Vaux le Vicomte celebrates this year its 50th anniversary of opening to the public. For Jean-Charles de Vogüe, it's time for a rather positive assessment.
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Journée Grand Siècle 2018, Vaux le Vicomte in majesty
Vaux le Vicomte is the largest French private property listed as a Historic Monument open to the public. This size has a price. Maintenance of the estate requires 9 million euros annually. Jean Charles de Vogüe, one of the owners in charge of commercial development, is pleased that the year is now in balance:
"The results are very positive. When my father decided to open the castle to the public in 1968, only a few castle owners started this adventure. Today, we receive 300,000 visitors a year, a figure that is growing every year. Economically, we have managed to be balanced and able to achieve our first mission which is to restore and maintain the castle and estate, which are now in good condition, although much remains to be done."
With one ambition: to welcome more visitors while protecting the domain from mass tourism in order to preserve this privileged link with visitors which is the particularity of Vaux le Vicomte and to restore the estate even more.
Stories in History
In the first place, Vaux le Vicomte is a story closely linked to the French history of the 17th century. The one of Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister of Louis XIV. Thanks to him, we can admire the magnificent architectural, landscape and decorative creation of three men: Le Vau, architect, Le Nôtre, gardener and Le Brun, painter decorator. Thanks to Fouquet, we can admire the Château de Versailles, the premises of which Vaux le Vicomte proudly displays.
Second, Vaux le Vicomte is a family affair. The one of Alfred Sommier, who, in 1875, bought the estate and did everything possible to try to restore it to its former glory. In 1967, Patrice de Vogüe received it as a present in his wedding basket and, with his wife, perpetuated the work of his ancestor. Today, he has now handed over the reins to his three sons, Alexandre, Ascanio and Jean-Charles who, in turn, are working to ensure that Vaux le Vicomte regains the place it deserves in the French heritage.
La Journée Grand Siècle, space-time travel
Among the three brothers, Jean-Charles de Vogüe is in charge of commercial relations. The Journée Grand Siècle is his idea:
"I've always been in favor of interactivity between Vaux and its audience. What interests me is that each visitor can also be an actor of his day. I was inspired by Williamsburg*, a village on the east coast of the United States that I discovered a long time ago with my father. The village is still in its original condition, the people are all dressed up and we go back to the origin of American history. I had found the idea interesting and I thought we could invite people to come in costumes and relive a day like in the 17th century Fouquet's time."
Hence the creation of this day out of time, where people come dressed up as in the seventeenth century, to walk the corridors of the castle, stroll in the alleys of the park, admire the perpectives of the French garden designed by Le Nôtre, learn baroque dances, tremble in front of the demonstrations of fencing musketeers, picnic on the lawn or under the trees and visit the estate in horse-drawn carriage...
The meeting place for history lovers and costume lovers
"It was a bet we made 14 years ago. It was a success, thanks to the participation of groups of costume enthusiasts and historical re-enactments, who regularly keep coming back here. Over the years, the Grand Siècle Day has become a great gathering of 17th and 18th century costume enthusiasts."
This year again the success is there and the domain owners are amazed:
"We are delighted that the weather is fine and that so many people were able to come despite the transportation strikes. What we particularly like is that the Grand Siècle Day has become a meeting place for enthusiasts. Many people have met here and made friends. If they gather in many different places, we have the impression that this event in Vaux le Vicomte holds a special place in their hearts."
This year, to celebrate the 50 years of opening of the estate to the public - Patrice de Vogüe opened the castle to the public in 1968 - Vaux le Vicomte has pulled out all the stops by reviving the tradition of animations and by proposing novelties, such as the distribution of cardboard by the public to the costumed opening a place in the parade of elegance and the creation of photographic animations, monumental framed living tableaux for an image competition on social networks.
The challenge of interactivity
The interactivity between the castle and its public has always been the wish of Jean-Charles de Vogüe. If Vaux le Vicomte represents the past, he likes to use current technologies to highlight it.
Thus, in addition to the upcoming restoration work, new innovative technological animations will be proposed.
Sound journey in immersion in the XVIIth century
"We're going to immerse visitors in the heart of history. At Vaux le Vicomte, we have everything right in front of us: the gardens, the castle, the decorations, the paintings, the furniture. There is no need for additional images."
