OCV update: Focus on Louis XIV

Bonne rentrée! This September marks a milestone for the OCV team as we publish the final chapters of our critical edition of Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV (OCV, vol.13D), in which Voltaire explores the cultural history of the reign, including chapters on religious conflict and sectarianism as well as on achievements in the scientific, artistic and literary spheres. This volume completes the critical edition of the narrative of this monumental work, representing over 1500 pages of Voltaire’s text and editorial notes. The general editor, Diego Venturino, has meticulously pieced together Voltaire’s sources and analysed the context in which he worked and the way he sifted evidence to provide a revealing and comprehensive account of Voltaire’s historical method. We’re very happy with how handsome they look on our shelf, as well as proud of the diligence and hard work that has gone into making them just as magnificent on the inside.


We were also really pleased this summer to launch an update to our explorer’s guide to Louis XIV. We wanted to provide a resource which would enable the scholarly research in the books to reach a wider audience, as well as giving some of the background to one of the most remarkable monarchs in European history. When the BBC series Versailles hit our screens earlier in the summer, we thought it would be interesting to explore some of the characters and events featured in the series from the viewpoint, not so much of ‘were they really like that?’ but ‘what did Voltaire have to say about them?’. It’s striking how many of the eye-catching incidents can be traced back to him, and we’ve enjoyed exploring how much further some of the hints provided by Voltaire and other historians have been stretched by the mischievous programme-makers.

As joint ‘secretaries’ of the edition, both working part-time and fitting in family commitments around our work on Voltaire, Pippa Faucheux and I have been particularly pleased that we’ve been able to keep the continuity over the summer, working closely with our valued collaborators, including general editor Professor Venturino and our partners at the Palace of Versailles, as well as our indexer, typesetters and printers in the UK. We’re now excited about moving on to get to grips with the fascinating ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, the Who’s Who of Louis XIV’s world that launches the reader into the narrative of the Siècle, for publication in spring 2017 (OCV, vol.12).

– Alison Oliver

Gossip meets history at Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above). A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image Daily Telegraph.

‘Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above).’ A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image and caption: Daily Telegraph.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby? The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles… Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on. Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon. The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

– A.O.

Death at Versailles

The Palace of Versailles is mounting a magnificent exhibition entitled ‘Le Roi est mort’ to mark the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV. The exhibits, artefacts, texts, and background music document the king’s last days, how his body was treated after his death on 1 September 1715, and the rituals of mourning imposed during the long period which followed until his funeral in St Denis on 23 October.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

If you want to know how French kings were embalmed, how their bodies were divided up between different final repositories, and how mourning dress differed between ‘grand’, ‘demi’ and petit’ categories, this is the place to go. There are excellent descriptions too of the great funeral procession from Versailles to St Denis on 9 September, which had 2,500 designated mourners, led by 400 paupers in black cloaks and hoods, carrying torches, and marching through the night.

The high point of the exhibition, however, comes in its first room. It is a reconstruction of the chapelle ardente created within St Denis to house the king’s coffin, which temporarily turned a Gothic interior into a wholly baroque setting, with skeletons and weepers around a high catafalque under a huge crown. The contrast between that and the tiny stone vault in the crypt where the king’s body was placed after the funeral, on an iron trestle next to that of his father, could scarcely be greater. Only then, however, could the traditional formula – ‘the king is dead; long live the king’ – have meaning and be proclaimed.

In its essentials this ritual was common to most monarchies in western Europe; and one of the great strengths of this exhibition, curated with exemplary skill and imagination, is its demonstration of how the ceremony evolved over time, drawing evidence chiefly from France, but occasionally from elsewhere. By 1715, for example, the wax effigies which had generally taken the place of the royal body in funeral processions since 1500 were falling out of use. Louis XIII had condemned the practice as a pagan relic, and in England James I was the last king to have his effigy carried at his funeral in 1625. Waxwork images were made of later English monarchs but chiefly used to show where they were buried in Westminster Abbey (and perhaps what they had looked like).

Ordre du Cortege pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lu

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). / Image BnF.

The royal funeral was losing something of its special mystery in other words, and it lost much more after 1715 as it was gradually adapted and redesigned to cover secular state funerals, beginning with Newton’s in 1727 in England, and in France with the transfer of the remains of Voltaire to the Panthéon in 1791 (the exhibition contains a painting of the procession.)

