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France in 1715: The King’s Leg and the Choreography of Power


The prognosis was not good. The doctors held out little hope. The patient had shown symptoms of malaise early in August 1715. By the middle of the month, gangrene had presented itself on his left leg. Over a long life – at a time in which average life-expectancy was less than thirty years – the 76-year-old had shown a doughty durability. He had survived smallpox in childhood, negotiated some youthful gonorrhoeas, learnt from adolescence to live with occasional fainting fits and in 1686 endured an operation for a life-threatening anal fistula. In the same decade, he had lost his teeth (and thanks to his surgeons part of his jawbone and palate too), and been stricken with gout. He then settled down for the remainder of his days to a regular round of recurrent fevers, rheumatism, skin ailments plus intense pain from kidney stones. The patient’s physicians had always allowed him to indulge a gargantuan appetite, countering his intake and regulating his embonpoint by a heroic diet of purges and enemas. In his last years, they advised him never to put pressure on his distended belly by attempting to cross his legs while seated. Whether they should be congratulated on keeping such a plucky valetudinarian alive for so long or else excoriated for adding to his agonies seems very moot. At all events, it was a worrying symptom of this latest – and, it was to prove, last – malady that the patient was unable to eat his considerable fill. Flesh seemed to fall from his bones, as he shrank to a skeleton before his physicians’ eyes. Already, the disease had started its fateful way up towards the patient’s torso, turning his leg gangrenous, stinking and as black as coal.

This, moreover, was no ordinary leg. It belonged to a king – and no ordinary king.

Louis XIV, king of France and Navarre – ‘the Sun King’ (le Roi Soleil), ‘Louis the Great’ (Louis le Grand), ‘The God-Given’ (le Dieu-donné), ‘Most Christian King’ (Rex Christianissimus), ‘absolute king’ (roi absolu), the longest-serving and greatest European monarch of his generation, born in 1638, king since 1643 – had always attached importance to his lower extremities. A radiant portrait of him in 1653 dressed for a court ballet as Apollo, god of the sun, had shown him in a costume ‘covered with a rich golden embroidery and many rubies. The rays that appeared round his head were of diamonds and the crown was of rubies and pearls, topped with numerous pink and white feathers’.1 This allegorical image, which captured the exuberant athleticism, pleasure-seeking, and blithe self-confidence which attached to the king’s renown in his early years, also showcased a shapely pair of legs depicted in ballet pose. Nearly half a century later, around 1700, his legs encased in the finest white silk, Louis had adopted the same dainty stance – left leg forward, toes pointed, foot arched – in Rigaud’s justly famous swagger portrait of the monarch in full ceremonial regalia. The joyful insouciance of the earlier image had by then vanished: in 1700 Louis may have been at the height of his powers, but he was also in the midst of wars which would drain the resources of his country, place colossal strains upon the French state, and signally deflate his popularity. Age and anxiety were taking their toll – sunken cheeks in the Rigaud portrait revealed a monarch who had lost his teeth, while a towering wig hid well-advanced hair-loss. But the legs had stayed gloriously intact, the posture was unbowed, and the sceptre sported in the right hand evoked both the field-marshal’s and the ballet-master’s baton.

In 1715, with the tissue of those pristine legs, prized emblem of Louis’s royal self-image, rotting and turning black, as the doctors gravely deliberated, Louis was dying – but dying a death which, political ballet-master to the last, he endeavoured to choreograph. The stage for this masterly mise-en-scène was one largely designed by himself and to his own measure: Versailles, some ten miles out of Paris, which he and his court had inhabited from 1683, and which he had transformed into the most magnificently appointed palace in European memory. Here, in a rigorously maintained and punctiliously ordered court etiquette, the Sun King had developed a ceremonial language of kingship centred on his own radiantly pivotal figure. The very architecture of this solar temple was profoundly and deliberately ‘Louisocentric’: the royal chamber lay at the heart of the palace and from it radiated the sightlines which defined the geometry of the site. Power defined itself as visibility, physical closeness to the monarch. No more crushing a statement of political nullitude could exist than Louis’s famous comment about a courtier: ‘He is a man I never see.’ The stern symmetries of the classical gardens, which like the palace itself were extensively furnished with splendidly wrought images of him and of his elective symbols (notably the sun and sun-god Apollo), displayed even Nature seemingly brought to order by Louis le Grand. Spatially disposed around its sun-like centre, the Versailles court ran on Louis-time. The scheduling of court ritual was geared with minute exactitude to the daily routines of the monarch, from the ‘rising’ of the Sun King, in the elaborate ceremonies of the lever, to his ‘setting’ (the coucher). The royal chronometer was so precise, estimated the duc de Saint-Simon, the greatest memorialist of the reign, that an individual 300 leagues distant from Versailles could know exactly what the king was doing at any moment of the day merely by consulting a watch.2 All royal acts at Versailles were played out with a public of courtiers dancing attendance. Even a visit to the royal privy formed part of the pageant, a public, humbly observed act. Fortunes were made – and unmade – in the simple act by which Louis determined who was to have the honour of being permitted to hold the candle in thecoucher. Each of his meals was a watched display of monarchical mastication, and each royal glance was scrutinized for intent.

