The first task was to reorganize finance, which under Mazarin had fallen through a sieve of embezzlements. Nicolas Fouquet, as surintendant des finances since 1653, had managed taxation and expenditure with sticky fingers and lordly hand. He had reduced the hindrances to internal trade, and had stimulated the growth of French commerce overseas; and he had dutifully shared the spoils of his office with the “farmers” of the taxes and with Mazarin. The “farmers-general” were capitalists who advanced large sums to the state, and were in return, and for a fixed sum, empowered to collect taxes. This they did with such efficient rapacity that they were the most hated persons in the kingdom; twenty-four such men were executed during the French Revolution. In collusion with thesefermiers-généraux Fouquet amassed the greatest private fortune of his time.
In 1657 he engaged the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun, and the landscape artist André Le Nôtre to design, build, and decorate the immense and magnificent Château Vaux-le-Vicomte, to lay out the gardens and adorn them with statuary. The project employed eighteen thousand men at one time, 47 cost eighteen million livres, 48 and covered the area of three villages. There Fouquet collected paintings, sculpture, objects of art, and a library of 27,000 volumes, impartially including Bibles, Talmuds, and Korans. To these elegant rooms (we are told) “women of the highest nobility went secretly to keep him company at an extravagant price.” 49 With similar taste but at less cost he brought poets like Corneille, Molière, and La Fontaine to grace his salon.
Louis envied this splendor, and suspected its source. He asked Colbert to examine the Surintendant’s methods and accounts; Colbert reported that they were incredibly corrupt. On August 17, 1661, Fouquet invited the young King to a fete at Vaux. The six thousand guests were served on six thousand plates of silver or gold; Molière presented, in the gardens, his comedy Les Fâcheux. That evening cost Fouquet 120,000 livres, and his liberty. Louis felt that this man was “stealing beyond his station.” He did not like the motto Quo non ascendam?—“To what may I not ascend?”—accompanied by the figure of a squirrel climbing a tree; and he thought that one of Le Brun’s paintings contained a portrait of Mlle, de La Vallière, already a royal mistress. He would have arrested Fouquet on the spot, but his mother convinced him that it would spoil an enchanting evening.
The King bided his time until the evidence of the minister’s peculations was overwhelming. On September 5 he ordered the chief of his musketeers to arrest him. (This mousquetaire was Charles de Baatz, Sieur d’Artagnan, hero of Dumas père.) The trial, dragging on for three years, became the cause most célèbre in the history of the reign. Mme. de Sévigné, La Fontaine, and other friends worked and prayed for Fouquet’s acquittal, but the papers found in his château convicted him. The court condemned him to banishment and the confiscation of his property; the King changed this to life imprisonment. For sixteen years the once joyous minister languished in the fortress of Pignerol (Pinerolo) in Piedmont, consoled by the faithful comradeship of his wife. It was a harsh sentence, but it checked political corruption, and served notice that the appropriation of public funds for private pleasure was a prerogative of the king.