In the spring of 1665, Gian Lorenzo Bernini arrived in Paris having been summoned by the court of Louis XIV. The Louvre was to be remodeled so as to better reflect the magnificence of Louis le Grand, and the great Italian master was just the man they needed for the job. Painter, poet, architect, and sculptor, Bernini had long since proved his worth in his native land, leaving his mark especially in Rome, where he worked for a succession of seventeenth-century popes to help create the baroque capital we know today.
His time in Paris would be frustrating in the extreme. Bernini did not get along well with First Minister Colbert. Bernini was an artist, Colbert, a politician. They clashed right from the beginning over the specifications for the upcoming project. Colbert fretted over the practical details: sewers and traffic patterns, security and climate. Bernini, ever the purist, focused on aesthetics – in this case, Italian aesthetics. Their collaboration did not last past the fall. Bernini returned home in October. His plans for the Louvre were not accepted.
During his stay in Paris, however, Bernini did have another project to occupy his time. Starting in June and armed with chisel and auger, Bernini transformed a piece of fragile marble into a likeness of King Louis. They had met for the first time in early June and sat together a dozen or so times to allow the Italian sculptor to reproduce the minutest details of the royal visage. Sometimes those details took the King by surprise: Did he really have a crooked nose? Was it necessary to show the wart on his face? Compromises were made and the bust took shape.
When the sculpture was done, it was displayed at the Louvre, then at the Tuileries, then in the salon de Diane at the Palace of Versailles where it remains to this day. If you haven’t the time to go to Versailles to see the original, come to Québec City to see the replica. Louis reigns regal over his Place royale in the Lower Town. Bernini’s artistry shines most brilliantly in the morning sun of a Québec summer.