THE STORY OF VAUX-LE-VICOMTE. Alexandre de Vogüé and his two brothers, Jean-Charles and Ascanio, own and run the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, one of the greatest Historical Monuments in France.
A podcast of this interview is available to listen to here.
Alexandre de Vogüé, for twenty years you went to the mountains, working in a dangerous job as a mountain guide to escape the “aristocratic family background”. When you returned to Vaux-le-Vicomte in 2012 after a skiing accident did you feel it was an act of family duty?
Yes, but today it is no longer a duty, and I am very pleased to be part of this adventure for my generation.
The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte has now been owned by your family for five generations. Your great-great-grandfather, the sugar refiner Alfred Sommier, bought it in 1875, and in 1967 Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte was an amazing wedding gift to your father Patrice and your Italian mother, Cristina. Why is it such an important place?
Because Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances in France from 1653 until 1661 under King Louis XIV, wanted to have the most beautiful house ever. Fouquet’s beautiful Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte was built between 1658 and 1661 by the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André Le Nôtre and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun. Fouquet built Vaux-le-Vicomte on land he inherited from his father, strategically placed between Fontainebleau, where the young King Louis XIV spent the summer, and Vincennes where Cardinal Mazarin the Prime Minister lived. Fouquet had two passions in life, the arts and power, and he wanted to be as close as possible to the King because he had huge ambition.
Fouquet gave a party to celebrate the King and the chateau on 17th August 1661. Is it correct to say that it was because of this party that he was arrested and spent the remainder of his life in prison?
Vaux-le-Vicomte is victim of a legend about the jealousy of King Louis XIV towards his minister Nicolas Fouquet. The myth that the King put Fouquet in prison because he threw a lavish party to inaugurate his chateau is definitely not the truth. During the party, Fouquet said to the King, “This place Vaux is yours. I give you Vaux.” He worshipped the King, but, despite his own intelligence, was naive about the 20 years younger King who he knew as a party animal, as we would say, who loved women, dancing and hunting. He did not understand the personality of the future Louis XIV, the absolute King of France, and the crucial character in the story is Jean-Baptiste Colbert, also a very ambitious man. Both he and Fouquet wanted to take the place of Cardinal Mazarin, the First Minister of State who had died on 9th March 1661. Colbert convinced the King that Fouquet was a bad guy who was stealing from him and raising an army to overthrow him. The great majority of what Colbert told the King was exaggerated, and was also a way to draw a veil over his own wrongdoings. The King, who was born in 1638, had previously been traumatized by having to flee the Louvre aged 13 because the powerful people of France were trying to overthrow him and he had to go to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, this old castle with no chimneys, no fireplace, no beds, no furniture. So when Colbert told him, “Be careful about your Fouquet. Be careful about your Minister of Finance. He is one of those powerful people that want you out,” the King decided to arrest Fouquet on a date that was chosen three months before the party.
“Nicolas Fouquet wanted to have the most beautiful house ever”
Aerial View of Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte © Lourmel/Chicurel
Alexandre de Vogüé, is it true that when they inherited Vaux-le-Vicomte your parents turned to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth House in England, in order to understand how to maintain and open a magnificent estate to the public?
My father was an industrialist. He realised that he had no idea about the job of opening the chateau to the public but that there was potential. He immediately understood how expensive it would be to take care of such an immense place, and that he would need some extra revenue to maintain it, and he turned to Chatsworth as the model. I had the pleasure to be invited there by the Duke a few years ago, and they do a marvellous job of maintaining such a huge estate. One of the major educational tips that my father gave us was, “Do whatever you want, but please respect the place, respect the history of the place, respect the work of your ancestors, and don’t destroy the soul that this place is about.” My father, who died last March, had the vision throughout all his life to manage this enterprise that today breaks-even and whose books are balanced.
What financial help do you have from the French state?
Overall only something like six percent of our operational budget, but today we do have more and more help from the state because we are reopening the doors that my father slammed behind him for many years. My father had a very strong character, and he was courageous enough to face the Minister of Culture and tell him, “I don’t need your money. I don’t need your architects of historic monuments that are whores and thieves. I’m going to do this all by myself.”
Are the chateau and the garden and the decor all as important as each other?
