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Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Gérard Sabatier's Versailles ou la figure du roi

The accidents in "reception" may greatly influence how one understands creative work. Gérard Sabatier's monumental Versailles ou la figure du roi (Paris:Albin Michel, 1999), 701 pp., had just been put down after quite careful reading when Nol. 209 of the XVIIe Siècle arrived. What a harvest of new research and reflection on gardens one finds in that XVIIe Siècle under the aegis of Patrick Dandrey! These articles were presented as papers at a conference at Versailles on June 5, 1999. Dandrey notes (p. 600) that these are authors "qui ont bien voulu tenir parole et fournir comme prévu le texte de leur communication."

Sabatier's work has a dépot légal date of September 1999, thus it is not surprising that no reference to it appears in the articles presented by Dandrey. Sabatier's bibliography of is own publications reaches back to 1979, and his themes are all around gardening, though not on gardening; but no reference to these appears either in the XVIIe Siècle articles. Sabatier presents not only a general analysis of the iconographic programs in the Versailles gardens, but also a very thorough study of the "manière de montrer" the gardens. Pigeaud, who has an article in the XVIIe Siècle, published a book, L'Art et le vivant in 1995, which is not in Sabatier's bibliography. Spica's thesis of 1992 on the Versailles gardens is cited by Sabatier, though her article of 1994 in the XVIIe Siècle is not.

It is evident from all the bibliographies in both works that their authors are very conscientious and "inclusive"; they have reached far and wide in time and space, and yet the disjuncture surprises.
The historical study of gardens, like galleries, attracts scholars from disparate fields: literature, architecture, history of medicine, history of art, and history of technology. When a subject as complex as the seventeenth-century French garden is taken up, mastering the bibliography and current research is a daunting task. The same must be said for "ou la figure du roi," which after "Versailles" is Sabatier's pregnant title.

There are careful, succinct analyses of all the principal sources on every topic in the book, beginning with the quite lamentable attention given to Versailles by nineteenth-century historians. Visual sources are given every but as much attention as written ones, and, of course, the evidence of what the Sun King said, or was reported to have said, is given the privilege it deserves. Louis uses the phrase "point de vue" in his Manière de montrer — coming from the Latona fountain but before the second north-south axis that one should stop to consider, toward the east, the "ramps, vases, statues, the Lésars, Latona, and the chateau" (p. 57). There is no mention of anything natural in this inventory, and thus it seems very much like some of the most revealing sources about ancient Roman gardens which also do not mention trees, boxwood hedges, etc.

The garden is where art — of human making — and nature come together: a simple enough definition, but just how does the Latona fountain conform to it? The marble is a natural product very much molded by hands and tools; the frogs are natural in subject, and human made. The closer to the chateau, the more present the mythological programs, and it is these programs that order the meanings of nature and art to the point that neither can be individually distinguished. Water becomes light and a producer of sound, as it flows from bassin to bassin; it too becomes something more than natural.

I do not really know why, but all the interpretations of the Latona fountain as a statement about the Fronde never convinced me. Sabatier carefully, and without fanfare, demolishes them all! The more careful reading of the myth, narrative and analysis of its use in Fontainebleau and the Louvre, leaves no doubt that the fountain has nothing to do with the Fronde. Similarly, attempts to see allusions to new scientific thought in the art at Versailles do not stand up. In the main, however, Sabatier presents what the iconography means, and he does not stop to refute the work of others. One of his strongest points is how Versailles must be understood in the context of other royal palaces — the Pitti in Florence, the Quirinal in Rome (for the stairway of the ambassadors) and above all the Louvre and the Tuilleries. Vaux-le-Vicomte comes in only rarely, and mainly when the relations between typography and the structure of the gardens is studied.

Sabatier takes as his own, and elaborates on a brilliant generalization by Roger Chartier: "Les œuvres n'ont pas de sens stable, universel, figé. Elles sont investies de significations plurielles et mobiles construites dans la négociation entre une proposition et une réception...."(p. 41) The iconographic programs in the chateau center almost entirely on the king; the attempts to parallel the queen with ancient goddesses and Biblical and other ancient heroines were not very successful. For Louis, in the 1670-80s the exemplarity moved from instruction to him and inspiration for him, to his being the exemplum for his subjets, for foreigners, and for future generations. His "actions" become the raison d'être for research in ancient histories to find parallels. The programs became ever more elaborate – wars and victories continued to be very much emphasized (ceiling, Hall of Mirrors) but distributing food to the starving, rendering justice, and seeing to legal reform, among other themes, argument the spectrum of royal actions.
The "petite académie" had its work cut out for it — not only finding historical and mythical parallels, but controlling iconographic transfers from medals, for example, to ceilings, etc. Mythological programs gave way to more historical ones — the need for orderly correspondences between prose and verse, stone and paint, etc., would only begin to weigh heavily on the royal history after Le Brun, Perrault, Racine, and others who had been brought together by Colbert either died or declined in imagination. To say that there was a change of taste would not be quite accurate; to assert that iconographic programs in all arts and letters had been almost completely elaborated, would be more historical. There certainly was no change of "taste" in a public — only a drive for something both in accord with the ancients and the present king's actions prevailed. All this suggests that there were many different kinds of artisans of glory.

