Versailles show unveils creative life of Sun King

Mon Oct 19, 2009 2:27pm EDT
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By Sophie Hardach

PARIS (Reuters) - A new exhibition at the gilded Chateau de Versailles outside Paris for the first time brings together hundreds of artworks owned by Louis XIV, the "Sun King" who remains one of France's most flamboyant monarchs.

A fierce ruler whose exclamation, "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the State"), summarizes a concept of power that still permeates French politics, Louis XIV was also a ballet dancer whose private tastes at times diverged from the official line.

"Louis XIV has suffered from a very negative image, an image of the king as absolute, frightening, almost like a despot," curator Nicolas Milovanovic told Reuters. "That's one of the reasons why there's never before been an exhibition."

Some 300 artworks were retrieved from all over Europe for the show at Versailles, which the king transformed from a hunting lodge into the dazzling heart of an absolutist state.

Even with the monarchist rule gone, the exhibition evokes its continuing influence on French culture -- President Nicolas Sarkozy himself chose Versailles as the backdrop for a policy speech earlier this year.

"Louis XIV implemented a political regime that was very typically French," said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, president of Versailles, standing next to a marble bust of the king. "In his hands, he held much of the political, religious, military, economic and even cultural power."

Among the most intriguing exhibits are a golden bodice and matching short skirt worn as a ballet costume by the young king. A wax relief complete with human grey hair and a glass eye shows the aging Louis, pock-marked and stubble-chinned.

"The king's taste became the taste of his kingdom, he had such a strong personality that it impressed itself on his environment," Aillagon told Reuters.   Continued...