In the context of the period 1610-1715 to what extent was Louis XIV successful in using court ritual and the visual arts to enhance royal authority?
Louis XIV was known as ‘the Sun King’ and his control over the culture of court life at the notorious palace of Versailles and his use of the visual arts were not only ways to celebrate the rule of 'le Roi-Soleil' but also an attempt to enhance royal authority. In his ‘Memoires’, Louis argued that it was essential for the monarch to be constantly visible and accessible to his subjects. France in 1610 was very unstable and it wasn't until the introduction of Richelieu by 1624 that a more cohesive policy of representation could be followed. By the end of Louis XIII's reign, in 1643 France had faced much noble discontent and rebellion, there was limited manipulation of the visual arts and court ritual. This was due to the contrasting aims of Louis XIII who had to secure his position before attempting to make a decisive strategy of the delivery of his public image. Louis XIV however, had detailed a cohesive plan as to his aims of magnifying his glory to his subjects and the rest of Europe. Through the use of iconography, architecture, and art Louis successfully constructed an image of grand proportions that was further enforced by his stringent control of court ritual to enhance the royal authority of the crown. Although this was not fully implemented until the establishment of the royal court of Versailles in the 1660's. Louis experienced the height of his royal authority and debated 'rule of absolutism' from the 1660's-90's, and due to ill health and deteriorating foreign policy royal power faced a decline. I am going to argue that the use of court ritual and the visual arts provided social stability to the reign, for the image of centralised absolutism which emanated from the royal court was part fact and part media manipulation. There was a clear element of clever representation and presence that helped to enhance royal authority within the period of 1610-1715.
Louis XIII had ascended to the throne in 1610, at the age of eight, upon the assassination of Henry IV. His mother, Marie de' Medici, acted as Regent until Louis XIII came of age at thirteen. This was a period when the monarchy was very vulnerable to attempts by les grands to control government with much sporadic instability and noble discontent. France had a lot to deal with at this time.
When Louis XIII came of age, he promoted de Luynes to be his personal advisor. De Luynes followed the poor record of Concini, lining his pockets with embezzled money from the crown treasury. France faced a number of problems, an extensive foreign policy due to the Thirty Years War, low finances, ineffective and self-invested advisors and noble discontent meant that spending time and money on creating a positive image of the King was not a priority.
By 1624 however, Richelieu had come into favour, and after successfully intervening in the Thirty Year's War against the Habsburgs, retracting the political and military privileges granted to the Huguenots by Henry IV, and leading successfully in the Siege of La Rochelle these problems were more resolved. This improved situation allowed Richelieu to spend more time, energy, and money on an attempt to create a more positive image of the King.
More than any statesmen 1 before him he used writers to present his aims and principles to the literate public. There was a great increase in this period of pamphlets and periodicals. He was well served by several writers and there is little doubt he was carefully briefed, he kept his writer Fancan from 1616-1627. Fancan was a politique, putting country before creed and took a strong anti-Spanish approach. These publications helped to spread Richelieu's and the King's principles to the educated members of the public.
Richelieu also used government newspapers such as the Mercure and Gazette to influence domestic opinion. When war came these were useful to censor defeats and dress up small victories, increasing the impression of royal power and authority. Richelieu set up the Academie, which was intended to preserve the purity of the French language by the publication of a dictionary, and also set up 'salons' which conditioned people to accept absolute monarchy. There was a growing body of Frenchmen who were becoming convinced that disorder was dangerous, and these salons provided a setting for free discussion. Although Richelieu did make an attempt to use and acknowledge the power of the arts to enhance authority, he didn't create a definite strategy for this propaganda technique.
There are limited resources on the method of court ritual under Louis reign, perhaps due to the lack of an established Court in the era. The court moved frequently in periods of war, otherwise he spent most of his time at the then, hunting lodge, of Versailles. The Louvre served as the actual seat of power, from the early 1600's to the 1660's the court would reside here during the winter. This lack of an official court meant that the establishment of effective ritual as a means of control was very limited and although nobles did reside for parts of the year at the royal household it was not an effective method of control.
