Ep1. The Sun King & Versailles

Join me, The Boozy Art Historian, as I discuss the life of King Louis XIV and his creation of Versailles. Part 1 of 2
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Hello, I'm your host Janelle, and I'm back with Season 2. It's certainly been a little while since I last released an episode, but I was able to finally get Season 2 together, and I hope you all like it. This episode is a two-parter, so stay tuned for Part 2, which will be released later on this month for you. Those of you listening live, the rest of you listening in the future. You can just hit play on Part 2 when you're done with Part 1. Over the holiday season, I found myself binge watching Canal+'s "Versailles". Which is currently on Netflix. And while this is definitely a great historical drama show, my biggest gripe with it is that we really miss out on the telling of the creation of Versailles and how pivotal this was to Louis XIV's reign, and honestly, the reign of the French monarchy until the French Revolution.

As much as I would love to nitpick the show, I want to focus on the more art historical side of Louis XIV and Versailles. So you'll just have to go and watch the show for yourself after these two episodes, and that being said, I think it's important to introduce Louis XIV a bit and explain who he is so you can get a deeper understanding of why Versailles is the way it is. So, my apologies in advance for less art and more history in this particular. A little housekeeping before we get into it. As with all of my episodes, I've created a page on my website just for this episode where you can view all of the images and resources I discuss. You can find it on my website, www.boozyarthistorian.com. You'll also find links to all of Season 1 episodes there as well. Just click on the link to the episode. You want to view on the website's homepage, and you'll find the episode's audio, a transcript of the audio and accompanying resources and images.

Right now, let's get into the good stuff. I'm sure many of us have heard the name Louis XIV, Louis the Great, the Sun King, the Roi Soleil, things like that, titles of his, and we know him as one of the most famous monarchs, I would argue in history, if not, at least in French history. If you go onto Louis' Wikipedia page, you will see this really great quote it says was Louis was one of the most powerful friendship monarchs and consolidated system of absolute monarchy in France that endured and the French Revolution.

Now that is, that is a quite powerful statement. And I really do think that's a nice succinct way of summing up. Louis character. I mean, he had three major continental conflicts during his reign, the Franco Dutch War, the Nine Years War, the War of Spanish Succession.  And he also was one of the longest, well, I should say, he is the longest reigning monarch in history. He reigned for a whopping 72 years. Now, to put that into context for us contemporarily, the late Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years. So it is, it's quite a substantial amount of time, and unfortunately, Elizabeth did not knock him off of his champion title holding placeholder, but she was close.

Let's wind it back a little bit and go to the beginning of Louis XIV's life. He was born on the 5th of September in 1638 at the Château-de-Saint-Germain-en-Laye, please forgive my terrible French pronunciation of that, Louis XIV was the first child born to Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, and he was somewhat a miraculous birth. And the reason I say that is because Anne was over the age of 35 and really had struggled with pregnancies in the past. And I think it's also important to note that roughly one out of two infants survived birth during this time period, and there was such a low rate of survival in infants under the age of five that most children weren't recorded in books or family trees or things like that until after their fifth birthday, which is really tragic and I think really does make me, I know personally very thankful for modern science and medical help that we have today, but I'm getting off.

Anyway, so Anne was super religious and she has finally a male heir to the throne, which is very exciting. She had even gone to all these different churches and religious fertility sites to really ensure that she gave birth to a healthy male baby. Side note, I'm over ladies running the country, and there were historically opportunities for women to be monarchs. I mean, for example, Queen Elizabeth I, unfortunately, France wasn't one of those places for it, which is tragic and not very equal rights of them. But again, I digress. Another reason I mentioned the miraculous birth is because this is what sets the stage for imagery of the Sun King we know today. It's also helpful to remember as well that he's born in September and was a Virgo, which for people at the time, meant that the sun was close to the Earth and therefore gave Louis its blessing.

Now, I want to remind listeners that this is a time when astrology, astronomy, and science are all the same thing. Your astrological sign was very important to understanding your physical and emotional makeup. If you want to learn more about that, you can go and listen to my episode on art and medicine in season one. So from the very beginning, there is this use of the sun imagery in Louis XIV's representation within and outside the palaces. However, it's later on after he's had his coronation that he truly begins to really push the symbolism of the Sun King in his imagery as ruler of France. And I think what really also helps solidify this sort of powerful Sun King persona is the fact that he also walks the walk and he talks the talks.