Fouquet asked two things of his three artisans, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André Le Nôtre and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun. He said, “First, you can do whatever you want, but you have to work together, hand in hand. And second, you can do whatever you want as long as you are as bold and as innovative as possible.” There is a harmony between the architecture and the garden. The right proportions create a serene and perfect environment that people feel to this day, even without much education about history or architecture.
Is the garden at Vaux one of the most important in France?
It might not be the first French formal garden, but it is the most important. It is the model from which all the other gardens were inspired, starting with the garden of Versailles. Le Nôtre wrote the grammar of the French formal garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte.
How did the very special candle lit evenings that you hold at the chateau come about?
That was the superb idea of my father and mother, who were living in Fouquet’s private apartment on the first floor of the chateau at the time. After they came back from going to see Once Upon a Time in the West in the cinema, my father was looking out at the garden, and my mother lit a candle, and then a second candle, and my father told her, “Why don’t you light more?” Those candles reflected on the windows overlooking the garden, and my father suddenly thought, “What about putting candles in the garden?” That’s how it began, and this summer, obviously a difficult one for everyone, we broke the 2019 attendance record of our candlelit evenings. They are a fantastic way for a visitor to be immersed in a 17th century kind of party, and show what the atmosphere of the chateau and the garden would be when just lit by candles.
When you decided to come back to Vaux-le-Vicomte the chateau was still not very well-known, either in France or around the world. Is that why you created the Friends of Vaux-le-Vicomte in France and in America?
Vaux-le-Vicomte is not a royal palace like Fontainebleu, it is quite isolated and we didn’t do a good enough job to make ourselves better known. An aunt from my mother’s Russian side of the family, who lives in New York and who was in charge of the New York City Ballet fundraising, kept saying to my parents, “When are you going to create your own American Friends?” But for my parents, fundraising was very psychologically difficult, begging for money to maintain the chateau. I was the perfect person to be in charge, so my aunt said to me, “You have to do that,” and one of the main reasons I returned to Vaux-le-Vicomte was to create this fund raising development department and the international Friends of Vaux-le-Vicomte. I convinced American Francophiles to join by going to the States and giving conferences and lectures.
How many visitors come in a normal year?
Vaux is one hour from Paris by car, and in a normal year, not this year unfortunately, we have a train and then a shuttle that links Paris to Vaux-le-Vicomte in less than one hour. 330,000 visitors come, of whom 25% are international. Until last year the Americans were number one. Last year it changed, and the Chinese became number one.
How many people take care of Vaux-le-Vicomte today?
75 people work here. It is a record to have such a modest team to maintain such a large estate.
“More than 80 movies were shot at Vaux, the first in 1968 by Orson Welles”
Orson Welles with Cristina & Patrice de Vogüé © Private Collection Vaux-le-Vicomte
Alexandre de Vogüé, what are your activities at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte ?
We rent the chateau for cinema, for seminars or to corporations, and to people who want to do a wedding or host a celebration or a private dinner or party. It varies a lot from one year to another, but it’s between 0.5M to 1M of euros in terms of turnover.
When your father and mother opened the chateau, did they immediately realise that it would be a good set for making movies?
Yes, more than 80 movies were shot at Vaux, the first in 1968 by Orson Welles. I have a fantastic picture of both my parents and Orson Welles in the garden at the chateau. As yet not one single great director has filmed the story of Vaux-le-Vicomte itself, even though we have absolutely everything. We’ve got the characters: Colbert, the King, Fouquet; we’ve got an amazing story; and we’ve got the venue. I dream of an English or American director making a film about Vaux.
Which well-known films were shot at Vaux?
The James Bond movie Moonraker was filmed here. Sofia Coppola did Marie Antoinette. There was Ridicule, a French movie. Leonardo DiCaprio was in The Man with the Iron Mask. A lot of the TV series Versailles was shot here.
How come you and your brothers all decided to join forces in order to keep the chateau going?
We were touched by the magic and the spirit of this place. We all are absolutely passionate, as my father was, about this place.
Do you brothers get on well together?
