanted to, but in this case financiers had no such wish - Fouquet kept his friends happy with favors and with support when family emergencies arose. Fouquet's fortune soon surpassed Mazarin's. Fouquet's close friend, and maybe mistress, was Suzanne de Rougé, the Marquise du Plessis-Bellière.

When Mazarin died in 1661, Fouquet expected to be made head of the new government, but Louis XIV surprised his courtiers with his determination to be his own man. He made the well-known statement that he intended to be his own chief minister. He was to rule for 72 years, the longest reign of any European monarch.

Colbert, perhaps already seeking to succeed Fouquet, worried the king with reports on the French deficit, and prompted the king with stories about Fouquet's squirreling away for himself of royal money. When Fouquet made the mistake of showing extravagance in his personal life, his fate was sealed.

Fouquet bought the port of Belle-Île-en-Mer - and was given the title of Marquise de Belle-Île. He then strengthened the fortifications to defend himself should his fortunes turn.

The coup de grâce was Fouquet's enormous spending on his château at Vaux-le-Vicomte. It was and is a true work of art and it was the inspiration for Versailles. Fouquet brought together an outstanding team to execute his plan - the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun, and the garden designer André le Nôtre.

The king later used the same three men later to build Versailles, which is widely viewed as a lesser artistic success although much grander.

Fouquet also gathered rare manuscripts, paintings, jewels and antiques and was a patron of Molière, Corneille and la Fontaine.

On August 17, 1661, Louis XIV, already bent on Fouquet's destruction, was entertained at Vaux with a fête rivaled in magnificence by only one or two in French history. Molière's Les Fâcheux was produced for the first time, and Molière personally met the guests. François Vatel (c.1631-1671) was Fouquet's Swiss-born maître d’hôtel (majordomo) and was in charge of the fête at Vaux.

(After Fouquet was imprisoned, Vatel got a new job working for prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé. In April 1671 he was put in charge of a banquet for 2,000 people in honor of Louis XIV at the château de Chantilly. Madame de Sévigné reports that Vatel was so distraught about the lateness of the seafood delivery and other failures that he fell on his sword. His story was the basis of the 2000 film Vatel, with Gérard Depardieu playing the title role. In the movie, Vatel is portrayed as committing suicide when he comes to the realization that after all his dedication he was still nothing more than property in the eyes of his titled employers.)

When Louis XIV decided Fouquet had to go, he was just 22 years old although he had reigned for 18 years. He was nervous about acting openly against so powerful a minister as Fouquet, who was among other things head of the powerful tax farmers. So Louis first tricked Fouquet into selling his office of procureur général, thereby losing the protection of its privileges.

Then Louis had Fouquet arrested by d'Artagnan, lieutenant of the king's musketeers, and subjected Fouquet to a trial that lasted nearly three years, with numerous violations of judicial procedures. Louis was said to be acting throughout "as though he were conducting a campaign", fearing that Fouquet might play the part of a rebellious Richelieu.

During the trial, French public sympathy was on the side of Fouquet. La Fontaine and Madame de Sévigné and others wrote on his behalf. When Fouquet was sentenced to banishment, the king, disappointed, "commuted" the sentence to imprisonment for life. In December 1664, Fouquet was taken to the fortress/prison of Pignerol (Pinerolo in Italian), near Turin.  His wife was not allowed to write to him until 1672 and allowed to visit him only once, in 1679. Fouquet wrote several translations and prayers in prison.

Fouquet died in Pignerol on March 23, 1680. A year after his death his remains were moved from Pignerol to the family crypt in the Église Sainte-Marie-des-Anges in Paris.