Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII.: PRIVATE ANECDOTES OF THE REIGN OF LOUIS XIV. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV)
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CHAPTER XXIII.: PRIVATE ANECDOTES OF THE REIGN OF LOUIS XIV. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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PRIVATE ANECDOTES OF THE REIGN OF LOUIS XIV.
Anecdotes are a sort of confined field, where we glean after the plentiful harvest of history: they are small narratives, which have long been secreted, whence they receive the name of anecdotes, and when they concern any illustrious personages, are sure to engage the public attention.
Plutarch’s “Lives” is but a collection of anecdotes, rather entertaining than true; how could he have procured faithful accounts of the private life of Theseus or Lycurgus? Most of the maxims which he puts into the mouths of his heroes advance moral virtue rather than historical truth.
The secret history of Justinian, by Procopius, is a satire dictated by revenge; and though revenge may speak the truth, this satire, which contradicts his public history, has not always the appearance of it.
We now are not allowed to imitate even Plutarch, much less Procopius. We admit as historical truths none but what are well supported. When contemporaries like the cardinal de Retz and the duke de Rochefoucauld, inveterate enemies to each other, confirm the same transaction in both their accounts of it, that transaction cannot be doubted: when they contradict each other, we must doubt them; what does not come within the bounds of probability can deserve no credit, unless several contemporaries of unblemished reputation join unanimously in the assertion.
The most useful and most valuable anecdotes are those secret papers which great princes leave behind them, in which their minds have thrown off all reserve. Such are those I am now going to relate of Louis XIV.
Domestic occurrences amuse only the curious; the discovery of weaknesses entertains only the malignant, except where these weaknesses instruct, either by their fatal consequences, or those virtues which prevented the impending misfortune.
Secret anecdotes of contemporaries are liable to the charge of partiality; they who write at any considerable distance of time should use the greatest circumspection, should discard what is trifling, reduce what is extravagant, and soften what is satirical.
Louis XIV. was so magnificent in his court, as well as in his reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity, as they drew the attention of all the courts of Europe, and of all his contemporaries. The splendor of his government threw a light on his most trivial actions. We are more eager, especially in France, to know the transactions of his court than the revolutions of other states. Such is the effect of a great reputation! We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet and court of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.
Hence all who have written the history of Louis XIV. have been very exact in dating his first attachment to the baroness of Beauvais, to Mademoiselle d’Argencourt, to Cardinal Mazarin’s niece, who was married to the count of Soissons, Prince Eugene’s father; and quite elaborate in setting forth his passion for Maria Mancini, that prince’s sister, who was afterward married to Constable Colonne.
He had not assumed the reins of empire when these amusements busied and plunged him into that languid state in which Cardinal Mazarin, who governed with a despotic sway, permitted him to remain. His bare attachment to Maria Mancini was an affair of great importance; for he was so passionately fond of her as to be tempted to marry her, and yet was sufficiently master of himself to quit her entirely. This victory which he gained over his passion made the first discovery of the greatness of his soul; he gained a more severe and difficult conquest in leaving Cardinal Mazarin in possession of absolute sway. Gratitude prevented him from shaking off that yoke which now began to grow too heavy. It was a well-known anecdote at court that, after the cardinal’s death, he said: “I do not know what I should have done, had he lived any longer.”1
He employed this season of leisure in reading books of entertainment, and especially in company with the constable, who, as well as his sisters, had a facetious turn. He delighted in poetry and romances, which secretly flattered his own character, by pointing out the beauty of gallantry and heroism. He read the tragedies of Corneille, and formed that taste which was the result of solid sense, and of that readiness of sentiment which is the characteristic of a real genius.
The conversation of his mother and the court ladies contributed very much to give him this taste and that peculiar delicacy which began now to distinguish the court of France. Anne of Austria had brought with her a kind of generous and bold gallantry, not unlike the Spanish disposition in those days; to this she had added politeness, sweetness, and a decent liberty, peculiar to the French only. The king made greater progress in this school of entertainment from eighteen to twenty than he had all his life in that of the sciences under his tutor, Abbé Beaumont, afterward archbishop of Paris; he had very little learning of this last sort. It would have been better had he at least been instructed in history, especially the modern, but what they had at that time was very indifferently written. He was uneasy at having perused nothing but idle romances, and the disagreeableness he found in necessary studies. A translation of Cæsar’s “Commentaries” was printed in his name, and one of Florus in that of his brother; but those princes had no other hand in them than having thrown away their time in writing a few observations on some passages in those authors.
He who was chief director of the king’s education under the first Marshal Villeroi, his governor, was well qualified for the task, was learned and agreeable, but the civil wars spoiled his education; and Cardinal Mazarin was content he should be kept in the dark. When he conceived a passion for Maria Mancini, he soon learned Italian, to converse with her, and at his marriage he applied himself to Spanish, but with less success. His neglect of study in his youth, a fearfulness of exposing himself, and the ignorance in which Cardinal Mazarin kept him, persuaded the whole court that he would make just such a king as his father, Louis XIII.
There was only one circumstance from which those capable of forming a judgment of future events could foresee the figure he would make; this was in 1655, after the civil wars, after his first campaign and consecration, when the parliament was about to meet on account of some edicts: the king went from Vincennes in a hunting dress, attended by his whole court, and entering the parliament chamber in jack-boots, and his whip in his hand, made use of these very words: “The mischiefs your assemblies produce are well known; I command you to break up those you have begun upon my edicts. M. President, I forbid you to permit these assemblies, and any of you to demand them.”
His height, already majestic; his noble action, the masterly tone and air he spoke with, affected them more than the authority due to his rank, which hitherto they had not much respected: but these blossoms of his greatness seemed to fall off a moment after; nor did the fruits appear till after the cardinal’s death.
The court, after the triumphant return of Mazarin, amused itself with play, with balls, with comedies, which, being but just produced in France, had not grown into an art; and with tragedies, which were now a sublime science, through the management of Peter Corneille. A curate of St. Germain, who inclined toward the rigorous precepts of the Jansenists, had frequently written to the queen against these shows, from the very beginning of her regency. He pretended that those were damned who attended them, and had this anathema signed by seven doctors of the Sorbonne: but Abbé Beaumont, the king’s preceptor, defended them by the approbation of more doctors than the rigid priest could procure to condemn them. Thus he quieted the queen’s scruples, and when he was archbishop of Paris, gave the sanction of authority to that opinion which he had defended when only an abbé.
