Shadows at the court of the Sun King

2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV, the Sun King, whose reign (1643-1715) defined the era of the ‘Grand Siècle’ and saw France rise to become the dominant player on the European stage. The Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with the Château de Versailles, is preparing to publish Voltaire’s seminal account of his reign, Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) to coincide with this anniversary.

The unceasing production of works throughout Voltaire’s long life often causes attention to be focused on his later years, and it is easy to forget that he was himself a product of the age of Louis XIV, being 20 when the king died. Few people could have remembered the Sun King’s accession, and the change of regime in 1715 must have been a uniquely unsettling experience, more so because of a series of deaths in the royal family between 1711 and 1714, which left as the only viable Bourbon successor to the king a frail great-grandson still in his infancy.

In 1714 Louis XIV was in his 76th year and, according to the chronicler Saint-Simon, fearing death, either natural or by poison. In an attempt to dilute the influence of the Orléanist faction (the family of his younger brother), he promulgated the édit de Marly in July, which allowed his illegitimate children to succeed were the Bourbon line to fail. In the same year he rewrote his will, setting up a regency council, on which the ‘bastards’, as Saint-Simon called them, were also to serve. This provision was swiftly annulled after Louis’s death the following year.

1. Louis XIV’s will, dated 2nd August 1714.

1. Louis XIV’s will, dated 2nd August 1714.

By contrast the 19-year-old Voltaire in 1714 was preoccupied with an unhappy love affair and the dullness of his incipient administrative and legal career. But when, years later, he set to work seriously on his long-planned project of writing one of the first major accounts of the reign of the Sun King, he was relying not just on historical sources and documents, or even on verbal accounts from his older contemporaries, but crucially on his own recollections and emotional responses to the events he describes.

And it shows. This passage about Louis XIV’s marriage in 1660 has an abstract, almost fairy-tale quality, with its hero and heroine providing a tableau of splendour and gallantry, reminiscent of the hyperbolic descriptions found in novels such as La Princesse de Clèves (1678):

‘Tout prit, au mariage de Louis XIV, un caractère plus grand de magnificence et de goût, qui augmenta toujours depuis. Quand il fit son entrée avec la reine son épouse, Paris vit avec une admiration respectueuse et tendre, cette jeune reine qui avait de la beauté, portée dans un char superbe d’une invention nouvelle; le roi à cheval à côté d’elle, paré de tout ce que l’art avait pu ajouter à sa beauté mâle et héroïque, qui arrêtait tous les regards.’

2. Wedding of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, 9th June 1660.

2. Wedding of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, 9th June 1660.

In describing the shock of the series of deaths in the royal family, Voltaire communicates a real sense of how disquieting this period must have been. In chapter 23, he describes how the king’s personal grief becomes conflated with political catastrophe: ‘toutes ces infortunes domestiques [i.e. the deaths in the king’s family], jointes aux étrangères et à la misère publique, faisaient regarder la fin du règne de Louis XIV comme un temps marqué pour la calamité; et l’on s’attendait à plus de désastres, que l’on n’avait vu auparavant de grandeur et de gloire.’

Voltaire returns to the same events later in the work (chapter 27), and this time is even more explicit about his own recollections, using ‘nous’, and even ‘je’ to describe the emotional impact of the events, years later.

3. Composite picture of the Bourbon succession.

3. This composite picture of the Bourbon succession from Henri IV (seen as a bust in the background along with Louis XIII) features Louis XIV (seated), the Grand Dauphin (leaning against his father’s chair) and the duc de Bourgogne on the right. The infant Louis XV is being led by the duchesse de Ventadour, who seems to have commissioned the painting to celebrate her role in ensuring the continuation of the Bourbon dynasty (by saving the future Louis XV from the measles epidemic that killed the other members of his family).

‘Ce fut le sort de Louis XIV de voir périr en France toute sa famille par des morts prématurées, sa femme à quarante-cinq ans, son fils unique à cinquante; et un an après que nous eûmes perdu son fils, nous vîmes son petit-fils le Dauphin duc de Bourgogne, la Dauphine sa femme, leur fils aîné le duc de Bretagne, portés à St Denis au même tombeau au mois d’avril 1712; tandis que le dernier de leurs enfants, monté depuis sur le trône, était dans son berceau aux portes de la mort. Le duc de Berri, frère du duc de Bourgogne, les suivit deux ans après; et sa fille, dans le même temps, passa du berceau au cercueil.