He has this personality, he has this belief that he is absolute. And correct in his divine right to rule, which again, I would circle back to sort of Anne of Austria, his mother's influence. Not only was she deeply religious, but also it helps kind of give him this mentality. And I think it's something that we see a lot actually in various European monarchies. I would argue you see it with the Tudor reign, this belief of "no, I am Monarch, I am correct, I am right. you do what I say" and so I think that does also help build up this persona and also that influences and it kind of seeps through. In the building of Versailles, and when I'm saying walk the walk and talk the talk, I mean he is literally talk.

He comes from a prestigious family. So his father, Louis XIII is the son of Marie de'Medici who comes from one of the most powerful families in Europe, and his mother is Anne of Austria, who very confusingly is not in fact Austrian, but rather from Spain. The Austria bit in her name is sort of a title that allows her to harken her very predominant and very prestigious Habsburg roots. And so both these parents are working really hard to ensure that Louis XIV is prepared to rule, and especially Anne, who, like I said, was not only religious, but she was a very hands-on mother, which wasn't very common at the time. And so this is really great because we do see him learning. He's well educated, he's well spoken, he's really learning the rules of court life and how to get people to kind of do what he wants. And be an effective ruler, which I think is, really lacking in other monarchs and things like that. But we won't go there, and so either way, no matter what, we progressed along through Louis' life and his father, Louis XIII, wrote his will in such a way that rather than Anne of Austria becoming Regent upon his death, that to sort of counsel would act as regent.

And this was very much not the norm at the time, and I can only assume was a bit of a shock to Anne. I don't know much about Anne of Austria's history, so I can't say very confidently one way or the other. But either way, not a good time, and of course, just a few days after Louis XIII's death, Anne had the will overruled and acted as regent until Louis XIV came to majority. And on a little ran rambling side note here, for those who aren't aware, Regent is sort of a term where someone acts as ruler on behalf of the person who's supposed to be the monarch, this is famously where we get the Regency era in England from is because King George III is sort of set aside. He's technically the monarch, but it's seen as unfit to rule and his son George, the fourth regents over England during this time period.

The same happens here with Anne and Louis, and for those who are also unaware of the custom, it was common in Europe for s and princesses to have to wait until a certain age before they could rule, so you couldn't just. Show up and be like, Hey, look, this four year old child is able to rule. No, they can't. And hence Regency in France, the age of majority was 13, but Louis XIV waited until he reached the age of 23 to take over, and he was very strategic in this. He was very clever and waited for the death of his mother's sort of advisor to pass. And then he absorbs that power rather than appoint a new person, which again, I think is very clever and speaks volumes.

Sort of this again, this idea of divine right to rule. Another good point to make as well too is Anne wasn't very widely liked as a regent and there were at least two major coups that took place during Louis XIV's childhood. And I mean, we also have ongoing threats of sort of international warfare, things like that, between European countries. And so we also see the his marriage to Maria Theresa as a way. Sort of solidify power and make sure everybody's at peace and that Louis has a successful reign as king, Maria Theresa is from Spain and very, I, it's very incestuous. He was basically, they were first cousins on both sides. Either way, this is not unusual. It is not uncommon during this time period, I just still to this day, in a very contemporary sense, it's kinda like, hmm. Anyway, getting off topic. So him and Maria Theresa have six children. Unfortunately, only one survives into adulthood. The Louis La Grand, aka the Dauphin, which is, goes into the whole title situation in France.

And so you have the king, the, you have the Prince who is the, and then you have things like the the Grand Dauphin. the Petit Dauphin, things like it just, there are all kinds of titles and much like we see happening with the changing. The titles when the Queen, the late Queen Elizabeth II passed, the, the titles stay the same, but the people change. So same thing happens very confusingly here in France as well. And so it's just, I'm just going to be referring to people by their names rather than sort of these nicknames or titles. It's too much. Anyway, it's also good. On a side note to remember that Louis is a bit of a ladies man. He enjoys his mistresses.

He has many notable mistresses. He just, he was unable to remain faithful to Maria, Theresa, some of these notable people are Louise de La Vallière, Bonne de Pons d'Heudicourt, forgive me for my terrible French pronunciation. Catherine Charlotte de Gramont  , Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise de Montespan who actually goes on to become his second wife. There are many more, but we just won't get into it,  as long as other dalliances and things like that. So we'll just leave it be for now. I've also gotten off topic, so let's get back onto it. So with this, we have Louis' reign officially begins.