I must observe that, after Cardinal Richelieu had introduced at court regular plays, which have at last raised Paris to rival Athens, there was not only a bench appointed for academics—in which body were several ecclesiastics—but one in particular for the bishops.
Cardinal Mazarin, in 1646 and 1654, had Italian operas performed by voices which he brought from Italy, in the theatre of the royal palace, and at the Little Bourbon, near the Louvre. This new entertainment had just arisen at Florence, a country favored at that time by fortune as well as nature, to which we owe the revival of many arts, lost in the preceding centuries, and the invention of new ones. France showed some relics of her ancient barbarity in opposing the establishment of these arts.
The Jansenists, whom Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin wanted to keep under, revenged themselves upon these diversions, which these two ministers had introduced. The Lutherans and Calvinists had acted the same part in the time of Pope Leo X. Besides, their opposition was sufficient to gain them the character of austerity. The same men, who would overturn a state to establish opinions frequently absurd, anathematized the innocent pleasures necessary in so large a city, and the arts, which contributed to the splendor of the nation. Abolishing these diversions was an act more worthy of the age of Attila than that of Louis XIV.
Dancing, which may now be reckoned among the arts,1 because it is tied down to rules, and adds grace to motion, was one of the greatest amusements of the court. Louis XIII. had only danced once at a ball, in 1625, and that ball was in so bad taste that it did not in the least presage the appearance this art made in France thirty years after. Louis XIV. excelled in grave dances, which were agreeable to the majesty of his figure, and did not injure that of his rank. At the running at the ring, which was sometimes performed with great splendor, he showed that peculiar dexterity which he had at all exercises. Pleasure and magnificence, such as they then were, diffused themselves universally; but they were nothing in comparison with what appeared when the king sat on the throne; and yet might be reckoned amazing, after the horrors of a civil war, and the dulness of the retired and melancholy life of Louis XIII. That prince, without health and spirits, had neither been attended, lodged, nor equipped as a king. He had not above a hundred thousand crowns’ worth of jewels belonging to the crown; Cardinal Mazarin little more than doubled that sum, and now we have jewels to the amount of above twenty millions of livres.
At the marriage of Louis XIV., in 1660, everything assumed an air of the highest taste and magnificence, and this increased daily. When he made his entry with his queen consort, Paris saw with a respectful and tender admiration, that beautiful young queen, drawn in a superb car of a new invention; the king rode on horseback by her side, adorned with all that art could add to his manly and heroic beauty, which drew universal attention. At the end of the streets of Vincennes a triumphal arch was built, the foundation of which was stone, but the shortness of the time would not permit them to finish it with such durable materials; the rest was only plaster, and has since been pulled down. It was designed by Claude Perrault. The gate of St. Anthony was rebuilt for the same ceremony; a monument of no very noble taste, but adorned with some good pieces of sculpture. All who had seen the day of the battle of St. Anthony, and the dead and dying bodies of the citizens brought to Paris through this gate, then furnished with a portcullis, and who beheld this entry so extremely different, blessed heaven, and returned their thanks for so happy a change.
Cardinal Mazarin added to the solemnity of this marriage the representation of an Italian opera in the Louvre, called “Hercules in Love.” This did not please the French. They saw nothing in it that entertained them but the king and queen, who danced. The cardinal wanted to signalize himself by a play more to the taste of the nation. The secretary of state at Lyons undertook to have a sort of allegorical tragedy after the taste of that of “Europa,” in which Cardinal Richelieu had some hand. The great Corneille was happy in not being chosen to work upon such poor materials. The subject was “Lisis and Hesperia.” Lisis signified France, and Hesperia Spain. Quinault, who had just won a reputation by his “False Tiberinus,” which, though a bad piece, had amazing success, was set to work at it. The “Lisis” had not the same fate. It was acted at the Louvre, and had nothing good in it but the machinery. The marquis of Sourdiac, of the name of Rieux, to whom France was afterward indebted for the establishment of the opera, acted at the same time, at his own expense, in his castle of Newbourg, “The Golden Fleece,” by Peter Corneille, with machinery. Quinault, a youth of genteel figure, was supported by the court; Corneille by his name and the nation. There was one continued train of feasts, pleasures, and gallantry after the king’s marriage, which increased on that of the king’s brother with Henrietta of England, sister of Charles II., and was not interrupted till the death of Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661.
Some months after the death of this minister, an event happened which was not to be paralleled, and what is no less strange, is unnoticed by all the historians. An unknown prisoner, of majestic height, young, of a graceful and noble figure, was sent with the utmost secrecy to the castle on St. Margaret’s Island, in the see of Provence. This prisoner, on the road wore a mask, the chin of which was composed of steel springs, which gave him liberty to eat with his mask on. Orders were given to kill him if he discovered himself. He remained on the island till an officer of tried fidelity, named St. Mars, governor of Pignerol, was made governor of the Bastille in 1690. He went to the island of St. Margaret and brought him to the Bastille with his mask on all the way. The marquis de Louvois went to see him on that island before his departure, and spoke to him with great respect, and without sitting down. This stranger was brought to the Bastille, and lodged as well as he could be in that castle. He was refused nothing that he desired. His greatest pleasure was extraordinary fine linen and laces. He played on the guitar. He was much caressed, and the governor seldom sat down in his presence. An old physician of the Bastille, who had frequently attended this strange gentleman in his illness, declared he never saw his face, though he had frequently examined his tongue and other parts of his body. This physician said that he was rather brown, but extremely well made. The very tone of his voice was engaging, but he never complained of his situation, and never disclosed who he was.1
This stranger died in 1704, and was buried at night in the parish of St. Paul. What redoubles our astonishment is that, when he was sent to the isle of St. Margaret, no person of any consequence disappeared in Europe. This prisoner was, however, doubtless a man of high rank, for on his first arrival on the island, the governor himself set the silver plates upon his table and then retired, after securing the door. One day the prisoner wrote upon a silver plate with the point of a knife, and threw the plate out of the window toward a boat which was on the river, near the foot of the tower. A fisherman, to whom the boat belonged, took up the plate, and brought it to the governor. He, with great eagerness, asked the fisherman: “Have you read what is written upon this plate, or has anyone seen it since you had it?” The fisherman answered: “I do not know how to read. I have just found it, and nobody has seen it.” The peasant was detained till the governor was convinced that he never could read, and that the plate had been seen by no other person. “Go,” said he, “you are happy in not knowing how to read.” There are some very credible witnesses of this fact, who are now living. M. Chamillard was the last person who knew anything of this strange secret. The second marshal de Feuillade, his son-in-law, told me, that at the death of his father-in-law, he conjured him on his knees to tell him who that person was who was never known but by the name of “the man with the iron mask.” Chamillard answered him that it was a secret of state, and that he had taken an oath never to reveal it. In fine, there are many of my contemporaries who will attest the truth of what I advance; nor do I know any one fact so extraordinary and so well supported.