The funeral of Louis XIV therefore marked the apogee of the royal funeral. When preaching on that occasion Bishop Massillon, whose sermons Voltaire admired, famously insisted that ‘Dieu seul est grand’, and not the king himself. Whatever one might think of the king, however, his was undoubtedly a great funeral, and this is a great exhibition, wholly worthy of its subject and its setting. It closes on 21 February.

– Paul Slack

See also: Le Roi est mort.

Responding to Louis XIV in the Oxfordshire landscape

On the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, and the publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV by the Voltaire Foundation, 2015 is a better year than most to search for the legacies and impacts of Louis’s reign closer to the Voltaire Foundation’s home on Banbury Road in Oxford.

Fortunately, responses to Louis XIV are writ large in the Oxfordshire countryside thanks to the gardening exploits of three military men in three different locations: Blenheim Palace, Rousham and Shotover Park. These men were united through shared personal, political and military connections forged during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Blenheim Palace, southern aspect.

Blenheim Palace, southern aspect.

The largest, and most celebrated of these landscapes remains Blenheim Palace. The gift of a grateful nation to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, the house and landscape at Blenheim narrate his victory over Louis XIV in stone, paint and plaster. Over the kitchen and stable gate, the English lion savages the French cockerel, and over the centrepiece of the south front is a vast marble bust of Louis XIV, which came into the duke’s hands after the sack of Tournai in 1709. Some of this narrative decoration remains, whilst other aspects have fallen victim to the work of the great ‘improver’ Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who re-landscaped the surrounding parkland between 1764 and 1774, and who will celebrate his own tercentenary in 2016.

The greatest casualty was Marlborough’s military garden to the south of the palace. It covered around 70 acres and comprised a rectangular parterre the full width of the palace’s south front. The military garden was surrounded by a high stone wall with eight large bastions at the angles, each with a basin, and linked by a wide terraced curtain wall.

Blenheim’s buildings – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh – lay heavy on Voltaire’s heart. In letter 19 of Letters Concerning the English Nation, he observed:

“Sir John was a man of pleasure, and likewise a poet and an architect. The general opinion is that he is as sprightly in his writings as he is heavy in his buildings. ’Tis he who raised the famous castle of Blenheim, a ponderous and lasting monument of our unfortunate Battle of Hockstet. Were the apartments but as spacious as the walls are thick, this castle would be commodious enough.”

The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul, by Peter Scheemakers, c.1743, Rousham.

As in battle, so with landscape, Marlborough led and his campaign staff followed. In 1704 James Dormer was wounded at the Battle of Blenheim as a lieutenant and captain of the 1st regiment of foot guards, before serving at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706. By 1711 Dormer had become a brigadier-general. He employed Charles Bridgeman to draw up a plan for a new garden at his country seat, Rousham, in 1725, and employed William Kent from 1737 to his death in 1741.

As with many early to mid-eighteenth-century landscapes, Rousham can be read on a variety of different levels. Peter Scheemakers’s statue of the Dying Gaul, for example, whilst a knowing reference to ancient Rome, may also nod towards Dormer’s own martial background.

Shotover House and Garden,

Shotover House and Garden, by George Bickham the Younger, 1750. The British Museum Collection online.

William Kent provides the link to Oxfordshire’s third military garden, created by General James Tyrrell at Shotover. Tyrrell, like Dormer, served under Marlborough during his European campaigns before serving as a Groom of the Bedchamber to George I between 1714 and 1727. It seems likely that Dormer and Tyrrell shared not just military experience but architects too. William Kent was employed to create two buildings for the west of the gardens within a wilderness setting.

Arguably the most famous of these ‘battle gardens’ was that created by Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-1767). Tristram’s uncle, Toby, is a veteran of the siege of Namur (1695) where he was wounded in the groin. Toby transforms his back garden into a mock citadel, full of artificial fortifications where he can re-enact every siege of the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Somewhat ironically, it is Toby’s fictional garden, immune to the power of shifting fashions, that has endured to this day.

Oliver Cox, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

Le Roi est mort

Le Roy dans son lit de parade tel qu'il y parut le premier de septembre jour de son decès 1715 (BnF).

Le Roi dans son lit de parade tel qu’il y parut le premier de septembre jour de son décès 1715 (BnF).

