Bust of Louis XIV, represented in 1665
© Palace of Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Marc Manaï
Publication date: September 2019
Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director
The young prince and the illustrious artist
As part of the Louvre reconstruction project, Cardinal Mazarin planned to call upon the horseman Bernini, an illustrious Roman artist in the service of Pope Alexander VII. Finally, the invitation was made in the spring of 1665 and Gian Lorenzo Bernini was persuaded to come to France, with the pontifical agreement. The welcome given by young Louis XIV (27) to Bernini (67) initially lived up to the reputation of the artist, considered to be the most illustrious in Christian Europe. He came to propose a grandiose architectural project intended to serve as an eastern facade for the square courtyard of the Louvre.
Then at the height of his art, the horseman Bernini took advantage of his stay in Paris to sculpt a bust of the king. The poor quality of the marble forced him to work the material with a step and a trephine instead of the chisel usually used for such a work.
We know the details of Bernini's stay in Paris thanks to the precise report made by Paul Fréart de Chantelou, who had been entrusted with the accompaniment of the Italian in the twists and turns of Parisian and curial life, as well as to the correspondence of the architect Mattia de Rossi. From August 11 to October 5, at least twelve posing sessions were imposed on the king in the studio Bernini had at the Palais-Royal.
The living bust of Louis XIV
The bust of Louis XIV in 1665 is an example of the exceptional mastery of sculpture by Bernini. As if taken from life, the king contemplates an indefinable horizon, perhaps made of promises of glory and happy posterity. The face is framed by the long curly hair that the king had grown accustomed to wearing. After a more mundane than artistic controversy over the release of the royal forehead, Bernini chose to add a section of hair that fills the top of the forehead. Dressed in armor showing the articulation of the arms and which was probably inspired by a piece from the royal collection, the bust is wrapped in a drapery of ample movement, which prints a dynamism contrasting with royal serenity. The lace collar aroused the admiration of the king, so finely crafted and revealing of the sculptor's virtuosity.
Marble emerges a perfect expression of sovereign authority poised to conquer the world in the name of its own greatness. In accordance with his conception of statuary, Bernini very strongly combines the features of the model made natural - hooked nose, wart at the root of the nose, hairs under the mouth - with the idea that he wanted to breathe into his work. , namely that of the royal majesty in (-) demonstration. In the eyes of the sculptor, therefore, it is a work that reveals the peerless monarch behind the person of the prince.
The French failure of artistic ambition
The bust immediately pleased the king, who appreciated his technique and the impression of royal heroism that emanated from it. Bernini's studio was for a few weeks a public space where the most prominent members of the court and the city gathered, thus placing the artist under fire for criticism, commentary and recommendation. We contemplated the resemblance mixed with "the nobility and [with] the grandeur" (Chantelou) of the statue, not hesitating to bring Louis XIV conveniently closer to Alexander the Great. Having become the center of the worldly attraction of the moment, Bernini put all his creative energy into this bust, regardless of his health.
The bust was installed in the Louvre a few days after its completion, before reaching Versailles in 1684, where the court's residence was also fixed. The history and reception of the bust contrasts with the failure of Bernini's other French project in 1665, namely that of the eastern facade of the Louvre. Indeed, Colbert and his advisor Charles Perrault carried out work to undermine Bernini’s project with the king, in the name of a supposed maladjustment to French taste. The character of Bernini, very sure of his talent, did not contribute either to adapt his project to the French artistic context, within which the rivalry with the Roman glory passed by a claim to a "national" inspiration. Returned to Italy on October 20, 1665, Bernini followed from a distance the setbacks of the construction site of "his" facade, which was finally abandoned in 1667 in favor of a model designed by French architects supported by Colbert - this will be the famous colonnade. by Claude Perrault.
However, enthusiastic about the bust, the king ordered an equestrian statue from Bernini in 1667. Long awaited in France, this work made in Italy by an aging Bernini arrived in Paris after his death in 1685 and received a disappointed reception. of the King. This disappointment and relative disgrace is attributed to the failure to export a Baroque and Italian style to France, where movement and curves gave way to a more straight classical line.
Thus the bust of Louis XIV by Bernini remains the only success of the real and symbolic encounter between the ambition of an artist who wanted to be the first in the Christian world and the program of exaltation of the glory of a king who thought of himself as no other.
- Mazarin (cardinal of)
- Louis XIV
- Alexander The Great
- official portrait
- Colbert de Seigneulay (Jean-Baptiste)
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Paul FREART from CHANTELOU, Travel diary of Cavalier Bernini in France, Milovan Stanic edition, Macula / L’Insulaire, 2001.
Marc FUMAROLI, Painting and powers in the 17th and 18th centuries: from Rome to Paris, Faton, 2007.
Nicolas MILOVANOVIC and Alexandre MARAL (dir.), Louis XIV, the man and the king, Skira Flammarion, 2009.
To cite this article
Jean HUBAC, "Louis XIV by Bernini"