The ceremonial publicity of every part of the monarch’s life was predicated on the assumption that the French state was embodied in his physical frame. Although it seems that Louis XIV never uttered the phrase ‘L’État, e’est moi’, the sentiment was certainly his. ‘The nation’, he opined, ‘does not form a body in France; it resides wholly within the person of the king.’ ‘King and kingdom’, concurred d’Aguesseau, wisest of wise eighteenth-century legists, ‘form a single entity.’3 Bishop Bossuet of Meaux, Louis’s most loquacious panegyrist, noted of the monarch that ‘the whole of the state resides within him’ (‘tout l’état est en lui’). ‘You are gods,’ he enthused, of monarchs in general in 1662, claiming biblical endorsement.4 Versailles’ decor, which made a cult of the king’s body, seemed to take him at his word. It depicted Louis in the character of a pagan god (Apollo, Jupiter, Mars, the God-Emperor Augustus and so on). The frescoes in the great Hall of Mirrors designed by First Painter Charles Lebrun were even more exaggerated, for they depicted Louis as the equal companion of those deities. This style inaugurated a kind of mythic present,5 a never-neverland tense and an accompanying artistic idiom in which an ever-heroic (if anachronistically bewigged) Louis was portrayed rubbing shoulders with pagan gods, nymphs and demons.

The collective hymn of praise waxed most eulogistic over Louis’s attainment of la gloire – the military glory which the king had achieved in his long reign, adding to French territories, strengthening its frontiers, and building up a colonial empire which made France a global power. Yet if military glory held pride of place in his ‘Grand Siècle’, no act of the Sun King was too insignificant for recording – and for diffusing, since the act of commemoration was meaningless if it was not propagated and popularized, just as royal spectacle meant nothing if it was not widely observed. Versailles itself, as the epicentre of Louis’s mythic universe, advertised the cult of the royal body: engravings and descriptions of its architecture were widely disseminated; Louis himself wrote a guide-book to the palace gardens;6 and court protocols and etiquette became sufficiently well known to be slavishly copied by almost every European monarch in Louis XIV’s wake who wished to emulate his prestige. The image of the ruler, in the ritual setting of Versailles, was endlessly replicated and reproduced in every conscriptible medium. There were at least 300 portraits or statues produced of Louis XIV during his reign, roughly the same number of commemorative medallions, and nearly twice that number of engravings. From the 1680s, there was a movement to have an equestrian statue of the ruler placed in the central square of every major city, as well as proposals to erect splendid triumphal arches, so as to make the ruler visible to the provincial masses. The king’s pictorial pageant included not only military conquests but also hospital openings, famous diplomatic coups, acts of scientific patronage, inaugurations of monuments, the births of princes, religious rejoicings. Many of these actions of éclat, and the courtly ceremonials which marked them, further reverberated in public consciousness through the ceremonial celebration of Te Deums, religious rejoicings which were periodically commanded in every parish in the land to give collective thanks for the ruler’s triumphs.

Louis’s distinctive cultural policies were grounded in a shrewd estimation of effective styles of rule. ‘People who think that [courtly rituals] are merely ceremonial affairs are seriously mistaken,’ he wrote in the memoirs he destined for his son. ‘The people over whom we reign are unable to penetrate to the core of things and base their judgements on what they see on the surface, and it is precisely on rank and precedence that they measure their respect and obedience.’7 Louis therefore took pains to enlist the support of artists and writers in fashioning his cult. State-sponsored academies were established in almost every domain of intellectual and artistic activity. To the Académie française, established by Richelieu in 1635, with its brief to establish the purity of the French language, were added Academies for Painting and Sculpture (formally endorsed in 1663), and for Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres (1663), along with the Academies of Sciences (1665), Music (1669) and Architecture (1671). These bodies devoted part of their energies to acting as governmental consultants and aides – the Painting Academy under Lebrun, for example, provided the teams and programmes for the decoration of Versailles. Besides enlisting knowledge in the interests of the state’s needs, the academies also acted as normative institutions, setting standards of taste in line with both the advance of knowledge and the cult of monarchy. They also functioned as channels for state patronage. For those working in the fine arts, commissions were always in the offing, as poet-propagandist Jean Chapelain noted, for ‘pyramids, columns, equestrian statues, colossuses, triumphal arches, marble and bronze busts, bas-reliefs … [and] our rich tapestry works, our fresco-paintings and our engravings’.8 For writers, an endlessly hyperbolic round of poems, plays, book dedications, newspapers, periodicals and scholarly works of every kind addressed, apostrophized, described, praised, panegyrized, lauded, flattered and glorified the ruler – and contributed to their authors’ material wellbeing. In the new ‘golden age’ saluted by dramatist Pierre Corneille,9 the Sun King was meant to dazzle – and the ascribed role of the artistic and intellectual elite on whom he showered his favours was to bring his light into every corner of his realm.

Even as he lay dying, the protocol machinery which Louis had carefully crafted to allegorize the mythic present of his reign continued, as though the tempo set by the royal ballet-master was still beating metronomically in the ears of all. The ceremony of the royallever proceeded like clockwork, with the procession stopping only at the doors of the king’s death chamber, while the King’s Councils still met too in order to regulate business of state, with a chair left vacant at the head of the table for the absent monarch. What would happen to the state which Louis had sought to embody in his own frame, once the Sun King went into eclipse? ‘Did you imagine I was immortal?’ he inquired of the sobbing attendance on his deathbed.10 And then again, as though belatedly and regretfully acknowledging his hubris in seeking to maintain his own mythic present: ‘I am going away, but the state will remain.’11

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