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Nicolas Fouquet
Nicolas Fouquet
1615-1680
Vicomte de Melun
Marquis de Belle-Isle

Le Surintendant de Finances
Procureur-Général de Parliament

On August 17th 1661, Fouquet received the 'Sun King' Louis XIV and his court at his own château Vaux-le-Vicomte during a famous feast. Three weeks later the King ordered Fouquet to be arrested. Accused of financial malpractice, mostly falsified by his envious enemy Colbert, Fouquet was condemned to banishment by the Paris Parliament in December 1664. Infuriated by this legal verdict, Louis XIV, unforgiving and unjust at his worst, condemned him to the cruelty of life-imprisonment in the citadel of Pignerol, where Fouquet died in 1680, not having ever been allowed the mercy of eased prison conditions.
Nicolas Fouquet, who was Surintendant de Finances under Mazarin and Louis XIV has nearly never received any justice. Historians are usually quite silent about him, writing mostly about Colbert and Mercantilism, or claim that he had enriched himself illegally in his office as minister of finances. Fouquet's case cannot be treated that one-sidedly, it is a far more complex subject matter. 
He rot for 19 years in the prison of Pignerol, being forgotten, so Louis XIV believed, although he had been the richest and most powerful man in France - and the most handsome and charming - and he must not be forgotten now, nor will he ever!

Fouquet descended from a line of parliamentarians, one of those very rich men, upon whom the crown had become increasingly to depend. The services of these parliamentarians were rewarded with appointments to high office. Francoise Fouquet, Nicolas' father, had already been a trusted advisor to Cardinal Richelieu on maritime and commercial affairs, while Fouquet's grandfather had been a merchant of Nantes. 
Nicolas Fouquet himself became not only procureur-général (Attorney-general) of the Paris Parliament, but also financier. Here he found his true métier, rising to become Surintendant de Finances and, for a short period, the chief minister of Louis XIV.
The higher ranks of the officier class claimed for themselves a particular status of nobility, la noblesse de la robe, which they asserted to be the equal of la noblesse de l'épée.
The officier, whatever their wealth or rank, struggled endlessly to secure a place among the true nobility of France. Nothing less could resolve the predicament of the bourgeoisie - and until that day arrived the only thing to do was to demonstrate as obviously as possible by one's appearance and behaviour that one had at least learned to live like a nobleman.

The Royal Treasury had collapsed in 1648, and now the financial machinery has to be understood to realise how it was possible that the crown was in high debts with private financiers. The Crown borrowed money from private investors, who anticipated tax returns and thus an increase in wealth, but in 1648 these tax returns could not be honoured. Therefore the private financiers withdrew their investments and private investors were scarce. As strange as this concept might seem to a modern mind, it did actually work for a long time, but the scheme had went out of hand since the death of Henri IV (Louis XIV's grandfather).
When Cardinal Mazarin appointed Nicolas Fouquet as financial secretary in 1653, was the collapse of the State Treasury still causing great problems for France, and Fouquet was appointed to refill the empty Crown Treasury, which indeed he managed to do. Fouquet had already risen rapidly, and already in 1641, at the age of 26, he had been able to buy the estate of Vaux-le-Vicomte, thus having been a rapidly rising shining star amongst the officiers. It has to be strongly pointed out, that he had faithfully served the crown particularly at the time of the Fronde, when so many rich nobles plotted against the crown and took over the power in France, yet not to succeed in the end.

Nicolas Fouquet's great and rapid success was due to his matchless intelligence and unparalleled daring. To these gifts of a sparkling and winning personality were added abundant generosity, a lively manner and great charms, a not only handsome but even beautiful appearance, and an ambition, which didn't seem to know any limits, to live amidst luxury and refinement. He loved for sure beauty and pleasure in every form, surrounding himself with the sweet scent of flowers, the pleasing and stimulating beauty of the arts, like paintings, tapestries, books, statues, as well as poetry. Being this lover of beauty and art he was, and in his generous manner, which was surely not free from self-interest, but nevertheless achieved much greatness and magnificence in attracting a circle of gifted writers and artists around himself, who was the giver of gifts and of encouragement, as well as commissions to enable those artists and poets to live only for their art. Amongst those were the poets La Fontaine, for sure one who showed the greatest loyalty to Fouquet after his fall one can imagine, and Moliere, Le Notre the garden architect and Le Vau the architect, who both built first Vaux-le-Vicomte and then Versailles after the former's model, the famous painters Poussin and Le Brun, and La Quintinie.
It can be said that of all the wealthy bourgeois who employed artists the wealthiest and most influential of all was Nicolas Fouquet. By nature ostentatious and fond of luxury, he spent his fortune freely, recognising the value of cutting a figure in the world and at the same time delighting in the patronage of arts and letters. Fouquet's tastes were extraordinarily wide, ranging over music and drama, poetry, painting and architecture, and he possessed an uncanny gift of recognising and securing for his own service the finest exponents of every art form.
For years he had wanted to establish himself in the country like any great aristocrat, and as mentioned before, he bought in 1641, when he was only a maître de requêtes, the village of Maincy, conveniently near to Paris, and had added to it as his fortune grew until in 1657 his estate, under its proud name of Vaux-le-Vicomte (Be-worth the Viscount), had become a sufficiently splendid setting for the great château he had dreamed of building. And splendid it is, most breathtakingly beautiful.

