However, these French artists Italianate had returned from Rome unconsciously coated with baroque. That now pervasive style has been previously described; it may be summarized as replacing the calm simplicity of classic forms with an exuberance of feeling and ornament. While the classic—more specifically the Hellenistic—ideal was approximated in the sculpture, painting, and literature of this grand siècle, the architecture and decoration borrowed from the elegant and ornate styles that had triumphed in Italy after the death of Michelangelo (1564). The King’s builders aimed at the classical and achieved the baroque—at Versailles the full baroque, in the façades of the Louvre a successful synthesis of baroque and classical.
The first architectural chef-d’oeuvre of the reign was the Church of Val-de-Grâce in Paris. Anne of Austria had registered a vow to build a handsome shrine if God and Louis XIII would give her a son. When her regency provided her with funds, she engaged François Mansart to draw up plans. The first stone was laid by Louis XIV, then seven years old, in 1645. Mansart’s design was carried out by Lemercier in Italian classic style, with a dome that is still the admiration of architects. Libéral Bruant built the Church of St.-Louis-des-Invalides (1670) for the veterans housed in the Hôtel des Invalides; and in 1676 Louvois commissioned Jules Hardouin-Mansard (grandnephew of François Mansart) to finish the church with a choir and a dome. In elegant beauty that dome is the architectural masterpiece of the reign. Hardouin-Mansard triumphed again in designing the chapel at Versailles (1699). Here and at the Invalides his work was completed with luxurious ornament by his brother-in-law Robert de Cotte, who raised also the Hàtel de Ville at Lyons, the Abbey of St.-Denis, and the façade of St.-Rochc.
Royal replaced ecclesiastical architecture as the state surpassed the Church in wealth and prestige. The problem now was to express not devotion but power. In meeting this requirement the Louvre had the advantage of tradition; many generations had seen it grow, and many kings had marked its history. Lemercier, working for Mazarin, raised the western front of the main wing, and began the north wing along the present Rue de Rivoli. Le Vau, who succeeded him, finished that wing, reconstructed the façade of the south wing (facing the Seine), and laid the foundations of the east wing. At this juncture Colbert became superintendent of buildings. Rejecting Le Vau’s plans for the east wing, he conceived the project of continuing the Louvre westward until it should join the Tuileries in a single palace. He announced to the architects of France and Italy a competition to design a new façade. To make sure to get the best, he persuaded the King to send a special invitation to Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1665), then the acknowledged prince of European artists, to come to Paris at the royal expense and submit a design. Bernini came with great pomp, angered the French artists with his scorn of their work, and drew up a massive, costly plan that required the demolition of nearly all the existing Louvre. Colbert found the plan deficient in plumbing and other facilities for living; Bernini fumed that “M. Colbert treats me like a little boy, with all his idle talk about privies and underground conduits.” 7 A compromise was reached: the King laid the foundation stone of Bernini’s design; then the artist, after six months in Paris, was sent back to Italy with honors and livres, which he tried to repay with the bust of Louis XIV now at Versailles, and the equestrian statue of Louis in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. His design for the Louvre was abandoned; the existing structure was retained, and Charles Perrault was awarded the commission to build the eastern front. Now rose the famous Colonnade du Louvre, whose palpable defects let loose a flood of criticism, 8 but which is now accepted as one of the most magnificent façades on earth.
Colbert had hoped that the King would move from the cramped quarters at St.-Germain into the renovated Louvre. But Louis still remembered that he and his mother had had to flee from the Paris populace during the Fronde; he thought that the voice of the people was the voice of violence; and he did not care to subject himself to such checks on his absolute rule. To the dismay of Colbert he decided to build Versailles.
Louis XIII had erected there a modest hunting lodge in 1624. André Le Nôtre saw in the gently rising slope of the site, and its rich forestation, a tempting chance for garden artistry. In 1662 he presented to Louis XIV a general plan for the grounds; and if today the buildings are inferior to the lawns and the lake, the flowers and shrubs and varied trees, that may be as Le Nôtre conceived it. It was to be not so much a masterpiece of architecture as an invitation to live outdoors, amid a nature tamed and improved by art: to breathe the fragrance of flowers and trees, to feast the eyes and fancied touch on classically sculptured forms, to hunt prey and women in the woods, to dance and picnic on the grass, to boat on the canal and the lake, to hear Lully and Molière under the open sky. Here was a garden of the gods, built with the pennies of twenty million Frenchmen who would rarely see it, but who gloried in the glory of their King. It is pleasant to learn that except on royal occasions the park at Versailles was open to the public.
