[This is the first of an occasional series of posts considering aspects of the remarkable personality of Louis XIV, France's Sun King]
The king wants to go Saturday to Versailles, but God appears unwilling, because of the impossibility of readying the buildings to receive him, due to the prodigious mortality among the workmen. Cartloads of corpses are carried off nightly, as if from a charity hospital. The grim convoys are hidden so as not to terrify the worksite, and not to besmirch that “meritless favorite“—you know that quip about Versailles.
Madame de Sévigné, 12 October 1678
A disturbing undercurrent of obsession runs through the history of Louis XIV’s patronage of building. Madame de Sévigné’s clever chatter chillingly encapsulates the bemused disregard with which the court surveyed the Sun King’s building campaigns.
Cosseted in gilded salons, courtiers viewed schemes such as the tragic folly of attempting to divert the river Eure to Versailles—which killed thousands of military conscripts, squandered millions of livres upon a stillborn aqueduct to nowhere, and had as its only goal assuring that the fountains at Versailles could play at full force all the day long—as nothing more than an amusing diversion, a great gift of a joke that provided endless fodder for bons mots.
(Above, the failed Aqueduct of Maintenon, which today makes an undeniably picturesque landscape ornament.)
The court—composed of the ancient Nobility of the Sword and once a proud warrior class—had, by the midpoint of Louis XIV's reign, paled to snobbism, frivolity and pointlessness, emasculated by the king’s imperiousness and the glittering diversions he so cleverly dangled before it.
(Below, Louis XIV and the Dauphin before the shortlived Thetys Grotto at Versailles.)
When he wished to exercise it, Louis XIV held enormous power. To be brutally concise, the king—faced with splintered, ineffectual opposition—had almost free rein to act as he wished and was held in check mostly by his own conscience. This is the reason why his mother, Queen Anne of Austria, placed so much emphasis upon inculcating into the child-king the precepts of an honnêtte homme, a "good man," for without an ingrained moral compass the temptations of unchecked power could quickly bring a ruler and his nation to ruin.
This is also the reason why devout, intellectual clerics such as Bousseut and Fénelon (above) loomed so large in late 17th century French society: their topical sermons and the moral guidance they offered were effectively the only public criticism permitted of the monarch, the press being under complete governmental control. If anything was to be aired openly by a Frenchman not also a man of God, it was published, anonymously, in the Netherlands.
“This idol, gloire“
By far the most amazing and damning indictment of the king came from the cleric Fénelon, and his open letter, addressed directly to Louis XIV, is all the more remarkable because he was also preceptor to the Dauphin—the king's eldest son and heir to the throne.
...while the people lack bread, you yourself lack solvency, and you refuse to acknowledge the extremity to which you are reduced. Since you have always been happy, you cannot conceive that you would ever cease to be so. You are afraid to open your eyes, afraid to be forced to relinquish a portion of your gloire. That gloire, which hardens your heart, is more dear to you than justice, than your own peace of mind, than the survival of your people, who daily perish from diseases borne of famine. And finally, it is more dear to you than your own eternal salvation, which is irreconcilable with this idol, gloire.
Fénelon's scorn was unprecedented, and it is amazing both he and his missive survived the king's reading. And he was absolutely right: the letters and memoires of ancien régime France are dotted with a leitmotif of anecdote as successive generations of aristocrats and ministers survey a desolate countryside from their carriages and remark upon starved peasants reduced to eating tree bark and grass.
The obsession with gloire—the king's radiant reputation—held by the king and the government, and in large part condoned by the court and society, was the end that permitted every means. Gloire was a throbbing, omnipresent concern at court; the distress of peasants was a distant, easily forgotten abstraction. And this was because gloire was the absract embodiment of the king and the object to which he ensured that the French state directed its energies. Its overriding importance drove Louis XIV to harness the government and in turn the French nation to supply every means to burnish and extend this charged symbol of greatness.
(Below, a detail of our watercolor of ironwork at Marly with the Sun King's cipher of Apollo in radiant glory.)
Louis XIV believed himself both monarch and first guardian of the monarchy, a concept formulated as "the double body of the king." Simply stated, the two kings were the living king and his eternal, inherited position of kingship. For Louis XIV, his gloire was more than a projection of his own prestige; it was the embodiment of the great history and traditions of the French monarchy, of which he was the personification and instrument.
The king worked ceaselessly to burnish and augment his gloire; it was the intellectual prism through which he considered his every policy move and in many ways it was the sum of his existence. Upon the incorporation of the Petite Académie, later the Académie des Inscriptions, in February 1663, the young king stated, “You may judge, gentlemen, the esteem in which I hold you, for I am entrusting you with the thing most precious in the world—my gloire. I am sure that you will produce marvels; for my part, I will attempt to furnish you with subject matter worthy to be dealt with by men as capable as yourselves.“
By strange paradox, for being so self-absorbed the king did not act from egotism. He was universally considered the most polite person that any of his contemporaries had ever encountered. This is borne out in the private letters and diaries of courtiers, in moments when they could drop their masks and recount the truth. It is a well-known fact that the king lost his temper in public but three times in his 72-year reign, and each occasion was incited by the insupportable boorishness or cowardice of his interlocuter. For his part, the king was usually aware when a line had been crossed; he once commented to Racine, “I would praise you more if you praised me less.“
To the king and the aristocracy, the overtaxed peasantry remained an abstraction, the childlike peuple for whom the monarch was their shepherd and benevolent ruler. Custom and situation fostered this remove; caught in the thrilling vortex of great affairs and inured by the theatrical display of vast wealth at court, the king and his entourage could easily justify the next great expense, since the last had done no appreciable harm, and so it was that an utterly superfluous château such as Clagny—estimated to have cost over three million livres, a sum equivalent to a third of the budget for the French navy—could be blithely commanded into being, then razed and rebuilt, for a mistress who herself was heiress to one of the richest noble families in the kingdom.
If Clagny (above, our watercolor elevation), for which even the king remarked "the expense is excessive," had been transmuted into a fleet, it likely would have turned the tide of the War of the League of Augsburg, forestalling or even reversing France’s decline during the second half of the king's reign, and thus forever altering European history. Granted, such historical shell games could be endlessly replayed, but as Madame de Montespan, the mistress in question, rightly observed when reproached for not showing remorse for having accidentally killed a man while riding in her carriage, it was only because her companions had happened to witness the death that they wept; men were run over constantly but they did not grieve for them.
Louis XIV was essentially a man of common sense and he well knew that we, posterity, ultimately would be more attracted to a good show—to grandiose, gilded monuments—than to "recompenses and good deeds."
Suffering is a constant of the human condition and so the human cost of the Sun King's obsessons has been long forgotten, and creations such as Versailles offer a glittering respite from the world as it is. Versailles endures. It will never lose its power to enchant, to transport us into forgetfulness.