As "historicism" came to the fore, the royal portrait would prompt the portrait genre to ever-increasing codified refinements. Dress, hair style, gesture, posture, and relation to others in prose or paint became thought-out, articulated, taught, and executed. Attention to the face never ceased, of course; thus the king was both an aging and an ageless icon — not unlike the great portraits of Augustus on precious stones and coins. I think of one shown me by Jean-Baptiste Giard that captured both individual uniqueness and timeless male beauty. Efforts to make a concetto of Alexander underlie the king's features (R. Wittkower) did not seem to have deliberately influenced Le Brun. Portrait painting remains an extremely elusive part of cultural history. Louis XIII launched a fashion by wearing his hear longer on one side; his son like to be depicted wearing a full wig.
I don't quite agree with GS about his point that a transfer from one medium to another, in this instance from paint to words, necessarily involves something less as a work of art. It often does, and it did for the prose descriptions of the Grande Galerie. But there are examples where a prose work has equaled in eloquence the painting it describes, or has even surpassed it. The "historicity" of the Ludovician moment had important consequences for these transfers. Indeed, the very transferability, or nearly so, from genre to genre accounts partially for the eventual critical failure of historical prose in Ludovician France.

The analyses of the significances of various hand positions (different from gestures) and postures (linked to dance) break new ground. To study afresh these familiar paintings with Sabatier's study in mind opens up entirely new ways of understanding representation and power. The study of the king, always tranquil yet always in motion, makes earlier studies, including Marin's, quite out of date. There is always attention not only to the genres over the century, but to Italian and Spanish antecedents. And if the King is represented canonically, as it were, both grandeur and originality lie in the King's relation others who are depicted, and in the specific presences created by Le Brun (p. 421). The study of the eyes (p. 427) in these pictures reveals an intensity of coherence in the political order, as represented, that we can scarcely imagine. The image of the perfect king incarnate has something terrifying about it.

In the section on Versailles and the public, GS makes several important points. Louis's own view of the court, "cette société de plaisirs" (Mémoires, 1662) is that courtiers' hearts are perhaps held more by spectacles, etc., than by "récompenses et bienfaits," a reaching toward an understanding of the relations between court life and power that predates Saint-Simon. Louis increasingly came to think of Versailles as a public place, and one in which the iconography could actually be comprehended by courtiers and visitors. The numerous close readings of familiar and less well-known texts testify to the extraordinary variety of writings about Versailles.

A most interesting and convincing reading of the maps and the prose descriptions of visiting the gardens reveals that diverse and subtle ways to visit the gardens came into existence long before the Sun King's death. Thus, while it could be recognized that the gardens were his, one could visit and enjoy them without monarchical ideology on the mind (p. 535). These various ways of visiting the gardens also confirm the sense that they were "public" since each individual could freely construct his/her perfect-view mental catalogue. From here we are one small step to K. Pomian's work on the ordering of objects in museums by time and culture as revealing of the distinct features of any culture. The ordering remains, but the visitor, the promeneur, does not need to follow it.
Alas, the multiple renovations of the interiors of the chateau undermined the iconographic programs — while Louis lived — which suggests that the iconography had more of a "decorative" function for the Sun King than an ideological one. An analogy with stage scenery and props comes to mind; as Louis aged he followed a rhythm in monarchy — from instruction on how to reign, moral exemplarity in ancient social and family relations, to royal actions — where what the king had done becomes the subject. For another way of saying it, adolescent actions could not be celebrated (the king danced). Anne of Austria did not commission a cycle of paintings the way Marie de Médicis had done, so the king's actions in war and in peace required that he perform them before they could be painted — and their meanings were much more easy to retain in the memory than obscure myth-situations.

Sabatier is correct to refute some of the more absurd interpretations of Versailles (cf. p. 524, for example). There is a tendency these days in France to be oh-so-"nice," and to avoid making the sharp remark. Nonsense sometimes does not go away when it is simply ignored; it needs to be refuted on occasion, to create an open, free sense of a public constituted of scholarly readers.
The pages on Marly are very thoughtful and very important for understanding the relations between the king's private worlds and his more public ones. In a way, the more private reign of Louis XV begins in Marly, and in the petits appartements of Mme de Maintenon (F. Kimball). Marly is for the king and the "happy few" he chooses, rather than for those who are present de droit, as so many were at Versailles. There is a return of astrological themes in the decor, and a rush to place greater emphasis on color over design in the paintings. And on into the eighteenth century, the king becomes less visible.

Just how to interpret these profound not-conscious shifts takes the reader to the heart of monarchical culture, with its rhythms of the life cycle of the prince, and the shift from over- presence to under-presence that is so revealing not so much of the strength of institutions as of the immediate mood of a moment. Periods of anxiety and violence produce, over decades, needs for strong leadership and portraits of leaders; periods of stability may often produce efforts to live in society according to abstract principles. I shall not turn to what David painted, 1790-1795, and 1799-1815!

Sabatier will be placed next to Brown and Elliott's Palace for a King, Kubler's Building the Escorial, and Berger's The Palace of the Sun on our shelves here at 208 Ridgewood Road.