3 December 2020

The Gilded Balustrade:
An Architectural Exception at the Court of Louis XIV

University of Copenhagen/gta Institute, ETH Zurich

Anonymous - La Chambre du Roy, Versailles, 1890

The paper aims to explore the role that the balustrade of the king’s bedchamber in Versailles played within the lever du Roi’s private ceremonial during Louis XIV’s reign from 1683 to 1715.
Within the court studies, Giesey points out how the shift from the itinerant to the steady order of the French court affected the frequency and the nature of the public ceremonials (Giesey 1987). Specifically, under Louis XIV the execution of the public ceremonials held to legitimise the authority of the king’s power (i.e., the royal entrée and the lit de justice) saw a drastic reduction of their public exposure in favour of a “private” performance of the royal mastery. In this context, the lever’s ceremonial was fully developed under the Sun King. From the initial staging at the Louvre to the mature mise en scène at the Chambre du Roy in Versailles (1701), the architectural setting acted as the signifier for the symbolic spectacle interpreted by the king within his court.
As demonstrated by Kantorowicz, the lever’s celebrated fashion —far from being a mere mundane exhibition— was the Western acme of the solar imagery’s long evolution. This latter was adopted in Roman times, then assimilated by the Byzantines emperors, again re-enacted in Christian liturgy, before emerging in later Middle Ages when the French kings “were adorned with the customary epithet of Christ himself, Sol iustitiae” (Kantorowicz 1963).
The particular architectural feature placed in front of the king’s bed that played a fundamental role within the lever’s ceremonial was the balustrade.
In this respect, I argue that the balustrade cannot be explained as an incidental invention that occurred in the Florentine Quattrocento (Davies and Hemsoll 1983). Nor its flourishing circulation as an ornament, both in secular and religious buildings, shall be attributed only to the enormous popularity of the turning among generations of kings (Connors 1990).
Conversely, I claim that the balustrade’s appropriation as a liturgical device within the French king’s lever belongs to a deep and subterranean history, whose fragmented trajectory emerged and found its raison d’être in the privatisation of the public ceremonial perfected by Louis XIV.
The balustrade showed its tide connection with the sovereign power: it is a growth in the horizontal surface of the king’s lever’s ceremonial stage: it exposed the ban as the originating paradigm of the sovereignty. Thus, the balustrade was not an innocent architectural feature. On the contrary, it marked Louis’ sovereign status, and it stood in between that “zone of indistinction” (Agamben 1995) that defined the political and the private bodies of the Sun King within the court of France.
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