On the 14th of May in 1643, but technically he doesn't have his coordination, like I said, until the 7th of June, 1654, when he's 23 years old. And so when he has this, he really truly steps into it. And again, this divine right, this belief that he is. Chosen by God to rule the people of France. And so he's really using all of these various different pieces, including Versailles, to validate and augment his control over France. And I'm shamelessly going to use this as a really good way to pivot into talking about Versailles and Louis XIV. So, much like other monarchs across the globe, the French monarchy had multiple residences in which the royal family and certain courtier would have lived in.

I had mentioned earlier on that Louis XIV was born at the Château-de-Saint-Germain, but Louis XIII was forced to move the royal family to Versailles due to an outbreak of smallpox at the chateau. Louis XIV spent most of his early years at Versailles, which was honestly not even remotely as nice looking as what we see today. When Louis XIV came into power, he actually moved the Royal family and court back to the Château-de-Saint-Germain and begins his work on Versailles and really building this palace for himself. To rewind just a smidge, Versailles was originally built by Louis XIII in 1623 as a sort of hunting lodge. Now, when I say hunting lodge, I don't mean some little shack kind of thing to keep off the rain of the men. It, it was a full-blown estate. It's for a king, so it's kind of like the equivalent in front of the Kardashians being like, oh, this is my tiny Paris apartment and it's some multimillion dollar penthouse. This hunting lodge was much nicer than what the majority of French population had to live in during this time period. However, it was run down and definitely not up to Louis XIV idea of what he wanted his royal palace to look like. Remember, Louis is crafting his image of the Sun King, and he's looking for ways to ensure he and his children continue to rule France, and the easiest way to do that is through visual prop. And this isn't something that's bespoke to Louis XIV. I mean, this is something we see across Europe. This is something we see even today, is these beautiful estates that act as a way to sort of create awe when you see them and understand how much power this person has, the sumptuous of the decorations inside of it. Things like that, which also I think is important because Louis understood that. And he brought in things like the Academie de Française under the royal patronage. He founds various academies, I mean factories, things like that, which I of course will talk about in detail in the next part of this episode. But just keep that in the back of your mind now.

So Versailles, no only acts as a visual monument to his divine right to rule. It's also acting and enacted as a physical reminder of his. To his subjects and the world. He's making the French court come to him at Versailles he's creating a power dynamic, not just anyone could have shown up at Versailles and become part of the French court. One had to be invited by the king himself, which was a really good power move if you ask me.  , Not only do you have to be invited, there are also a limited number of rooms at the Chateau, which means that courtiers had to constantly fight to remain at court and thusly in the king's favor. And what's interestingly is to make the courtiers fight for his favor. Louis did something interesting and he created these court rituals. These rituals, like helping the King's dress, serving him at breakfast. Things like that were ways for him to take note of who was present and who was not. This made for a really excellent way for him to quickly note who was on his side and who might potentially be plotting against them.

Okay. But to make this grand palace of propaganda, Louis needed money, and when he inherited the crown, he inherited the country's bank account, which was in poor shape. Louis was quite clever and appointed Jean Baptiste-Colbert as the controller general of finances in 1665 and in approximately five years, Colbert took the country basically from rags to riches. Now there's quite a bit to be said on Colbert, but unfortunately we just don't have time for that, Joes know that he's a complicated man in history, much like many men in history, but he was pivotal in the funding of Louis XIV's reign. There are three main figures that I think are pivotal in the creation of Versailles.

Louis La Vau, who was the court architect, Andre Le Nôtre, the Royal Gardener, Charles Le Brun, the royal painter. Of course, all three of these men each had an enormous staff that helped carry out the work on Versailles and the town of Versailles itself, Louis and these three men were clever enough to know that Paris was only a short distance away for people to come and go, but it was just far enough away that it made an impossible commute for many workers. So the ensured that the city of Versailles was built up. So it could not only support the workers who helped create the Chateau, but also the aristocrats who made up the French court. Something that I think is important to note as well is that Versailles was a sort of living, breathing organism. Basically Louis XIV built up the exterior, and then Louis XV and Louis XVI worked on the interiors. And of course, lots of things changed based on the tastes of the rainy monarch and what was in fashion at the time.

Now, I hate to leave you all like this, but this is where I'll hit pause and continue to discuss the actual art, historical details of her si and a little bit more about Louie in part. As always, should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts, you can DM me on Instagram at @boozyarthistorian. For those of you who want to have a bit more booze with your art history, you can check out my TikTok channel where I pair drinks to artists and artworks every week, I have been sitting here drinking my latest creation, which was a spiked hot chocolate, you can find me at the handle @boozyarthistorian.

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