Louis XIV. meanwhile divided his time between the pleasures agreeable to his age and the duties of his station. He held a council daily, and then studied in secret with Colbert. This secret labor was the original cause of the disgrace of the famous Fouquet, in which the secretary of state, Gunegaud, Pellisson, and many others were included. The fall of this minister, who perhaps was less to blame than Cardinal Mazarin, showed that all people have not the liberty of committing the same faults. His ruin was already determined when the king accepted that magnificent feast with which this minister entertained him in his house at Vaux. This palace and gardens had cost him eighteen millions of livres, which were then as much as thirty-six millions would be now. He had built the palace twice, and bought three entire villages, the land of which was all enclosed in these immense gardens, laid out by Lenôtre, and then esteemed the finest in all Europe. The fountains of Vaux, which made no indifferent appearance after even those of Versailles, of Marly, and St. Cloud, were at that time prodigies. But the expense of eighteen millions, the accounts of which are now in existence, show that he was served with as little economy as he served the king. The palaces of St. Germain and Fontainebleau, the only pleasure houses the king had, certainly were not to compare with Vaux. Louis XIV. observed it, and was piqued. Throughout the whole house were to be seen the arms of Fouquet, a squirrel with this motto: “Quo non ascendam?”—“Where shall I not ascend?” The king had it explained to him. The ambition of this device did not contribute to appease the monarch. The courtiers observed that the squirrel was everywhere painted, as pursued by an adder, which was the arms of Colbert. The entertainment exceeded any Cardinal Mazarin had ever given, not only in magnificence, but also in taste. There, for the first time, was acted the “Impertinents” of Molière. Pellisson had made the prologue, which was much admired. Public pleasures so often conceal or prepare the court for private disasters, that, had it not been for the queen-mother, the superintendent and Pellisson would have been arrested at Vaux the very day of the feast. What inflamed the resentment of his master was that Mademoiselle la Vallière, for whom the king began to feel a lively passion, had been one of the objects of the superintendent’s loose desires, who spared nothing to satisfy them. He had offered La Vallière two hundred thousand livres, which she had rejected with scorn, before she had formed any design upon the heart of the king. The superintendent soon perceiving what a powerful rival he had, aimed at being the confidant of her of whom he could not be the possessor, and this, too, enraged his majesty.
The king, who, in the first heat of his resentment, was tempted to arrest the superintendent in the very middle of the entertainment he received from him, afterward dissembled when it was not necessary. It was said that the monarch, now in full power, dreaded Fouquet’s party.
He was attorney-general to the parliament, and this office gave him the privilege of being tried by the united chambers. But after so many princes, marshals, and dukes, had been tried by commissaries they might have given the same treatment to a magistrate, who would make use of such extraordinary measures as, though they might not really be unjust, might raise a suspicion of their being so.
Colbert persuaded him by no very honorable artifice to sell his office, and he parted with it for twelve hundred thousand livres, which now represents above two millions. The immoderate price of places belonging to the parliament, so greatly diminished in value since that time, shows the high estimation in which this body was still held, even in its state of depression. The duke of Guise, great chamberlain to the king, had not sold this office of the crown to the duke of Bouillon for more than eight hundred thousand livres.
Though Fouquet squandered the revenues of the state, and used them as his own proper income, he had still much greatness of soul; what he embezzled he spent in magnificence and acts of liberality. He caused the money which he had for his place to be brought into the king’s privy treasury; yet this noble action did not save him. They drew a man by artifice to Nantes, whom one exempt and two soldiers might have seized at Paris. The king caressed him before his disgrace.
I know not why most princes commonly affect to deceive by false appearances of favor those among their subjects whom they mean to ruin. At such times dissimulation is the opposite to greatness; it never is a virtue, and cannot become a valuable accomplishment, except when absolute necessity enforces it. Louis XIV. seemed to act out of character, but he was made to understand that Fouquet was about raising considerable fortifications in Belle-Isle, and that he possibly might have too many connections, both without and within the kingdom. It plainly appeared at the time in which he was arrested and carried to the Bastille, and to Vincennes, that the strength of his party lay only in the avarice of some courtiers and certain women, who received pensions from him and forgot him the moment he was no longer able to bestow them. The only friends he had left were Pellisson, Gourville, Mademoiselle Scudéri, such as were involved in his disgrace, and some men of letters. The verses of Hainault, the translator of Lucretius, against Colbert, the persecutor of Fouquet, are well known.
M. Colbert, as some persons were discoursing with him about this libellous sonnet, asked whether the king was offended with it, and upon being told he was not, “So neither am I,” replied the minister.
It is true that the commencing of a process against the superintendent would be impeaching the memory of Cardinal Mazarin: for the most considerable depredations of the finances were his doings: he, like a despotic sovereign, had appointed to himself several branches of the public revenue; he had treated in his own name, and to his own advantage, for military stores. “He had imposed,” says Fouquet, in his defence, “by lettres de cachet, extraordinary sums on the generalities; which was never done but by him, and for his behalf; a proceeding which was punishable with death according to the royal ordinances.” It was in this manner the cardinal amassed immense riches, and these even unknown to himself.
