Vaux-le-Vicomte: How French Châteaux Are Rising from the Ashes

The old French nobility has opened the doors to its ancestral residences in an attempt to ensure their maintenance and restoration. This has become a matter of life and death for these château owners and their slice of national heritage.
The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, southeast of Paris. © Lourdel-Chicurel

“Vaux-le-Vicomte has been in our family for almost two centuries, and we intend on passing down this heritage to the next generation.” Jean-Charles de Vogüé has never forgotten his father’s advice. When he opened the doors to his château in 1968, Count Patrice de Vogüé swore he would “blow away the cobwebs” and devote himself to restoring it. And the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Now the château’s director after a career with Nike, Jean-Charles de Vogüé is pursuing the same course. Along with his brothers Alexandre (a former mountain guide, currently tasked with patronage) and Ascanio (who previously worked in events and finance), the heir to France’s largest private residence listed as a historical monument has made it into the most-visited private château in France after Versailles. Almost 320,000 people visited it in 2019, and its success was only hampered by the March 2020 lockdown. The château’s reopening – the gardens at least – is planned for May 8, 2021, and offers a new challenge. However, the De Vogüé brothers lack neither enthusiasm nor ideas.

Built by financier Nicolas Fouquet, the château inspired Louis XIV to commission Versailles after the inaugural ceremony of August 17, 1661, saw the king fly into a jealous rage and banish its owner. It stands in the center of an immense estate southeast of Paris, spanning some 1,200 acres of land, including 81 of French gardens with beds of intricately arranged box trees requiring an army of gardeners to tend to them. Boasting caves and waterfalls, connected to a vast canal by a 12-mile network of pipes, the water features are permanently maintained by a team of meticulous technicians. In the winter, the 43 statues dotted across the park have to be swaddled to protect them from bad weather. The château itself, with its 22,000 square feet of hardwood flooring and 120,000 slate roof tiles, is a money pit. Every year, it gobbles up more than one million euros in maintenance alone. Then there are investments in new equipment, including electric carts, smoke detectors, and security systems (burglars stole more than two million euros in art and jewelry in 2017). The De Vogüé heirs, who lodge in the château’s outbuildings but are required to pay property wealth tax, claim that they are not ultra-rich aristocrats but rather heritage conservation heroes.

The De Vogüé family in their château: Count Patrice de Vogüé, his wife Cristina Colonna di Paliano, and their children Jean-Charles, Alexandre, and Ascanio. © Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
The painted ceiling of the Chambre des Muses at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. © Graziella Lech
The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte stands on 81 acres of French gardens. © Lourdel-Chicure

Blending Tradition and Innovation

Making Vaux-le-Vicomte a Disney-style site complete with attractions was unthinkable. As a 17th-century masterpiece, the estate is home to the excellence of the three “Ls” (architect Le Vau, painter-decorator Le Brun, and landscape gardener Le Nôtre), and the De Vogüé family did their all to preserve this identity. In its role as the guardian of historical heritage – without taking full responsibility for it – the French government also ensures that this flagship site respects the charter for listed institutions. The château’s heirs must therefore strike a delicate balance between tradition and innovation in order to survive.

In 1967, Patrice de Vogüé and Italian aristocrat Cristina Colonna di Paliano received the château as a wedding present from one of their grandfathers, a titan of industry in the sugar business. That following year, they opened it to the public and subsequently launched a boutique (selling honey from the estate’s hives), two restaurants (Les Charmilles, a gourmet pop-up, and Le Relais de l’Ecureuil, an affordable, family-friendly eatery), and a champagne bar (Le Songe de Vaux). The château and its French gardens quickly attracted directors, and served as the set for films such as Moonraker, the eleventh opus in the James Bond franchise, big-budget series Versailles and La Révolution, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette. The opening of a museum retracing the history of horse-drawn carriages topped off the experience. With the arrival of their three sons, who decided to manage the property like a business, unbridled imagination took the reins. The estate can now be privatized for weddings – between basketball player Tony Parker and actress Eva Longoria in 2007, for example – and candlelit dinners. And throughout the year, the château hosts fancy-dress balls, Grand Siècle day events, and summer concerts and operas under the trees.

A fireworks display lights up the château and its reflecting pools in 2017. © Guillaume Gouillou

Heritage and Patronage, a Winning Formula

Bespoke patronage has been the icing on the innovation-driven cake. Opening the château to the public already qualified it for a state aid package. But after a 2009 law authorizing partial tax exemption for renovation work, the brothers developed a system enabling donors in the Friends of the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte association to personally acquire a piece of the estate (furniture, sculptures, tapestries, etc.) and “store” it in the château. Finally, a solution! With the refurbishment of the hydraulic network estimated at eight million euros, the repair of one of the salon’s ceiling at one million, and the restoration of a Lebrun painting a major undertaking, maintaining this heritage was becoming an almost insurmountable task. The De Vogüé brothers had managed to balance the estate’s books… just before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unperturbed, they rolled up their sleeves and personally trimmed the trees and cut the grass across the park’s 32 acres last winter. With the permission of the prefect of the Seine-et-Marne département, the gardens, illuminated and filled with performances, remained open for the Christmas holidays.

Conserving without creating an old-fashioned museum, and showcasing the owners’ treasures without distorting them, are two ways the penniless French aristocracy has managed to hold their heads high in our modern era. Vaux-le-Vicomte has certainly become a source of inspiration. Denis de Kergorlay transformed his Château de Canisy in Normandy, owned by his family for a thousand years, into a luxury hotel; former senator Josselin de Rohan receives around 50,000 visitors to his manor in Brittany every year; and former AXA chairman Henri de Castries has devoted his fortune to radically restoring his Château de Gâtine in the Anjou region. In any case, the French nobility seems to have upheld the motto of Paris: Fluctuat nec mergitur, “Rocked by the waves but does not sink.”

Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.