Le château de Versailles présente du 27 octobre 2015 au 21 février 2016 Le roi est mort. Louis XIV 1715. Commémorant le tricentenaire de la mort de Louis XIV, cette exposition, placée sous le commissariat de Béatrix Saule, directeur-conservateur général du musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, et de Gérard Sabatier, professeur émérite des Universités et président du comité scientifique du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, entend donner à voir et à comprendre un rituel méconnu: celui des funérailles du Grand roi, de son exposition à Versailles dans sa chambre mortuaire le 1er septembre 1715 à son inhumation dans l’abbaye de Saint-Denis le 23 octobre suivant. Ces obsèques marquaient l’aboutissement, en même temps que le profond renouvellement, d’un cérémonial séculaire, qui allait devenir une des plus éclatantes manifestations de la civilisation de cour. Des funérailles royales françaises, on ne retient généralement que les proclamations du héraut d’armes lors de la mise au tombeau de la dépouille: le roi est mort, vive le roi, officialisant le décès du défunt et l’avènement de son successeur, adage de la monarchie qui ne meurt jamais. Le rituel lui-même n’avait pas retenu l’attention des historiens car il n’avait pas de contenu politique, les aléas de la transmission du pouvoir étant réglés avant le décès, selon le principe lignager de la primogéniture masculine. A la fin du XVème siècle et jusqu’en 1610, l’écart entre le décès et l’inhumation fut considérablement dilaté par l’adoption de conduites honorifiques nécessitant l’utilisation d’une effigie tenant lieu du cadavre imprésentable, et de procédures imitant celles des funérailles des empereurs romains. Ce parasitage cérémoniel retardant l’instantanéité de la transmission de pouvoir fut abandonné par étapes sous la pression des circonstances pendant la période des guerres civiles à partir de 1560, et la forme triomphale des funérailles des Valois fut réfutée par Louis XIII en 1643. Cependant, loin de disparaître, les funérailles royales françaises connurent sous les Bourbons une mutation que cette exposition se propose de montrer et d’expliquer.

Représentation de l'endroit où a été déposé le corps de Louis quatorze roy de France dans l'église de S.t Denis (BnF).

Représentation de l’endroit où a été déposé le corps de Louis quatorze roi de France dans l’église de St. Denis (BnF).

Exposition-événement, c’est la première de ce genre en France, ce qui s’explique par l’attitude précédemment évoquée des historiens, et la quasi absence de documents directs, décorations, accessoires, iconographie même. Les musées français, espagnols, allemands, anglais, suédois, américains ont permis toutefois de rassembler d’importants tableaux, certains jamais montrés, des instruments chirurgicaux, des accessoires de deuil, des pièces originales du trésor de Saint-Denis, tout l’apparat du dernier cérémonial funèbre , celui de Louis XVIII. Des archives proviennent le testament et le rapport d’autopsie de Louis XIV. Grace à une abondante documentation textuelle, Pier Luigi Pizzi a pu pallier l’absence de témoignages originaux par une muséographie très évocatrice. Le séquençage suit une progression chronologique en neuf étapes.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoi funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roi de France (BnF).