The art of landscape gardening, like so much else, had come from Italy, bringing a hundred devices and surprises; bowers, trellises, grottoes, caves, grotesques, colored stones, bird houses, statues, vases, brooks, fountains, waterspouts, even organs played by running water. Le Nôtre had already designed the gardens at Vaux for Fouquet; soon he would design the Jardins des Tuileries for the Queen, and the gardens at St.-Cloud for Madame Henrietta, and the gardens at Chantilly for Le Grand Condé. At Versailles, from 1662 onward, Louis gave him carte blanche, and Colbert was appalled at the expense incurred in transforming a disheveled wilderness into acres of paradise. The King fell in love with Le Nôtre, who cared not for money but only for beauty, and in whom there was no guile. 9 He was the Boileau of gardens, resolved to turn the “disorder” of nature into order, harmony, and reasonable, intelligible form. Perhaps he was too insistently classical, but his creation remains, after three hundred years, one of the meccas of mankind.
Still envious of Fouquet, Louis brought Vaux’s architect, Le Vau, to enlarge the hunting lodge into a royal palace. Jules Hardouin-Mansard took over the direction in 1670, and began the vast apartments, galleries, reception rooms, dance halls, guardrooms, and administrative offices that are now Versailles. By 1685 there were thirty-six thousand men and six thousand horses laboring on the enterprise, sometimes working in night and day shifts. Colbert long ago had warned the King that such architecture, added to war after war, would bankrupt the treasury; but in 1679 Louis built another palace at Marly as an escape from the crowds at Versailles, and in 1687 he added the Grand Trianon as a retreat for Mme. de Maintenon. He ordered an army of men, including many of his regular troops, to divert the River Eure and carry its waters through ninety miles of the “Aqueduct of Maintenon” to supply the lakes, streams, fountains, and baths of Versailles; in 1688, after huge expenditures, this enterprise was abandoned at the call of war. All in all, Versailles—buildings, furniture, decoration, gardens, and aqueducts—had by 1690 cost France 200,000,000 francs ($500,000,000?). 10
Architecturally, Versailles is too complex and haphazard to approach perfection. The chapel is brilliant, but such flaunting of decoration hardly accords with the humility of prayer. Parts of the palace are beautiful, and the stairways to the gardens are majestic; but the compulsion laid upon the designers to leave the hunting lodge intact, merely adding wings and ornament, injured the appearance of the whole. Sometimes the proliferating pile leaves an impression of cold monotony and labyrinthine repetition—one room after another to a spread of 1,320 frontal feet. The internal arrangements seem to have ignored physiological convenience, and to have presumed upon remarkable retentive power in noble vesicles. Half a dozen rooms had to be traversed to reach the goal of desire; no wonder we hear of stairways and hallways serving in such emergencies. The rooms themselves appear too small for comfort. Only the Grande Galerie is spacious, extending 320 feet along the garden front. There the decorators deployed all their skills—hanging Gobelin and Beauvais tapestries, scattering sculpture along the walls, making every piece of furniture lovingly perfect, and reflecting all the splendor in those great mirrors that gave the room its second name, Galerie des Glaces. On the ceiling Le Brun, rising to the height of his art, painted through five years (1679–84) and mythological symbols the triumphs of the long reign, and unwittingly its tragedy; for these pictured victories over Spain, Holland, and Germany were to arouse the Furies against the war-fond King.
Louis lived there, on and off, from 1671, spending part of his time at Marly, St.-Germain, and Fontainebleau; after 1682 it was his permanent home. But we do him injustice when we think of Versailles as his residence and playground; he himself occupied a moderate fraction of the structure; the rest housed his wife, children, and grandchildren, his mistresses, the foreign legations, the chief administrators, the court, and all the servantry required by royalty. Doubtless some part of the magnificence had a political purpose—to awe the ambassadors, who were expected to judge from this luxury the resources and power of the state. They and other visitors were duly impressed, and they spread through Europe such reports of Versailles’ splendor that it became the envy and model of a dozen courts and palaces throughout the Continent. In the aftermath of the reign the great mass seemed to people an insolent symbol of despotism, a reckless challenge of human pride to unchanging human fate.