June 07: rise of the Sun King

2012/06/07 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1654 Louis XIV was crowned King of France.

Not only was his rule exceptionally important for architecture, but it was the longest reign in European history.  (Hang in there, Queen E.!).   Louis (1638-1715) was actually boy-king as of his father’s death in 1643; 1654 was the year of the coronation, and in 1661 he declared himself L’absolu.

Louis perfected absolute rule, and, as history’s most diabolical patron of architecture (yes, she said it and meant it), used his new palace to dazzle and control his subjects.  He moved the seat of government from the capital, Paris, to the little village of Versailles, where he expanded a hunting lodge built by his dad in 1624.  This respectable château was gobbled by the massive–seriously, truly, gigantic–project that expanded it to become Europe’s grandest palace, with sweeping wings set within an enormous garden.  Louis, who laid his head on a pillow on the central axis within a room from which could see no horizon that he did not own, thus could envision the whole world  laid out before him, the sun orbiting not just the globe but his very cranium.

The exceptionally skilled team of Louis Le Vau (architect), André Le Nôtre (landscape) and Charles Le Brun (interiors/decorative arts) joined to celebrate the brilliance of Louis and his reign while ensuring that his subjects were kept strictly in line.  The symmetrical garden and palace enforce the central axis, display the king’s extraordinary wealth, and through varied spaces accommodate larger or smaller groups, ensuring the jockeying for position among subjects.  All of the art, from the garden fountains to the salon paintings, enforced Louis’ godlike status and absolute power to crush dissent.  The ugliest form of human oppression is thus cast in untold tons of marble, pounds of gold leaf, acres of oil paintings.  By the time he was done with Versailles, Louis had spent an untold fortune expanding the most glorious palace in Europe into its most sumptuous prison.  By the time Thomas Jefferson got there in the 1780s he pronounced it “the pit of depravity.”  And, as with most things, he was right.

Image: somewhere in Versailles (Clio’s)

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