To the east and west of the château were two great appartements, one for Fouquet, the other reserved for the king. Within the château, the decoration reflected the current taste for legend, allegory and self-glorification. Throughout Fouquet's rooms his own device of a fouquet, a squirrel, was to be seen everywhere along with its dangerously aspiring motto, 'Quo non ascendet' ('What heights will he not scale?'), and, as if to give a clue, the crenelated towers of the royal blazon of Spain, appropriated in some mysterious way by the family of lawyers into which he had married, were given due prominence.
Finally, in the very centre of the château, on the dome of the salon, Le Brun was about to record the apotheosis of his patron, a new star taking its place in the firmament, when he was forestalled by Fouquet's sudden downfall.

 

Fouquet's policies

When, in February 1653, Mazarin appointed Fouquet Surintendant, he encountered professional jealousy which he could afford to ignore. Handsome, pleasantly open in manner, appealing much to women, genuinely interested in the artists and writers, like la Fontaine and Molière, whom he had ample means to support, he could count on a large personal following, which friendships that went beyond the ties of the clientèle, substantial as that already was, and rivalling Mazarin's own.
              'Our principal care is to find cash promptly'
Minister Servien's words establish the criterion according to which Fouquet's financial strategy may look sensible, even responsible. It consisted essentially of two interlocking operations. He used his own property as security for loans intended for the crown; he borrowed money on the security of the state. The scope there for personal enrichment needs little stress, but it must not be forgotten that he had to maintain a lavish front to reassure creditors that their money was safe.
Fouquet's essential importance lies in his position as the man in the centre of the complex web. The personal nature of the whole edifice and the hubristic element in his self-confidence were realised, when, in June 1658, he fell critically ill. Unable to carry out the gruelling process of bargaining over money for the army, Fouquet was then reduced to selling his wife's estate of Belle Asize to raise funds. Yet he survived this crisis and arose once more as the shining star.

According to the financial workings of the time, so did also Fouquet use his own personal fortune as a guarantee to ensure the private investors' faith in the tax returns and revenues they would receive, when he was appointed Surintendant de Finances in 1653. He was successful in the tiring responsibility of finding the ready money required each day to supply the needs of France's administration, of the continuous wars, and to to cover the great cost for court entertainment.
But naturally, within this scheme, a large part of the profits fell to him. But he made one mistake, this brilliant and daring man, outshining everyone else with his intelligence and charms, who never failed in his loyalty to the King, had too great a faith in himself, never considering even a moment, so it seems, that his wealth and the luxury he lived in would stir envy and jealousy in others.  His personality was far from intrigue and thoughts of malicious greed. 

He was often working together with Cardinal Mazarin's private secretary, Colbert, a descendant of a dynasty of prominent merchant bankers, who had, so it was proven, enriched himself illegally. On the death of Mazarin in 1661, Fouquet was sure that his tireless working to ensure the state's finances after the collapse in 1648, would lead to his appointment as First Minister, to be the successor to Mazarin in this post, but Louis XIV, a young man of twenty-two in 1661, had already decided to abolish the post, and consequently to deprive Fouquet of it. Obviously had Louis XIV been traumatised by the events of the Fronde in his childhood. At the same time Colbert decided to destroy and ruin Fouquet, to rise to greater heights on the ashes of the Surintendant's success and life. To achieve this, and also to cover his own financial misdealing, Colbert laid the entire blame for France's "financial disorders" upon Fouquet's person. The King welcomed the move, even encouraging the lies and having an open ear for further blame and lies being brought forth by Colbert, while turning a blind eye to the truth.

The ugly and less able Colbert, whose device was a grass snake, sowed day after day more seeds of distrust in the young King's mind. So that even the routine repairs on the ramparts of Fouquet's property of Belle-Isle-en-Mer, were used by Colbert to persuade the King that the minister was at the head of an anti-Royalist plot. These outrageous lies were then used most graciously by Louis XIV to bring about Fouquet's downfall, and already in May 1661 he had planned on destroying this man who was outshining him, who was later to become the absolutistic 'Sun King', with entire Europe looking upon him as a model for Kingship, and who was called by many the "true King of France". In spite of the many warnings Fouquet received from his friends, he did nothing to protect himself, not being able to believe such treachery, blind hatred and lies.

 

Rise & Glory | Downfall & Injustice | 'Une Rose...'
Vaux-le-Vicomte | Virtual Tour I | Virtual Tour II | Les Amis de Vaux
The Author at Vaux
| 17th August 2001 - Fête Anniversary

 


Graphics Copyright © N. Kipar 1999. Scroll from Madame Fouquet's crest.
Contents Copyright © N. Kipar 1999.