the Sun King's eternal decline

The Sun King before his palace at Versailles

The Sun King before his palace at Versailles

"Actually Louis XIV was a few inches shorter than me," Marion said. No one had registered her height until then, the group having been more engrossed in her overall charm—so attractive was her face, and so dainty her English in her hurried French accent. She was pointing to the Rigaud portrait of the Sun King, painted when the ruler was 63. His fluffy wig added considerable height on top, and his shoes lifted him comparably so from below. "See his legs!" Marion said. "There's a problem. They're not an old man's legs!" That was the vein of the visit to the Versailles Palace with young Marion.

Conscious of own my legs now, I was happy to note that I was nevertheless free of envy of a wealthy man, the so-wealthy Louis XIV. He was reviled in his life by his subjects, Marion repeated what they teach in school, but perhaps his subjects had no room in the king's consciousness, which was taken up with the intrigues in the palace, big wars, and the task of building and forever improving his chateau, ever to be celebrated as the largest house in the world. Now tour guides mock Louis XIV every day in his own home, and entertain with their gibes thousands of plebeians who trample his floors and run their fingers on his marble, and see his bedroom and the private rooms of his women. They lean on the railings and squat on the stairs, and they use the palace toilets, and eat and drink in high and not-so-high eating establishments that have come up in his place. During the long years he took to have this chateau built, did the king at any time imagine the sacrilege that was to come?

The Hall of Mirrors in the Versailles Palace

The Hall of Mirrors in the Versailles Palace


I did everything the other tourists did, though I took a lot less pictures, almost all of them with the iPhone. And in the evening when I passed the square before the Hotel de Ville, on my way to dinner, amid imaginings of modern-day lords of Paris I thought of Louis IV's kingship, which also involved dressing and undressing before a crowd every day. I thought of Louis IV at the Hotel de Ville, because it was where his grandfather's assassin was quartered.

People had different feelings for Louis XIV's grandfather, King Henry IV, said to be a much different sovereign, compassionate, in touch with his subjects, and genial in court. After his death they erected a statue of him at Pont Neuf, which the revolutionaries pulled down during their time, but his was the first statue France resurrected after the revolution had run its course.

Louis XIV ruled 72 years, the longest of any European monarch, and died in bed of gangrene. The reign of Henry IV lasted 21 years and ended when a dagger pierced his ribcage on a Parisian street. The assassin was no hero to the people, who so loved their king. Fearing he would be lynched, the police whisked him away into the Conciergerie. After due process, they brought the killer into the square before Hotel de Ville, and tied each limb to a horse and sent the four horses flying in four directions. The man's name was Ravaille, and he achieved lasting fame also for himself—and a certain usefulness. Scholars and other intelligent people have at various times been trying to comprehend the mind of the criminal through understanding the mind of Ravaille.

ravaillac-quartered.jpg

François Ravaillac was quartered for killing King Henry IV of France