I have heard the late M. de Caumartin, intendant of the finances, relate, that in his youth, some years after the death of the cardinal, he had been in the Palais Mazarin, where the duke, his heir, and the duchess Hortense resided; that he saw there a large press, or cabinet, which was very deep, and from top to bottom took up the whole height of the closet where it stood. The key had been lost for some time, so that the drawers had not been opened. M. Caumartin, surprised at the oversight, said to the duchess of Mazarin, that probably some curiosities might be found in this press. It was accordingly opened, and was quite full of the coin called quadruples, also gold counters, and medals of the same metal: of this Madame Mazarin threw handfuls to the people out of the windows for over eight days.
The abuse which Cardinal Mazarin made of his arbitrary power did not justify the superintendent, but the irregularity of the proceedings against him, the tediousness of his process; time, which extinguishes public envy and inspires people’s minds with compassion for the unhappy; together with solicitations, always more active in favor of an unfortunate person than means employed to ruin him; all these together saved his life. Judgment was not given in the process till three years after, in 1664, and, of the twenty-two judges who gave sentence, only nine made it capital. The other thirteen, among whom there were some that Gourville had prevailed on to accept of presents, were in favor of perpetual banishment. But the king commuted the punishment into one still more severe; for he was confined in the castle of Pignerol. All the historians say that he died there in 1680; but Gourville assures us, in his memoirs, that he was released from prison some time before his death. The countess of Vaux, his daughter-in-law, had before strongly averred this fact to me, though the contrary is believed among his own family. Thus one knows not in what place died an unfortunate man, whose least actions, while he was in power, were striking.
Gunegaud, the secretary of state, who sold his place to Colbert, was no less pursued by the chamber of justice, who stripped him of the greatest part of his fortune.
St. Évremond, who had a particular friendship for the superintendent, was involved in his disgrace. Colbert, who searched everywhere for proofs against him whom he had a mind to ruin, caused some papers to be seized that were intrusted to the care of Madame Duplessis-Bellièvre, among which was found a manuscript letter of St. Évremond’s, upon the Peace of the Pyrenees. This piece of pleasantry, which was represented as a crime against the state, was read to the king. Colbert, who scorned to avenge himself upon Hainault, a person of an obscure character, persecuted in St. Évremond the friend of Fouquet, whom he hated, and the fine genius, which he dreaded. The king was so extremely severe as to punish an innocent piece of raillery composed some time before against Cardinal Mazarin, whom he himself had not regretted, and whom the whole court had insulted, reproached, and proscribed for several years with impunity. Among a thousand pieces written against this minister, the least poignant was the only one which was punished; and that after his death.
St. Évremond, having retired into England, lived and died there with the freedom of a man and a philosopher. The marquis de Miremont, his friend, formerly told me in London that there was another reason for his disgrace, which St. Évremond would never be prevailed upon to explain.
The new minister of the finances, under the simple title of comptroller-general, justified the severity of his proceedings in re-establishing the order which his predecessors in office had broken through, and by laboring indefatigably to promote the grandeur of the state.
The court became the centre of pleasure, and the model for the imitation of other courts. The king piqued himself on giving feasts or entertainments which obliterated the remembrance of that made by the count of Vaux.
It seemed that nature took delight at that time to produce in France some of the greatest men in all the arts, and to assemble at court the most beautiful and best made persons of both sexes. The king excelled all his courtiers in the proper dignity of his stature and the majestic beauty of his features. The tone of his voice, noble and striking, gained those hearts which his presence intimidated. He had a gait which could suit none but himself and his high rank, and would have been ridiculous in any other. The embarrassment into which he threw those who spoke to him secretly flattered the complaisance with which he felt his own superiority. That old officer, who, being somewhat confounded, faltered in his speech on asking him a favor, and being unable to finish his discourse, told him: “Sire, I do not tremble thus before your enemies,” easily obtained his demand.
The relish of society had not as yet received all its perfection at court. Anne of Austria, the queen-mother, began to love retirement; the reigning queen hardly understood the French tongue, and goodness constituted her only merit. The princess of England, sister-in-law of the king, brought to court the charms of a soft and animated conversation, which was soon improved by the reading of good books, and by a solid and delicate taste. She perfected herself in the knowledge of the language, which she wrote but badly at the time of her marriage. She inspired an emulation of genius that was new, and introduced at court a politeness and such graces as the rest of Europe had hardly any idea of. Madame possessed all the vivacity of her brother, Charles II., being adorned with the charms of her own sex, and both the power and desire of pleasing. The court of Louis XIV. breathed a gallantry full of decorum, whilst that which reigned at the court of Charles II. was of a freer kind, and, being too much unpolished, dishonored its pleasures.
There passed at first between madame and the king a good deal of that coquetry of wit and secret sympathy, which were observable in little feasts often repeated. The king sent her copies of verses, and she answered him in like manner. It happened that the very same person was confidant both to the king and madame, in this ingenious commerce, and this was Marquis de Dangeau. The king commissioned the marquis to write for him, and the princess also engaged him to answer the king. He thus served both of them, without giving any grounds for suspicion to the one that he was employed by the other: and this was one of the causes of his making his fortune.
This intelligence had alarmed the royal family, but the king converted the noise made by this commerce into an invariable source of esteem and friendship. When madame afterward engaged Racine and Corneille to write the tragedy of “Bérénice,” she had in view not only the rupture of the king with Constable Colonna, but the restraint which she herself put upon her own inclinations, lest they should have a dangerous tendency. Louis XIV. is sufficiently pointed out in these two lines of Racine’s “Bérénice:”
These amusements gave way to the more serious and regularly pursued passion which he entertained for Mademoiselle de la Vallière, maid of honor to madame. He tasted with her the happiness of being beloved purely for his own sake. She had been for two years the secret object of all the gallant amusements and feasts which the king had given. A young valet de chambre to the king, called Belloc, composed several recitatives, intermixed with dances, which were performed sometimes at the queen’s, and sometimes at madame’s; and these recitatives mysteriously expressed the secret of their hearts, which soon ceased being any longer so.