  1. Ce roi qui disparaît est une sélection de tableaux, de gravures, de médailles d’or ou de médaillons de bronze qui pouvaient contribuer à produire, chez les contemporains, une figure du roi, un imaginaire de Louis XIV, dans son ambivalence entre lumières et ombres.
  2. Louis se meurt rapporte les trois semaines où le roi fit face à la maladie puis organisa théâtralement sa mort, veillant au souvenir qu’il laisserait. Des extraits de Si Versailles m’était conté et de L’Allée du roi présentent la mort cinématographique de Louis XIV.
  3. Ouverture et embaumement est une séquence réaliste qui permet de découvrir une des pratiques les plus étranges des funérailles royales: l’ouverture du corps, le prélèvement des entrailles et du cœur, l’embaumement permettant une présentation supportable.
  4. Exposition et effigie montre trois modes de présentation des monarques défunts pour recevoir les hommages et les prières, selon qu’on a à faire aux Valois, aux Bourbons ou aux Habsbourg.
  5. Le deuil à la cour. Les funérailles royales sont un moment essentiel dans la vie des courtisans. La réglementation minutieuse des pratiques du deuil est l’occasion de rendre visible la hiérarchie des rangs qui structure cette société, exprimée notamment par les types et les couleurs des vêtements.
  6. Le convoi funèbre. Autre grand moment des funérailles royales, le plus important peut-être au XVIème siècle, lorsque le cortège réunissant tous les corps de la société autour du défunt traverse la capitale. Les Bourbons depuis Louis XIII procèdent différemment. L’exposition montre précisément et explique cette nouveauté souvent mal interprétée.
  7. Les services à Saint-Denis, en France et à l’étranger. Présentation des pièces du trésor, reconstitution des placements, évocation de l’apparat surprenant d’une église transformée en salle de spectacle. Mais les funérailles de Louis XIV ne furent pas seulement célébrées dans la nécropole royale, des services commémoratifs se tinrent partout en France, et jusqu’en Amérique, sur ordre de son petit fils Philippe V.
  8. Tombeaux et mausolées. Un des mystères des funérailles des Bourbons. Alors que les Valois avaient faits construire de prestigieux monuments funéraires, leurs successeurs rompent avec cette tradition, ne menant pas à terme les projets architecturaux dont on présente les plans, se contentant de simples cercueils alignés dans la crypte. Par contre, ils accordent tous leurs soins à l’ensevelissement de leurs entrailles et surtout aux tombeaux de leurs cœurs. Les vrais monuments funéraires des Bourbons furent cependant les apparats éphémères, les mausolées dressés partout dans les églises, dont on trouvera plusieurs feuilles de dessin.
  9. Des funérailles royales aux funérailles nationales. L’exposition s’achève sur les héritages d’une pratique monarchique que la Révolution avait voulu détruire, la recherche d’une nécropole autre que Saint Denis, la remise en honneur des grands cortèges avec les hommages populaires. Les tableaux officiels des funérailles des présidents de la république s’inscrivent dans une continuité éloquente.

La thématique retenue permet d’évoquer les obsèques royales sous leur aspect politique, social et culturel, situant un rituel que l’on pourrait croire obsolète au cœur d’un imaginaire du pouvoir au-delà des ruptures historiques.

– Gérard Sabatier

Le deuxième tome du Siècle de Louis XIV (chapitres 13-24) (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), est maintenant disponible.

Picturing the reign of Louis XIV

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

In 2015, the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, the VF is delighted to be launching our publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV, critical edition by Diego Venturino of the Université de Lorraine. We are very proud to be doing so with the generous support of the Centre de recherche du Château de Versailles.

As part of our partnership, we are doing something completely new for OCV and the VF in producing an illustrated edition of the Siècle. Each chapter will benefit from at least one image from the rich collections of the château de Versailles, the full extent of which are rarely seen by the public.

Valérie Bajou, specialist curator at Versailles came to Oxford in the autumn, bringing with her an entire filing cabinet (almost!) full of the results of her research. Alongside the VF team, and with valuable input from our scientific editor, Diego Venturino, we compiled a shortlist for each of the thirty-nine chapters of Voltaire’s text. We had to work within certain technical constraints, and so concentrated on engravings (for better quality reproduction in black and white), prioritising portrait format over landscape to fit with the dimensions of the book, and preferring contemporary representations to more recent renditions.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Benoist.

Attrib. Antoine Benoist (1632-1717), Portrait de Louis XIV, lead pencil, sanguine and white chalk © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Jean-Marc Manaï.

We tried not to simply show a succession of portraits of famous people, including in addition allegorical prints, depictions of battles and even diagrams. Some chapters gave us more trouble than others: we found plenty to choose from in those chapters dealing with the Sun King’s many military successes; but, unsurprisingly, rather less choice for chapters such as number 21, ‘Suite des disgrâces de la France…’ We found a beautiful and very human drawing of the king in extreme old age which contrasts wonderfully with the famous Rigaud portrait of him resplendent in full-wigged, red-heeled glory.

Chapter 7, ‘Louis XIV gouverne par lui-même’, finds an echo in an engraving with the legend: ‘Le Roi mon maître gouverne lui-même, il voit tout, il entend tout, il ordonne de tout’. We were keen to include some images of Versailles itself, whose construction was a major part of the Sun King’s life’s work and legacy, and we were thrilled to discover a rather daring image of his mistress, Mme de Montespan, legs and bosom bare…

Painting by Pierre Le Pautre.

Pierre Le Pautre (1652-1716), Le Roi mon Maître gouverne lui-même, il voit tout, il entend tout, il ordonne de tout, 1669, burin et eau-forte © Château de Versailles.

It has been such a pleasure to discover the treasures of the Versailles image collection, and a privilege to work with all the knowledgeable people there who are helping us to make this edition one of the most beautiful so far in the OCV series.

– AO