- Vaux and Versailles: The Appropriations, Erasures, and Accidents that Made Modern France
In her historically rich book, Vaux and Versailles, Claire Goldstein tries to account for the formation of a distinctive French style in the 1660s. She argues that the site of this cultural break was not Versailles, but rather Vaux. The latter estate was built by the Minister of Finance, Nicolas Fouquet. Louis XIV famously had him imprisoned and expropriated Vaux's artworks, library, and orange trees for Versailles. Cultural life at Vaux had become an incubator of French style, a vibrant site of a new commodité, and a collaborative and human-scale center for thought and aesthetics built on Fouquet's patronage. When Vaux's style of French culture was expropriated for Versailles, the authority for its brilliance was attributed to Louis XIV. The liberal culture of artists and intellectuals nurtured at Vaux was not just left behind, Goldstein argues, but rather erased from memory. The move from Vaux to Versailles entailed a submerged change of cultural "seasons" as modern forms were expropriated and refashioned for political ends.
Goldstein compares Vaux and Versailles across cultural domains they shared: fêtes, tapestries, gardens, and waterworks. She studies the production of these forms in the four sections of the book, and—in intermezzos between the sections—analyzes texts that pertained to them. In a nice weaving of material culture study and literary analysis, she presents readers with tangible artworks seen through the eyes of period writers. They describe Vaux as a paradise of the arts and also acknowledge their role in the political constitution of Louis XIV's France.
Vaux and Versailles is a fascinating piece of scholarship, but like any book, this one has problems. It is not a new idea that Fouquet shaped French culture profoundly before Louis XIV or that the minister was a bourgeois individualist who brought a humanist and commercial sensibility to (northern) France through his patronage. This history of Vaux is not a matter of dispute. Neither is the idea that Versailles was indebted to Vaux, since Le Brun, Le Nôtre, La Quintinie, and others were brought from Vaux to Versailles. Still, Goldstein's contrast of Vaux and Versailles is fascinating. As the artifacts change contexts, we can follow the genealogical threads between them. In the patient details of Goldstein's history, we can see French culture emerging less as a style than a line of cultural descent. [End Page 625]
The major flaw of this book is the limited political history that Goldstein brings to her analysis. She speaks of absolutism as though it were a form of government, not a claim that was continually tested and problematic in the period. She also speaks of a French culture in the 1660s as though "France" were an uncomplicated political unit. French culture in the modern sense could not exist at Vaux because France was far from a integrated kingdom at the time that Fouquet lived there. And Louis XIV did not so much politicize French culture as build a state that could have a "French" cultural identity. The story of pollution that she wants to tell in the move from Vaux to Versailles is too easy.
Goldstein's view of patronage is similarly flawed. She contrasts Fouquet's "good" patronage at Vaux (egalitarian, collaborative, human scale, full of commodité) with Louis XIV's "bad" patronage at Versailles (political, centralized, inhumanly grand, absolutist) without considering the historical dynamics of patrimonialism. Patronage at Versailles was part of a failing effort to maintain the patrimonial networks that Fouquet had cultivated so assiduously. Rather than expressing absolute power, patronage at Versailles was a technique to address political limits.
In spite of these problems, Vaux and Versailles is a revealing look into the 1660s in France and, more than that, a brilliant and empirically rich study of cultural descent. It traces a shift in "usage" of cultural forms and shows with intricate detail the dynamics behind this important change of "season."