All the public diversions which the king gave were so many pieces of homage paid to his mistress. In 1662 a carrousal (tilt) was held near the Tuileries, in a space which still retains the name of La Place du Carrousel. In it were five quadrilles, or parties: the king was at the head of the Romans; his brother at that of the Persians; the prince of Condé of the Turks; the duke d’Enghien, his son, headed the Indians; and the duke of Guise the Americans. This duke of Guise was the grandson of Balafré; he had made himself famous in the world for the unfortunate temerity with which he had undertaken to make himself master of Naples. His prison, duels, romantic amours, prodigality, and adventures rendered him quite singular. He seemed to be a person of another age. It was said of him, upon seeing him run against the great Condé: “Here go the heroes of history and of romance.”
The queen-mother, the reigning queen, and the queen of England, dowager of Charles I., then forgetting her misfortunes, sat under a canopy to view this spectacle. The count de Sault, son of the duke de Lesdiguières, won the prize, and received it from the hands of the queen-mother. Those feasts revived, more than ever, the taste for devices and emblems, which tournaments had formerly brought into vogue, and which continued after these were no more.
An antiquary, called d’Ouvrier, invented, in 1662, for Louis XIV., the emblem of the sun, darting its rays upon a globe, with these words: “Nec pluribus impar”—“Yet a match for many.” The thought was a kind of imitation of a Spanish device made by Philip II., and was more applicable to this king, who possessed the finest part of the new world, and so many states in the old, than to a young king of France, who hitherto gave no more than hopes. This device had prodigious success. The king’s cabinets, the movables of the crown, the tapestries, and sculptures were all adorned with it; yet the king never carried it in his tournaments. Louis XIV. has been unjustly condemned for the pride of this device, as if he had chosen it himself; and perhaps it has been more justly censured for its foundation. The body does not represent that which the legend signifies; and this legend has not a quite clear and determined sense. That which may be explained several ways does not deserve to be explained by any. Devices, those remains of the ancient chivalry, may suit with feasts, and give some pleasure when these allusions are just, new and pointed. It is better to have none than suffer such as are bad and low, like that of Louis XII., which was a hedgehog, with these words: “Qui s’y frotte, s’y pique”—“He that touches me, galls himself.” Devices are, with regard to inscriptions, what masquerades are to more solemn ceremonies.
The feast of Versailles, in 1664, surpassed that of the Carrousel for its singularity, magnificence, and the pleasures of the mind, which, mixing with the splendor of these diversions, added a relish and such charms as no feast had ever yet been embellished with. Versailles began to be a delightful residence, without approaching to the grandeur at which it arrived afterward.
On May 5, the king came hither with a court consisting of six hundred persons, who, with their attendants, were entertained at his expense, as were likewise all those employed in preparing these enchanting scenes. There was nothing ever wanting at these feasts but such monuments erected for giving of them, as were constructed by the Greeks and Romans. But the readiness with which they built the theatres, amphitheatres, and porticoes, beautified with as much magnificence as taste, was a wonder which added to the illusion, and which, diversified afterward in a thousand ways, still augmented the charms of these spectacles.
There was at first a sort of tournament. Those who were to run appeared the first day as in a review; they were preceded by heralds at arms, pages, and squires, who carried the devices and bucklers; and upon the bucklers were written in letters of gold, verses composed by Perrin and Benserade; this last especially had a singular talent for these gallant pieces, in which he always made delicate and lively allusions to the characters of the persons present, to the personages of antiquity or mythology which they represented, and to the passions actuating the court at that time. The king personated Roger; when all the diamonds belonging to the crown sparkled upon his clothes, and the horse which he rode. The queens, and three hundred ladies under triumphal arches, viewed this entry.
The king, amidst all the eyes which were fixed upon him, distinguished only those of Mademoiselle de la Vallière. The feast was for her alone; which she secretly enjoyed, though not distinguished from the crowd.
The cavalcade was followed by a gilt car eighteen feet high, fifteen broad, and twenty-four long, representing the chariot of the sun. The four ages of gold, silver, brass, and iron, the celestial signs, the seasons, and the hours followed this car on foot. All was distinctly characterized. Shepherds carried pieces of the enclosure, that were adjusted by the sound of trumpets, to which succeeded at intervals violins and other instruments. Some persons who followed Apollo’s car, came at first to recite to the queens certain verses suitable to the place, the time, and the persons present. After the races were finished, and the night came on, four thousand large flambeaux lighted the spot where the feast was given. The tables therein were served by two hundred persons, who represented the seasons, the fauns, sylvans, and dryads, with shepherds, grape-gatherers, and reapers. Pan and Diana advanced upon a moving mountain, and descended from it in order to place upon the tables whatever the country and the forests produced that was most delicious. Behind the tables, in a semi-circle, rose up all at once a theatre filled with performers in concert. The arcades which surrounded the table and theatre were decorated with five hundred chandeliers, with tapers in them; and a gilt balustrade inclosed this vast circuit.
These feasts, so much superior to what are invented in romances, lasted for seven days. The king carried four times the prizes of the games; and afterward he left those he had won to be contended for by other knights, and accordingly gave them up to the victors.
The comedy of the “Princesse d’Élide,” or “Princess of Elis,” though not one of the best plays of Molière, was one of the most agreeable decorations of these games, for the vast number of fine allegories on the manners of the times, and for the apposite purposes which form the agreeableness of these feasts, but which are lost to posterity. People at court were still fond, even to madness, of judicial astrology: many princes imagined, through a haughty superstition, that nature distinguished them by writing their destiny in the stars. Victor Amadeus, duke of Savoy, father of the duchess of Burgundy, retained an astrologer near his person, even after his abdication. Molière was so bold as to attack this delusion in his comedy.
Here also was to be seen a court fool. These wretched fellows were still much in vogue. This was a relic of barbarism that continued longer in Germany than in any other place. The want of amusements, and the inability of procuring such as are agreeable and virtuous in times of ignorance and bad taste, had given occasion to the invention of this wretched pleasure, which degrades the human mind. The fool who was then in the court of Louis XIV. had formerly belonged to the prince of Condé; his name was Angeli. The count de Gramont said that, of all the fools who followed that prince, there was none but Angeli who made his fortune. This buffoon was not without some sense. It is he who said: “That he went not to hear sermons, because, as he did not like brawling, so he did not understand reasoning.”