At one point we were not getting along well, especially my two brothers. Some stories from young adult life, or even when adults, surfaced when working together. We were not fighting, but it was not nice. We worked for nine months with a coach to try to learn how to work together, how to talk to each other and respect each other. That really saved Vaux-le-Vicomte I have to say, and now we know how to divide family issues and business issues. My younger brother, Ascanio, who joined us in 2015, is the boss in charge of finance and public events such as the candle lit evenings. He’s very good, and Vaux-le-Vicomte broke even for the last five years, our number one priority. We can still only put 1 – 1.5 M euros into restoration and we should double this figure, so we definitely need to increase our visitor numbers and our revenues in general. We are working on Jean de La Fontaine events for 2021, the poet’s 400th anniversary. My other brother Jean-Charles is the sales director who sells Vaux-le-Vicomte to the professionals, and he’s also in charge of all the food activities.
What are the food activities?
An important part of the business. My mother created a self-service restaurant in the 80s, but we also put up a restaurant during the candle lit evenings every Saturday, al fresco, on one of the garden terraces overlooking the chateau. This is very successful and is fully booked from the beginning of the season all the way to the end. We also have another restaurant that we put up only on Saturdays. Then we offer catering service to guests who rent the chateau.
You are in charge of fundraising and the art collection, and you are the president of the Association of Friends of Vaux-le-Vicomte. How is the fundraising going?
It’s going OK. We raise a million a year, which is very modest relative to much bigger institutions such as the Louvre and Versailles, and also as regards American institutions that raise a few tens of millions a year. But for us, it’s important. Half comes from France, from companies and individuals, and half comes from American individuals. Americans absolutely have a love story with “l’Art de vivre à la Française”, and they dream of being as close as possible to the family in charge of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Once they become patrons we invite them into our family home, and we have dinner and tour the chateau when nobody’s around, something that they cherish a lot.
Winter at Vaux-le-Vicomte © Alexandre de Vogüé
The Grand Salon © Private Collection Vaux-le-Vicomte
A Firework Display at Vaux-le-Vicomte © Collectif Image
Candlelit Evening © Private Collection Vaux-le-Vicomte
The King’s Bedchamber © Yann Piriou
The Three de Vogüé Brothers © Giles Gardner
“As yet not one single great director has filmed the story of Vaux-le-Vicomte itself”
Alexandre de Vogüé, do you have new ideas for the chateau?
A year and a half ago we put up a 3D sound journey, a mix of technology and heritage, to make people’s visit more exciting and more immersive. Visitors listen to the story of the characters of the time – La Fontaine, Molière, Fouquet, Colbert, le Roi etc. – on headphones with very high definition sound, triggered when passing from one room to another. It inspires our visitors with “l’audace du Grand Siècle”. Another new project is the restoration of the oval Grand Salon that begins in January, and in September we will project, using a mapping video technology, the sketches of Charles Le Brun that are at the Louvre today and that were supposed to become the largest fresco in France in the 17th century, painted on the cupola of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet was arrested, so no fresco, but we have those drawings and we will project them onto the cupola.
What remains in today’s France of the spirit of beauty, of quality of life, of elegance?
French people are in awe of and so curious about those people who dedicate their life to a chateau. They want to know more about it, and they want to come onto the premises to enjoy a parenthesis from their ordinary life. Being in a chateau is extraordinary, and today, more than ever, those huge spaces, the great gardens, being close to and surrounded by nature, is what people crave.
Do you plan to keep the chateau in the family for future generations?
The idea is definitely to keep it within the family. It’s quite recent that we brothers are working together and we are professionalising every aspect of the business. Governance is very important, and right now we are looking for a new president of the board, because that used to be my father. We are also very conscious about the organisation that we will have to put in place for the next generation. We know that we need to define some rules through which one will decide if one of the great grand-children or one of my nieces or nephews will be able to work here with responsibility. There are definitely enough jobs for the three of us, and it’s full time, but we only distribute very modest wages. The question that my brothers didn’t yet answer is, “Are you happy with what you earn in terms of the education you want to give to your children, the trips you want to do, et cetera, et cetera?” The development of the company is an objective, not only to fulfil what we want to do for Vaux-le-Vicomte, but also with our own lives.
If I understood well, it is your ambition to persuade a film director to make a movie of the story of Vaux-le-Vicomte?
Yes, and perhaps your interview will reach the hands of one of these directors. I pray for it.
All images by kind permission.