Miss the sound… The idea is to create a sound path to immerse the visitor in the atmosphere of places such as in the 17th century. The visitor will have the opportunity to visit the castle with Fouquet, Le Nôtre, Le Brun... a real trip back in time in a three-dimensional immersion in the decor of the castle, relayed by a smartphone application and an audio headset.
The project is already up and running. The launch is planned for March 2019. It will be the first time that such technology will be installed in a castle. For an auditory preview, it's this way (in French)...
Sound and light in the Oval Grand Salon
The Great Cupola of the Grand Salon Ovale, which crosses the castle and overlooks the gardens, will be restored, beginning with the cleaning of the caryatids and repair of the current ceiling.
Then, a video projection of the project of decorative painting is under study. Initially wanted by Charles le Brun, it represents the solar star accompanied by the squirrel, emblem of Nicolas Fouquet, personified under the traits of Apollo in the center . Unfortunately, this project never succeeded, Fouquet having been arrested following a plot. Only a monochrome engraving remains of this project.
"So rather than making a pastiche, we prefer to use modern technology. We will work on a rather short format of sound and light that we would like to project during the day. It's a challenge to get around because this room is very bright.".
Friends of Vaux-le-Vicomte
Unlike other castles that share their capital to maintain their estate, the Château de Vaux le Vicomte prefers to call on sponsorship.
For this purpose, an association, "Friends of Château de Vaux le Vicomte" was created in 1983. Through their enthusiasm, the members of this association contribute as much to its influence as to the restoration and maintenance of the estate.
The friends of Vaux le Vicomte, thanks to their participation, help to maintain the domain. Each year, the association proposes to its 2,600 French and foreign members to contribute to the financing of a restoration project. In return, they enjoy exclusive advantages: unlimited free access, visits and private events... and the feeling of usefully participating in the preservation of French heritage.
Outside the association, sponsorship operations are carried out, aimed at individuals and companies, such as "adopt a statue" or "adopt a tree".
For the restoration of the large clock, thanks to the crowdfunding, Vaux had collected 38 000 euros via 362 contributors.
For upcoming restorations, such as the cupola and the caryatids of the Grand Salon Ovale, the project will be re-divided into several smaller tranches to allow for less costly financing and thus open sponsorship to a wider public.
Is, in France, heritage in péril ?
Jean-Charles de Vogüe is not very optimistic about the heritage situation in France:
"The state is disengaging more and more from certain monuments, many private sites are put on sale. It's difficult to interest the younger generation so that they can take over. There is a form of uberisation of heritage. With crowdfunding we see several thousand people being co-owners of a castle. We will see over a long term perspective how this system will operate and how the projects can be funded. That's already not an easy task to reach an agreement with a few... "
It is not easy to maintain a private domain. Patronage is a godsend for heritage, but this source of funding is not inexhaustible. At a time when even the government conducts fundraising campaigns for its own heritage estates, that's not easy for private domains to interest investors who are practically their only source of income to finance restorations.
However, some initiatives step in the right direction: "such as the "Heritage Lotto". In England*, where it already exists, it saves many homes."
An heritage is not only castles, monuments, mansions and gardens, but also landscapes that are a part of our very identity and which, in certain regions, are victims of excessive urbanisation:
"In France, we are lucky to have a magnificent heritage, emblematic or rural, we are also fortunate to have magnificent landscapes. This is our number one asset and we must preserve it because it is what we will have in the long term. Preserving this heritage should be our priority, which has not always been the case in the past.
I fight here, in the Vaux le Vicomte region, against the construction that is developing in Ile de France and unfortunately sometimes to the disadvantage of the preservation of beautiful environments such as the one we have here. That's too bad..."
The fight for sustainable tourism and heritage preservation is far from over:
"The castle is in rather good condition, well maintained. Much remains to be done. We would like to be able to open longer in the year to welcome even more visitors - but within reasonable limits - in order to keep a privileged link with them and allow them to visit the domain in the best conditions. We still have time ahead of us and generations behind us to manage even better and restore more. Vaux le Vicomte deserve it."