The farce of “The Forced Marriage” was likewise acted at this feast. But what was truly admirable here was the first representation of the first three acts of “Tartuffe.” The king had an inclination to see this masterpiece even before it was finished. He afterward protected it against those false bigots who would have drawn in earth and heaven to be interested for the suppression of it: and it will subsist, as has been already said elsewhere, as long as there shall be any taste and hypocrites remaining in France.
Most of these shining solemnities are often calculated only to please the eyes and the ears. That which is no more than pomp and magnificence passes away in one day; but when masterpieces of art like “Tartuffe” make up the ornament of these feasts they leave behind them an eternal remembrance.
There are still fresh in memory several strokes of those allegories of Benserade, which were an ornament to the ballads of that time. I shall only give here the verses for the king, representing the sun.
The principal glory of these amusements, which perfected taste, politeness, and talents, in France, proceeded from this, that they did not divert the monarch in the least from his assiduous labors: for without these he would only have known how to keep a court, and would have been unacquainted with the methods of governing: so that had the magnificent pleasures of this court glossed over the miseries of the people, they had only been odious. But he who gave these feasts gave bread to the people in the famine of 1662. He caused corn to be brought, which the rich purchased at a cheap rate, and he gave it gratuitously to poor families at the gates of the Louvre: he remitted to the people three millions of imposts; no part of the interior administration was neglected, his government was respected abroad, the king of Spain was obliged to yield to him the precedency, the pope was forced to make reparation, Dunkirk was added to France by a sale no less glorious to the purchaser than it was ignominious to the seller. In short, all the steps taken while he held the reins of government, had been either noble or useful; after this the giving of feasts was extremely proper.
Chigi, the legate a latere, and nephew of Pope Alexander VII., coming in the midst of these rejoicings to Versailles to make amends to the king for the high insult offered by the pope’s guards, presented a new spectacle to the court. Such grand ceremonies are like feasts for the public. The honors paid him rendered the satisfaction more striking and illustrious. He received under a canopy the compliments of the superior courts, the bodies of the city and clergy: he entered Paris amid the discharge of cannon, with the great Condé on his right hand, and the son of that prince on his left: he came in this pomp to humble himself, Rome, and the pope, before the king who had not yet drawn his sword. After he had audience he dined with the king, and all endeavored to treat him magnificently, and to give him pleasure. Afterward the doge of Genoa was treated with less ceremony, but with the same earnest desire of pleasing, which the king always made reconcilable with his more lofty proceedings.
All this gave the court of Louis XIV. an air of grandeur, which quite obscured all the other courts of Europe. He was desirous that this lustre annexed to his person should reflect a glory on all around him; that the great should be honored, beginning with his brother and the prince; and that none should be powerful. It was with this view that he determined in favor of the peers their ancient dispute with the presidents of the parliament: the latter pretended that they should give their opinions before the peers, and accordingly they put themselves in possession of this right: but he decided, in an extraordinary council, that the peers should give their opinions at the bars of justice, held in the king’s presence, before the presidents, as if they owed this prerogative only to his person, when present; and he allowed the ancient usage in those assemblies which are not judicial still to continue.
In order to distinguish his principal courtiers, he invented blue short coats embroidered with gold and silver. The permission of wearing these was a great favor to such as were guided by vanity. They were in almost as much demand as the collar of an order. It may be observed, as we have entered upon minute details, that at that time these coats were worn over a doublet adorned with ribbons, and over the coat passed a belt, to which hung the sword. There was also a sort of laced cravat, and a hat adorned with a double row of feathers. This style, which lasted till 1684, became that of all Europe, except Spain and Poland: for people almost everywhere already piqued themselves on imitating the court of Louis XIV.
He established an order in his household, which still continues, regulated the several ranks and offices belonging thereto; and he created new places about his own person, as that of the grand master of the wardrobe. He re-established the tables instituted by Francis I. and augmented them. There were twelve of these for the commensal officers, as they are called, who eat at court, and are served with as much elegance and profusion as a great many sovereigns: he would have all strangers invited thither, and this lasted during all his reign. But there was another point of a still more desirable and polite nature, which was, that after he had built the pavilions of Marly in 1679, all the ladies found in their apartments a complete toilette, in which nothing that belonged to luxury was overlooked: whoever happened to be on a journey, might give repasts in their apartments to their friends, and the same delicacy was used in serving the guests as for the master himself. Such trivial matters have their value only when they are supported by greater. In all his actions, splendor and generosity were to be seen. He made presents of two hundred thousand francs to the daughters of his ministers at their marriage.
That which roused most admiration of him in Europe was an unexampled instance of liberality. He had the hint from a discourse which he held with the duke of Saint-Aignan, who told him that Cardinal Richelieu had sent presents to some learned men of other countries who had written eulogies upon him. The king did not wait till he was praised; but, sure of deserving it, he recommended his ministers Lionne and Colbert to select a number of Frenchmen and foreigners distinguished for their literature, on whom he might bestow marks of his generosity. Lionne, having written to foreign countries, informed himself as much as possible in a matter of such delicacy, where the point was to give preference to contemporaries. At first a list of sixty persons was made out: some had presents given them, and others pensions, according to their rank, wants, and merits. Allati, librarian of the Vatican; Count Graziani, secretary of state to the duke of Modena; the celebrated Viviani, mathematician to the grand duke of Florence; Vossius, historiographer to the United Provinces; the illustrious mathematician Huygens, and a Dutch resident in Sweden; in short, down to the professors of Altorf and Helmstadt, towns almost unknown to the French, were astonished upon receiving letters from Colbert, by which he acquainted them that though the king was not their sovereign, he entreated them to allow him to be their benefactor. The expressions in these letters were estimated from the dignity of the persons who sent them; and all were accompanied with rewards or pensions.
Among the French, they knew how to distinguish Racine, Quinault, Fléchier, since bishop of Nîmes, who was then but very young. They had presents. It is true that Chapelain and Cotin had pensions bestowed upon them: but it was chiefly Chapelain whom the minister Colbert had consulted. These two men, otherwise so much disparaged on account of their poetry, were not without merit. Chapelain was possessed of an immense stock of learning; and what is surprising is, that he had taste and was one of the most acute critics. There is a great difference in all this from genius. Science and vivacity conduct an artist; but they do not form him in any kind. None in France had more reputation in their time than Ronsard and Chapelain: the reason for this was that in Ronsard’s days barbarism prevailed, and in those of Chapelain the people had hardly emerged from it. Costar, a fellow student of Balzac and Voiture, called Chapelain the first of the heroic poets.
