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ROBERT W. BERGER, A Royal Passion: Louis XIV as a Patron of, 21 Oct. 2002
Louis XIV, king of France from the age of five in 1643 to his death in 1715, is fixed in our memories as the archetypal absolutist monarch, and the capital he created at Versailles continues to impress us as a defining expression of his ambitions. Until recently, non-specialist English-language readers seeking to learn more about the architecture of Versailles and the other buildings associated with Louis XIV have had to content themselves with extracting bits and pieces from general surveys of baroque architecture or from the highly compressed and now dated analysis offered by Anthony Blunt in Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (4th ed., Harmondsworth, 1980). In 1986, Guy Walton responded to this need with his book, Louis XIV's Versailles (Chicago). Now, Robert W. Berger, familiar to scholars in the field for his specialized studies on Versailles, the Louvre, and the architect Antoine Le Pautre, has offered a well-written survey of the crown's major architectural commissions.
In addition to providing concise summaries of the forms and public meanings of these buildings, Berger has sought to shed light on what they meant to the monarch himself. Louis XIV attended to the details of governing with the same extraordinary vigor with which he waged war and hunted game, and numerous documents attest to his active participation in the meetings of his royal councils where architectural projects for Paris and the French provinces were discussed. Berger reports the king's close personal attention to the design and construction of the Grand Trianon at Versailles (1687) and reminds us that he must have had much to say about the nearly constant remodeling of the royal apartments within the palace itself. Despite the abundance of documentation placing Louis XIV at or near the center of important architectural decisions, the spirit of the man remains elusive. We know that he believed in architecture as a vehicle for achieving his "gloire"--his enduring place in history--and may have seen himself as a modern Augustus replacing brick with marble, but we can only speculate about more personal motivations. In the book's epilogue, Berger draws on accounts by diarists and artists to vividly evoke the aged monarch directing a succession of small-scale changes to the carp-ponds at Marly, his retreat near Versailles. This compulsion for building and rebuilding at a scale far removed from that associated with the machinery of state demonstrates, Berger maintains, that Louis XIV had a passion for architecture that went beyond political gestures.
In addition to the epilogue and an introduction, the book consists of fourteen brief chapters, organized chronologically, that treat aspects of the king's intellectual and political formation, individual buildings, and urban projects for Paris. All the illustrations of these magnificient structures are, sadly, in black and white. Particularly noteworthy are the chapters on the royal observatory in Paris and military architecture. The Observatoire, designed by Claude Perrault in 1667, is off the beaten track of most visitors to Paris, and those who do see it often find its appearance difficult to categorize. Berger concisely provides a context for the interpretation of the building in light of other structures created for the practice of early modern science, and his description complements the studies of Perrault by Alberto Perez-Gomez and Wolfgang Herrmann, which focus on his theory (Perez-Gomez, "Introduction," Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns after the Method of the Ancients , Santa Monica, 1993, 1-44; and Herrmann, The Theory of Claude Perrault, London, 1973). The chapter on military architecture dwells more on the expressive functions of fortresses than on their plans or specific characteristics as machines of war. The hero of the chapter is the royal military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, who emerges as one of the most recognizably human characters in the book.
Vauban was one of many intermediaries who helped to shape and execute the king's ideas about architecture. Among the others Berger identifies are the ministers Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the Marquis de Louvois, the members of Petite Académie, who advised on matters of symbolism and iconography, and the architect and masterful courtier, Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Only glimpses of their interactions survive, but they are enough to suggest that ideas about architecture were exchanged in a variety of settings rather than in tidy compartments. The recovery of this environment is a daunting challenge for modern scholars.
The task of writing a concise survey requires an author to make many difficult decisions regarding the degrees of complexity and shades of gray that can be accommodated by the narrative structure of the text and the overall character of the publication. In this case, Berger has chosen not to engage his readers in many of the long-standing controversies surrounding his topics, such as those regarding the meaning and authorship of the two churches at the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. He also has written the book without footnotes but does provide a bibliographical guide organized by chapter.
Although it would be unreasonable to demand that an introductory text such as this carry the full apparatus of a book intended for specialists, I think the decisions to completely eliminate notes and to limit commentary in the bibliography to the briefest of remarks weaken the usefulness of the book for its intended audience. A few well-placed notes, for example, or a brief bibliographic essay for each chapter along the lines of the introduction to the bibliographic guide, would offer readers a bridge to more advanced study. This would be of particular value to undergraduate students preparing term papers.
The provision of a bridge linking the survey to the state of scholarship in French seventeenth-century studies also would help to underscore the tremendous opportunities for new work in the field. Adequate, accessible biographies do not exist for most of the leading architects Berger presents, even though some are a constant presence in general textbooks of art and architectural history, and much about their work is yet to be learned from studies based on cross-disciplinary methodologies. Perhaps Berger's direct prose will help to inspire a new generation to explore the richness of the Sun King's world.