Louis faced a constant struggle to control the plotting nobility, this is illustrated in the Soissons rebellion. The King's brother Gaston D'Orleans was involved in these anti government plots, after allying with the Count of Soissons. The great conspiracy reached its peak in 1641, only the death of Soissons on the battlefield at La Marfee stopped D'Orleans completing the most serious threat to Louis' throne in his reign. In 1642 Richelieu introduce Cinq Mars to court, he soon gained favour at court but became uncontrollable; plotting aginst the Crown and uniting with Spain in 1642. Richelieu discovered his treasonous relations with Spain and by this means defeated his plot. Although he managed to capture Cinq Mars, the Soisson rebellion was not resolved by the actions of the crown but by his death in battle. The threat from the nobility was never eliminated and this left many open dangers to the Crown. Illustrated by the ease in which the nobility asserted independence in the Fronde of the Princes.
While literature flourished under Louis XIII's patronage, there was sporadic and minimal manipulation of the arts and ritual rather than a concerted and definite attempt to impose a public face on the court of Louis XIV. The rebellions, uprisings and instability at the seat of power prove this.
When Louis XIV ascended to the throne at the age of four in 1643, control of his government instantly became the basis for competition among the princes of the blood. Acting as Regent was Anne of Austria, and Mazarin her chief advisor. The struggle for power resulted in the bloody civil war of the Fronde from 1648-53. This left a lasting impression on the young Louis, hardening his distrust of the nobility and pushing him toward a more absolutist style of government. The fear of inciting another burst of civil unrest also led Mazarin to tread more carefully – anxious to avoid the resumption of open conflict, he backed down or altered policies to please the court's wishes time and time again. Emerging from the chaos of the Fronde, both the King and nobles came to realise that cooperation was far more beneficial than revolt and conflict, producing a dramatically different relationship between the two. Deals were struck, offices honours and titles were dispensed, ties of dependency were reinforced. From now on the relationship between monarch and nobility would be managed far more thoughtfully with more sophisticated use of the arts to glorify the image of the king as head of a more effective state.2
As early as 1649, at the height of the Fronde, Louis XIV had been described in a pamphlet as 'this shining star, this radiant sun, this day without night, this centre visible from all points of the circumference.'3 Four years later the victory of the Royalist forces in the Civil War was celebrated by a ballet at court in which the King himself took the leading role dressed as Apollo. The association of the sun and royalty was one that had been around for many years, but Louis and his advisers, led by Colbert, projected the image on a much grander scale. The result was an unprecedented personalisation of the monarchy.4 Enrolled in state sanctioned academies, artists, writers, musicians and architects were recruited to glorify not only the Sun King, but also France herself. The famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles advertised French glass, while the tapestries depicting Louis' triumphs demonstrated that even luxuries and ornamentation could boost trade and strengthen both the French economy and the authority of her king.
Burke argues that Colbert's death in 1683 marked a change from 'marketing' the image of Louis image to 'fabricating' it. His successor, Louvois, adopted a more aggressive style, erecting 20 enormous equestrian statues of the king in major cities. Collections of medals were mass produced and circulated around the nation, offering a short summary of the successes of his reign. These artistic achievement were planned with definite objectives in mind, as proved in the report Colbert commissioned from Chapeliain in 1622 dictating the uses of the arts for 'preserving the splendour of the King's enterprises' thus taking the notion of Kingship to new heights and enhancing the authority of the crown.
One of Louis XIV's most notable legacies was Versailles. Although it was actually Louis XIII that originally built on the site in the 1630s, it was Louis XIV who turned it into the grand palace it is today. From 1661 onwards, Versailles became the seat and symbol of the absolute monarchy. The design confirmed Louis’ desire to create a spectacle – unlike Italian palaces that faced inwards to an interior courtyard, Versailles opened outwards towards visitors and became a model for palaces across Europe. The palace acted not only as a giant symbol of the King's wealth, but also as an enormous canvas for portraits, statues, and tapestries illustrating the King's achievements and prowess. Even the gardens brimmed with statues and fountains of Louis portrayed as numerous gods, the most well known being 'Apollo's Chariot' created by Jean-Baptiste Tuby in 1688. Another statue of Louis in the Place des Victories in Paris had the inscription 'To The Immortal Man' which many religious people considered blasphemous .5
1 Cardinal Richelieu and the Development of Absolutism- G.R.R Treasure (1982)
2 Crown and Nobility in Early Modern France- Donna Bohanan (2001)
3 Louis XIV- Francois Bluche, (1990)
4 The Fabrication of Louis XIV, Peter Burke, (1992)
5 Louis XIV, France and Europe 1661-1715- Richard Wilkinson (1993)
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- stuart history louis xiv the sun king versailles 17th century france french history representation 1624 richelieu 1610 louis XIII visual arts propaganda public image