Boileau had no share in these bounties: he had hitherto produced only satires; and it is well known that these pieces attacked the learned men whom the ministry had consulted. The king distinguished him some years after, without consulting anybody.
The presents made in foreign countries were so considerable that Viviani built a house at Florence out of the liberality of Louis XIV. He put in letters of gold upon the frontispiece, “Ædes a Deodatæ”—“This house is the gift of God,” being an allusion to the surname of Dieu Donné, which appellation the public voice had given to this prince at his birth.
The effect which this extraordinary munificence had in Europe may be easily imagined; and if we consider all the memorable things which the king did very soon after, the most severe and most morose men should bear with the excessive eulogiums lavished upon him. Twelve panegyrics of Louis XIV. were pronounced in different towns in Italy; a homage which was paid him neither from fear nor hope; and these the marquis Zampieri sent to the king.
He always continued pouring his favors upon the sciences and arts: of these we have plain proofs from particular gratuities; as about four thousand louis d’or to Racine, also from the fortunes of Despréaux and Quinault, especially that of Lulli, and of all the artists who devoted their labors to him. He even gave a thousand louis d’or to Benserade for engraving the mezzotinto plates of his Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in roundelays; a liberality badly applied, and which only shows the generosity of the sovereign. He also recompensed Benserade for the little merit which he had shown in his ballads.
Several writers have attributed solely to M. Colbert this protection given to the arts and this magnificence of Louis XIV. But he had not further merit in the affair than seconding the magnanimity and taste of his master. This minister, who had a very great genius for the finances, commerce, navigation, and the general police, had not in his own mind that taste and elevation which the king had: he zealously promoted, but was far from inspiring him with what nature had given.
It is not easy to discover upon what foundation certain authors have reproached this monarch with avarice. A prince who has domains entirely independent of the revenues of the state may be avaricious, like an individual; but a king of France, who, in reality, only distributes the treasures of his subjects, must of consequence be free from this vice. The will or care to recompense may indeed be wanting; but this is what Louis XIV. can never be justly reproached with.
At the time that he began to lavish so many favors on men of talents, the use which the count de Bussi made of those he possessed was punished with the utmost severity. He was imprisoned in the Bastille in the year 1665. His writing “The Amours of Gaul” was the pretext for his confinement. The real cause was a song in which the king was a little too freely treated; the memory of it was revived at this time, in order to ruin Bussi, the supposed author:
His works were not good enough to compensate for the mischief which they brought upon him. He spoke his own language with the utmost purity: he was not destitute of merit, but his self-sufficiency was much greater than his merit, and he made no other use of it but to create himself enemies. It would have been generous in Louis XIV. to have pardoned him: but thus he avenged his personal injury, while he, in appearance, yielded to the public clamor. The count de Bussi was released in about eighteen months; but he never recovered his former place in the king’s favor, though he continued, during the remainder of his life, to profess an attachment to Louis XIV. which neither the king nor anybody else believed to be sincere.
NOTES TO CHAPTER XXIII.
The King and the Cardinal.—This anecdote is attested by the memoirs of La Porte, p. 255, and we there see that the king had taken an aversion to the cardinal; that the minister, though his relative, and intrusted with his education, had made no effort to improve him, and had often left him without the common necessaries of life. He adds much heavier accusations, which reflect dishonor on the cardinal’s reputation; but they do not appear to be proved, and no accusation should be recognized without proof.
The King and the Assembly.—These words, faithfully copied, are in all the authentic journals of those times; it is neither allowable to omit or change a word in them in any history of France. The author of M. de M. makes a bold conjecture in his note. “His speech was not quite so good, but his eyes spoke more sensibly than his mouth.”
St. Évremond.—This was the celebrated Charles de St. Denis, lord of St. Évremond, who had distinguished himself by his gallantry in the field, and his wit in conversation. His letter, reflecting on the memory of Cardinal Mazarin, being discovered, Louis ordered him to be imprisoned in the Bastille; but before he could be arrested, he made his escape into Holland, and was invited to England by King Charles II. who gratified him with a pension of three hundred pounds. He lived to enjoy the favor of King William also, and died at London in 1703, at the age of ninety. His writings have been admired for the vivacity of his style, the strength and delicacy of his portraits, the justness of his reflections, the elegance of his taste, and the agreeable variety of his expression. They are not, however, without affectation, obscurity, and false fire; and his poetry is but indifferent.
Henry, duke of Guise.—This Henry, duke of Guise, was designed for the Church, provided with a great number of abbeys, and even nominated to the archbishopric of Rheims: but he was stripped of all his benefices by Cardinal Richelieu. He fought a duel with Count de Coligny, for which he was obliged to retire to Rome, whence he repaired to Naples, in order to command the army of the people who had rebelled against the court of Spain. His adventures, on this occasion, were altogether romantic; but, in spite of all his courage and efforts, he was taken prisoner and carried to Spain, being eventually released at the solicitation of the great prince of Condé.
Perrin and Benserade.—Abbé Perrin was a native of Lyons, the first who, by royal patent, established an opera in Paris, in imitation of the Venetian opera. He and his partners erected a theatre in the Rue Mazarine, and, in 1672, exhibited the pastoral “Pomona,” the poetry by Perrin, and the music by Lambert. Perrin quarreling with his partners, resigned his patent in favor of the famous Lulli, who built a new theatre near the palace of the Luxembourg, from which he later transferred his company to the hall of the Palais Royal. Perrin, besides several pastorals of five acts, wrote many sonnets, odes, and elegies. He also translated the “Æneid” of Virgil in verse, and enjoyed a great reputation. His death happened about the year 1680.
Isaac Benserade was born of a good family, at Lyons, in Normandy, in 1612. He soon distinguished himself as a wit, a poet, and a man of gallantry, was gratified with a pension by the queen mother of Louis XIV., and lived in great familiarity and favor with the noblemen of that court. He composed tragedies, comedies, and verses for ballets, which were in great esteem at court, as well as through all France, in the younger days of Louis. All the wits of that kingdom were divided on the merit of two sonnets, one by Benserade, and the other by Voiture. He was particularly patronized by Cardinal Mazarin, and preserved his reputation to a good old age. Among his bons mots, the most remarkable is the repartee he made to a gentleman whom he had often rallied on suspicion of impotence. That gentleman, meeting Benserade on the street: “Well,” said he, “notwithstanding all your raillery, my wife has been delivered some days.” “O, sir,” replied the poet, “I never doubted the ability of your wife.”