‘Ce temps de désolation laissa dans les cœurs une impression si profonde, que dans la minorité de Louis XV j’ai vu plusieurs personnes, qui ne parlaient de ces pertes qu’en versant des larmes.’

Nearly 40 years later, despite the middle-aged Louis XV being established on his throne, Voltaire is transported back to how disorienting it was to have almost the entire direct royal succession, the future of France, wiped out, and for the dynasty to take a different direction, with a decadent regency and an infant king. In contrast to the abstract and distant ‘Paris’ and ‘on’ of the earlier passages, here we have compelling direct testimony from ‘plusieurs personnes’, as well as the sympathetic ‘je’ recalling such a ‘temps de désolation’, all weeping for the lost line of promising Bourbon kings.

–AO

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Mirabeau meets Voltaire and Rousseau in the underworld

‘Mais le voilà donc ce prétendu égoïste, cet homme dur, cet impitoyable misanthrope, que ses lâches ennemis déchirent plus que jamais après sa mort!’ (Mirabeau to Marie Thérèse Sophie Richard de Ruffey, marquise de Monnier, on the subject of Rousseau’s acts of kindness during his lifetime.)[1]

Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the death of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the comte de Mirabeau. A courter of controversy, Mirabeau is famous for being a nobleman who joined the third estate for the Estates General and became rapidly popular thanks to his oratory skills.[2] He died of a suspected inflammation of the diaphragm, on 2 April 1791, though some did question the rapidity of the illness and wondered if he had been poisoned.[3] Other than for a few individuals, such as Marat, who publicly rejoiced at his passing, Mirabeau’s death seems to have been overall a source of sorrow, provoking numerous displays of affection including prints and plays.

The representation of Mirabeau’s post-life is part of a wider Revolutionary fascination for the gathering of historical characters in the afterlife. Indeed, it was viewed by artists as an opportunity to create imaginary encounters between characters of different eras, stage reconciliations or provide a commentary on the situation in France. One can see an example of this in Olympe de Gouges’s rapidly penned Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, first performed on 15 April 1791, in which Rousseau and Voltaire are quick to shake hands and forgive each other in their joy at the French Revolution: ‘tu as posé les premières bases de tout ce qui s’est opéré de grand et d’utile en France’ exclaims Rousseau. [4]

Prints were more likely to pick either Voltaire or Rousseau as the object of Mirabeau’s affection. For instance, in ‘Le Voile est tombé’, Voltaire can state ‘Mon triomphe est beau sans doute, puisque il est l’ouvrage des Français’, while the archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, burns in the background.

Mirabeau_Voltaire

Le Voile est tombé (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

However, in ‘Mirabeau arrive aux Champs-Elysées’, it is to Rousseau that Mirabeau presents a charte constitutionelle as if it were ‘un de ses ouvrages’, involving him in the Revolution.

Mirabeau_Champs_Elysees2

These representations are not just a homage to Mirabeau, but also an occasion to revisit the historical thinkers who influenced Revolutionary ideology and to place Mirabeau within this illustrious canon. [5]

While only a few of these representations can be deemed negative, this was all to change with the discovery of the armoire de fer, a secret cupboard in the Tuileries which contained compromising correspondence, in November 1792. Even after death, there is no rest for the depicted.

Mirabeau_apparition

Apparition de l’ombre de Mirabeau (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

Claire Trévien

[1] Correspondance complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, ed. R. A. Leigh et al., 52 vol. (Oxford, 1965-1998), vol.44, p.187-91, letter 7686 (27 March 1780).

[2] John R. Neill and Charles F. Warwick, Mirabeau and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2005), p.431.

[3] Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Journal de la maladie et de la mort d’Honoré-Gabriel-Victor Riquetti Mirabeau, ed. Carmela Ferrandes (Bari, 1996), p.137.

[4] Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, p.6. Numerous plays and prints of the period staged what their creators saw as a long overdue reconciliation between the two feuding philosophes. See Ling-Ling Sheu, Voltaire et Rousseau dans le théâtre de la Révolution française (1789-1799) (Brussels, 2005).

[5] I will be exploring these representations in greater detail in an article, ‘Théâtre de l’ombre: visions of afterlife in prints of the French Revolution’, in Shadows of the Enlightenment: chiaroscuro in Early-Modern France and Italy, a study in analogy and metaphorology, a special issue of Journal of eighteenth-century studies,ed. Mark Darlow and Marion Lafouge (forthcoming).