The for­ti­fi­ca­tions of Mar­shal Sébastien le Pre­stre de Vauban are Unesco listed and some of France’s most im­pres­sive ed­i­fices. Deb­o­rah Nash ex­plores the life and times of the great mil­i­tary en­gi­neer.

France - - Contents -

The royal en­gi­neer’s ed­i­fices cel­e­brate 10 years of Unesco list­ing. Find out why.

You can some­times see Vauban here, wel­com­ing vis­i­tors,” says our guide on the grassy slope lead­ing to Be­sançon Ci­tadel, his eyes trained on a youth­ful gen­tle­man in nut­brown frock coat, breeches and curly peri­wig who is leap­ing into a white hatch­back and roar­ing up the hill to per­form in some re­con­structed his­tor­i­cal event. “It must be very warm in that wig,” he adds.

We have driven through the lash­ings of a trop­i­cal storm to reach the cap­i­tal of Franche-comté, a city ded­i­cated to time in all its per­mu­ta­tions - clocks, watches and por­ta­ble sun­di­als in the Musée du Temps - but we are here to visit one of Sébastien le Pre­stre de Vauban’s mas­ter­pieces: Be­sançon Ci­tadel. When I tell peo­ple back home I’m fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the Mar­shal (1633-1707) they al­most al­ways have never heard of him.

An in­dus­tri­ous poly­math, Vauban ex­celled as a mil­i­tary en­gi­neer in the 17th cen­tury, yet he was also a “great man of war who wished only to serve the peace” (Marthe de Fels). Seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory im­pulses shaped his life: he was born into a fam­ily of im­pov­er­ished no­bles (a con­se­quence of his grand­fa­ther mar­ry­ing the il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of a Count who had died in­tes­tate) and de­fined him­self in those terms. “I am the poor­est of gen­tle­men,” he said. His child­hood was spent in the re­mote wooded re­gion of Mor­van and, as the son of a gifted grafter of trees, he de­vel­oped an en­dur­ing in­ter­est in forests. This back­ground also in­stilled in him an em­pa­thy for ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

At 17, Vauban en­listed in Condé’s army to fight against the king in the civil war known as the Fronde; when cap­tured by the en­emy, he switched sides and for more than 50 years was in ser­vice in­stead to Louis XIV as royal en­gi­neer and later as Di­rec­tor of For­ti­fi­ca­tions.

The Sun King be­lieved in his di­vine right to rule but Vauban was never a fawn­ing ser­vant. “Each time Your Majesty cre­ates a new of­fice, God cre­ates an im­be­cile to buy it,” he once re­marked on the king’s sell­ing of ti­tles.

Wealth and war­mon­ger­ing

I’d al­ways as­so­ci­ated Louis XIV with the Palace of Ver­sailles (a con­struc­tion so fan­tas­ti­cally ex­pen­sive that he de­stroyed the bills to keep the cost from his min­is­ters) and gen­eral fri­vol­ity, but the king was also a com­mit­ted war­mon­ger and this taste for con­quest as well as lux­ury met in the un­like­li­est of places: his high heeled shoes, which were painted with minia­ture bat­tle scenes. Dur­ing the 72 years of his reign, Louis un­der­took wars against Spain, the Dutch Re­pub­lic and the League of Augs­burg and for this he needed a mil­i­tary ma­chine that would over­whelm any other, so he gath­ered about him a group of ex­perts: one of whom was Vauban.

The re­gion of Franche-comté lies on to­day’s Swiss bor­der but back in the 17th cen­tury it was Span­ish. The for­ti­fi­ca­tion we are vis­it­ing at Be­sançon is a hy­brid; parts of it date from the pe­riod of Span­ish rule, but when Louis XIV fi­nally brought it into the French fold in 1674 he com­mis­sioned Vauban to strengthen the ex­ist­ing struc­ture. This is con­sid­ered one of the Mar­shal’s key works, demon­strat­ing his flex­i­bil­ity of mind and vi­sion by con­sid­er­ing the town’s un­usual to­pog­ra­phy.

We ap­proach the ci­tadel (‘lit­tle city’ in Ital­ian) from the lime­stone hill of Mont Saint-éti­enne over­look­ing the ur­ban set­tle­ment. It is a par­tic­u­larly sul­try day and the hill is steep, the stones are hot and par­ties of school chil­dren are clumped around en­clo­sures con­tain­ing go­ril­las, wal­la­bies and other ex­otic crea­tures as the site is now a ‘liv­ing mu­seum’ with a zoo. Our guide tells us no rock was taken up the hill, in­stead the sum­mit was turned into a quarry that flat­tened its top and en­abled build­ings to be built di­rectly onto it.

A geom­e­try of de­fence

Vauban thought in terms of geom­e­try and an­gles, but it is dif­fi­cult to get a sense of this dur­ing our tra­jec­tory. It is only when we reach the ram­parts and look down on the river that lies di­rectly be­neath us that we re­alise its prox­im­ity (even when we can’t see the river, we’re able to chart its course from the bursts of trees that line its banks). The es­carp­ment drops to the wa­ter and the squashed shape of the ci­tadel on the hill with the city cen­tre be­low are locked within its me­an­der­ing oxbow loop so that it is al­most an is­land. To­day, a tun­nel runs be­neath the nar­row neck of land be­fore us where boats and road traf­fic flow.

Along the river we can just about make out one of the sev­eral weath­ered stone bas­tion tow­ers built to pro­tect the city.

“Vauban came up with the idea of a bas­tion tower with two fir­ing lev­els where can­nons could also be stored to take up less space and as he de­vel­oped this specif­i­cally for Be­sançon, it’s a mile­stone in his ca­reer,” says our guide.

As we gaze across the bat­tle­ments, he points out the district ly­ing be­yond the river.

“Most of the city lies within the loop of the Doubs but this outer district needed pro­tec­tion too. Vauban built a bas­tion belt that in­cluded the ex­ist­ing round tow­ers from the 13th and 14th cen­turies. You can see a round tower here, and be­cause it’s round you can feel it’s older than Vauban. This was not the way of Vauban, he uses an­gles.”

For all these in­no­va­tions, Be­sançon Ci­tadel was par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable to Louis XIV for the time it took to build and the rock­et­ing ex­pense; on one oc­ca­sion he asked Vauban if he was build­ing the walls out of gold.

We con­tinue on­wards to the mul­ti­me­dia show in the old chapel, fea­tur­ing paint­ings and en­grav­ings from the time, an­i­mated to bring Louis XIV’S cam­paigns to life. Dur­ing this pe­riod France’s bor­ders were as pro­tean as an amoeba (to the ex­tent that it was some­times un­clear where the bor­der ac­tu­ally was). As a sol­dier, Vauban re­alised that land cap­tured from the en­emy was of­ten traded in the peace treaty for a strate­gi­cally weaker ter­ri­tory. Ever ef­fi­cient and ab­hor­ring any loss of life, Vauban ar­gued for a more ra­tio­nal and log­i­cal ap­proach to for­ti­fi­ca­tion; to act counter-in­tu­itively by dis­pos­ing of those fortresses that con­trib­uted lit­tle to the de­fences of the coun­try.

In a let­ter dated 1673 ad­dressed to the Mar­quis de Lou­vois, Sec­re­tary of State for War, Vauban pro­posed the con­cept of “Pré Carré” (lit­er­ally

ABOVE: Be­sançon and its im­pos­ing ci­tadel viewed from the River Doubs; RIGHT: Sculp­ture of Vauban by lo­cal sculp­tor Pierre Duc at the ci­tadel in Be­sançon

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