La Vallière.—Louisa Frances de la Baume-le-Blanc de la Vallière was maid of honor to Henrietta of England, duchess of Orleans. She fell in love with the person of Louis XIV., who returned her passion, had several children by her and raised her to the rank of duchess of Vaujour, and peeress of France. Tired of the pleasures of a court, and touched by the stings of repentance, she retired to the convent of the Carmelites in Paris, and spent the latter part of her life in acts of piety and mortification.
Alazzi.—Leo Alazzi was a native of Chio, acquired a great share of reputation for learning, and wrote a great number of books; but his taste and judgment were not thought equal to his erudition. He died at Rome in 1669, in the eighty-third year of his age.
Graziani.—Jerome Graziani, count of Sarzana, distinguished himself by his poetical genius. He wrote a heroic poem, entitled “Cleopatra,” and another on the conquests of Granada, together with a collection of odes and sonnets. He was appointed secretary of state, and afterward created count of Sarzana by Francis, duke of Modena, to whose family he had been always zealously attached.
Viviani.—Vincent Viviani was a disciple of the famous Galileo, and soon distinguished himself by a sublime genius for geometry. He undertook to restore, by conjecture, the fifth book of “Apollonius de Maximis et de Minimis,” which was lost. While he was engaged in this undertaking, the famous Borelli found in the grand duke’s library at Florence, an Arabic manuscript, with this Latin title: “Apollonii Pergæi Conicorum Libri Octo.” This, with the grand duke’s permission, he carried to Rome to be translated by Abraham Ecchellensis, Maronite professor of the Oriental tongues. Viviani, in the meantime, without the least communication with this translator, published his restoration by conjecture; and when the translation of the Arabic manuscript was finished, it appeared that he had not only restored all that was in the fifth book of Apollonius, but carried his researches much farther on the same subject. He afterward restored by the same art of divination or conjecture, three books of the ancient geometrician, Aristæus, which had been lost.
Vossius.—Dionysius Vossius, who translated into Latin “Reidanius’s Annals,” and was nominated professor of history and eloquence at Derpt in Livonia, died young at Amsterdam, in 1633. Isaac Vossius, the son of Gerard John Vossius, was also a man of great erudition, and received a very considerable present from Louis XIV., but he was no historian. He came over to England in the reign of Charles II., and died canon of Windsor. Matthew Vossius, the brother of Dionysius, wrote in Latin five books of the “Annals of Holland and Zealand;” but it does not appear that he received either pension or present from the king of France; whereas the letter of Colbert to Isaac Vossius is still extant.
Racine.—John Racine, celebrated for his tragedies, which are preferred to those of the great Corneille, in point of correctness, tenderness, and regularity. Corneille was more sublime; Racine more interesting; the one commanded admiration; the other maintained an empire over all the passions of the heart. Corneille was living, and admired by all France, when Racine made his first appearance as a tragic writer, and acquired the applause of the whole kingdom, without diminishing the fame of his great contemporary.
Quinault.—Philip Quinault acquired great reputation by his comedies and operas, notwithstanding the satirical couplet of Boileau:
To the censure of this poet, Quinault made no reply. On the contrary, he courted his friendship, and visited him often, in order to take his advice concerning his works; but he never spoke a syllable of Boileau’s own performances, and this affected silence piqued him extremely. “His only reason,” said Despréaux, “for soliciting my acquaintance was that he might have an opportunity to talk of his own verses; but he never says a word of mine.”
Fléchier.—Esprit Fléchier, bishop of Nimes, rendered himself famous by writing panegyrics on the saints, and by composing funeral orations, one of the most celebrated of which is that which he pronounced on the great Turenne. He was a prelate of uncommon erudition, pious, moderate, and extremely charitable.
Chapelain.—John Chapelain was in very high reputation for his poetical genius, under the ministry of the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Balzac has praised him on many occasions. He wrote one ode to Cardinal Richelieu, which is generally admired; but his poem “De la Pucelle” was the ruin of all his poetical fame; and produced the following severe distich:
Chapelain, in the midst of his success as an author, had the misfortune to fall under the ridicule of Boileau; as did his contemporary, Cotin, canon of Bayeux, who, though a good scholar was a wretched preacher, and a miserable poet.
Guez.—John Louis Guez, lord of Balzac, was patronized as a man of genius by Richelieu, esteemed the most eloquent man in France, and the great restorer of the French language.
Voiture.—Vincent Voiture was patronized by the duke of Orleans, brother of Louis XIV. He distinguished himself by his writings, both in prose and verse, which were much admired for their purity of style, gayety, gallantry, and elegant turn of thought. He was the son of a vintner of Amiens; of an amorous disposition, and much addicted to play.
Boileau.—Nicholas Boileau, sieur Despréaux, is so well known by his poetical works as to need no further description.
Lulli.—John Baptist Lulli was a native of Florence, though he is styled the father of French music. He it was who introduced operas into France, and his compositions were universally admired. St. Évremond says he was a perfect master of the passions, and understood the human heart much better than the authors whose works he set to music.
[1 ] This anecdote is attested by the memoirs of La Porte, page 255, and we there see that the king had taken an aversion to the cardinal; that that minister, though his relative, and intrusted with the charge of his education, had taken no care to improve him, and had often left him in want of common necessaries. He adds much heavier accusations, which reflect dishonor on the cardinal’s memory; but they do not appear to be proved, and no accusation should be admitted without it.
[1 ] Cardinal Richelieu had already given balls, but they were without taste, as were all entertainments before his time. The French, who have now carried the art of dancing to perfection, had only a few Spanish dances in the minority of Louis XIV., as the sarabande, the courante, etc.
[1 ] A famous surgeon, son-in-law to the physician above mentioned, is witness of what I have said, and Mr. Bernaville, successor of St. Mars, has often confirmed it.