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(left) Porte Saint-Denis (designed in 1672 by François Blondel); (right) details of its reliefs portraying King Louis XIV as a Roman emperor leading his troops across the Rhine and receiving the surrender of enemies
Ludovico Magno means "to Louis the Great", but today very few French refer to Louis XIV as a great military commander, although France was at war for more than 30 of the 54 years of his personal rule. Porte Saint-Denis was erected to celebrate his victories in the Low Countries against the Spaniards and the Dutch: an inscription on the right pillar makes reference to the crossing of the Rhine and the conquest of three provinces and forty walled towns.
This premise explains why he commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini an equestrian statue of himself as Phoibos Apollo in the costume of a Roman emperor. The request was most likely made in 1667, perhaps as a sort of compensation for not having implemented Bernini's Louvre project.
In the following years King Louis XIV continued to be involved in wars which were mainly aimed at expanding the French Kingdom eastwards. They came to a temporary end in 1678/79 when a series of treaties were signed with the Dutch Republic, Spain and the Austrian Empire. In the meantime he commissioned the decoration of his new residence at Versailles to the best French artists who portrayed him as Phoibos Apollon or as a Roman emperor (or both). He mostly admired Trajan, who led the Roman Empire to its maximum extent, and Trajan de France was another of his epithets.
In addition to statues and paintings, other aspects of the decoration of Versailles such as the use of marbles, indicate that it was meant to be the residence of a modern Roman emperor. We can assume that until the early 1680s King Louis was still convinced he would be remembered as a great military commander.
Clay models by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Louvre Museum): (left) S. Bibiana; (centre) Truth, a statue Bernini made for himself, now at Galleria di Villa Borghese (it opens in another window); (right) Angel holding the crown of thorns
While King Louis XIV was busy with his wars and the construction of Versailles, the equestrian statue Bernini was commissioned made very slow progress. The king had requested Bernini to involve the students of his newly founded French Academy in Rome in its execution and had charged Colbert, his Minister of Finances and Royal Household to liaise with Bernini.
Colbert agreed with Bernini's suggestion that the starting point for the new statue was to be that which Bernini had completed in 1668 for Scala Reale, the grand entrance to the Papal Palace at the Vatican.
Following his traditional working method Bernini prepared clay models of what he intended to do and sent them to Colbert for endorsement. A terracotta model dated 1670 and now at Galleria di Villa Borghese (it opens in another window) is very close to the actual statue which was sculptured in one block of marble and it was completed by 1677.
Both Bernini and Colbert were dead when in 1684 the statue reached Paris. It had been designed to be placed in a square of the city,
but King Louis XIV decided to use it for the decoration of Versailles. The statue portrayed him as Phoibos Apollo in the act of climbing the Hill of Glory and leading an imaginary army, but the king was utterly displeased with the final result of Bernini's work.
Several causes are likely to have influenced the king's judgement:
a) he was now aged 46 and he did not identify himself with the young man of the statue;
b) in 1665-70 the king had arranged for casts of Trajan's Column in Rome to be made to be studied by the French Academy students; in 1672 he was dedicated a book of engravings depicting the whole column by Pietro Santi Bartoli. Trajan was portrayed sixty times in the reliefs, but never in the act of taking part in a fight (in most cases he delivers a speech to the troops) and the king might have thought it was no longer proper for him to be portrayed as actually leading his army;
c) relations with Innocent XI, the reigning pope, were extremely poor, because the latter supported the Austrian Emperor in his fight against the Ottomans, traditional allies of France, and this might have led to despising whatever came from Rome;
d) finally the execution of the statue was not without technical faults.
The statue seen from the palace (it is beyond the large pond)
The statue was initially placed near one of the large fountains along the main axis of the gardens, but it was soon "exiled" to open ground which was used by Royal Swiss Guards for their training at the end of Pièce d'Eau des Suisses, a very large pond. Today the area is outside the Versailles premises.
The palace seen from the statue
Because a statue of the king could not be placed in such an unassuming site, in 1687 François Girardon, a French sculptor, was asked to modify it in order to portray Marcus Curtius, a hero of the very early days of Rome. The rocks of the Hill of Glory became the flames into which the hero threw himself, a sort of Roman helmet was placed on the head, the long hair of the king was trimmed and some features of the face were modified.
Today (January 2014) the pedestal of the statue does not bear any inscriptions and the statue is not even mentioned in the information panel at the entrance to Pièce d'Eau des Suisses, now a public garden of the City of Versailles.
The statue has a principal view, but Bernini, believing it would have been placed in a square, ensured it had other interesting views by a torsion of the horse's head and tail and by a "wind effect" of the cloak. As a matter of fact some of these other views are better than the principal one.
(left) The wind effect of the cloak; (right) how Girardon turned King Louis XIV into Marcus Curtius by reducing the size of the nose; the French still call "nez Bourbonien" a long and prominent nose similar to that of Louis XIV and other members of the Bourbon dynasty
Most statues of King Louis XIV in public places were destroyed during the French Revolution, but Marcus Curtius did not attract the devastating fury of the mobs. Yet, although it portrayed a Republican hero, the statue was not considered worthy of being made more visible.
The image used as background for this page shows a 1701 portrait of King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud which has become the iconic image of le Roi-Soleil.
Other pages dealing with Baroque sculpture:
Statues in the act of praying
Monuments showing the dead in a medallion
Three chapels by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Representation of Death in Baroque sculptures
Three busts by Alessandro Algardi
Baroque Monuments to the Popes
Baroque High Reliefs
Statues Close to Heaven
Embittered Andrew (the statues in St. Peter's octagon)
Playing with Colours