I stood before the magnificence of King Louis XIV and swooned.
I had found Our Man, our Mississippi Gulf Coast official “founder” who until now was only the stuff of stuffy history books. Now he stood before me, painted nearly life-sized, the portrait hanging in a room of gold guild and Renaissance ceiling murals that continue to prove France’s greatness and appreciation of the arts in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Lest you think “swooned” is an exaggeration, study the photograph that accompanies today’s Sunday missive. I am swooning, or swirling ... or something.
The photographer, my niece Heidi, claims the image she captured of me in front of the Sun King is a freak of photography, for she did nothing special to the photo. We were too mesmerized by our surroundings at the Musée du Louvre to contrive trickery.
Quelle chance! How lucky we were to spend a week in Paris. We were three first-timers to the City of Lights, myself and my two fantastic California nieces. Heidi and Erica are professional 30-somethings who humored their Aunt Kat when I explained my search for Louis Quatorze, the 14th in a line of 18 French kings named Louis, pronounced Lou-ee.
For me, they shortened their own search for the perfect French coffee or European beer. We also knew not to attempt to experience all that Paris has to offer in one week, an impossibility in a city overflowing with culture, history, architecture, museums and The Seine river that divides the city.
A Right and Left Paris
We stayed at a Left Bank hotel near Notre-Dame Cathedral and in the St. Germain district noted for its universities and art schools. On our fourth day, we found Louis XIV on the Right Bank, at the Louvre, the world’s largest museum that draws 8 million visitors a year.
The Louvre would require weeks to properly see so much art and artifacts from pre-history to the 21st century, but we did manage a memorable day of sensory overload in the giant museum.
Getting close enough to see Leonardo DaVinci’s early 16th century “Mona Lisa” is a story unto itself. Suffice it to say I have never been pushed and shoved so much by cell-phone wielders intent on selfies with the Italian lady and her storied smile.
Laughing at the absurdity of so many foreign visitors ignoring normal Parisian politeness, we continued my search for Louis. We gasped in unison when entering the Gallerie d’Apollon, a room commissioned by Our Man Louis. The guilded carvings and ceiling frescoes are centered by display cases filled with jewels, including a diamond as big as an egg, alongside some of the finest enamel and glass-work ever.
The Apollo gallery is intoxicating with history and art. This is where I found several paintings of Louis, both gigantic and small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. By today’s standards, we’d think him odd, with his long, curled hair and flowing finery. But these images in his era are of one of Europe’s longest reigning kings, a monarch crowned when he was 4 ½.
From palace to museum
Our Louis had much to do with turning a former king’s residence into a national treasure for art and artifacts, some plundered in war, some commissioned or paid for, some confiscated from the church.
The Louvre was built in the late 12th century as a palace fortress, but when urbanization came to this capital city and it was no longer needed for defense, the Louvre was turned into the main palace residence of several generations of kings. Our Louis had a different idea in the 1680s when he rejuvenated the royal chateau of Versaille and moved his family and royal court there.
Versaille is considered Louis XIV’s finest achievement, but he also turned the Louvre into a place to display the fabulous royal art collection and start academies for painting and sculpture. The French Assembly and succeeding kings and governments have continued the tradition, enlarging the complex and adding more world wonders.
Although there is so much beauty to see in the 652,000 square feet devoted to the permanent collection, Louis’ Gallerie d’Apollon, remains a standout.
With his patronage, such greats as the Boulle family, Jean Baptiste Colbert, Eugene Delacroix and others did their frescoes, marquetry and wood-working magic. Louis commissioned Charles Le Brun to decorate the rooms of this wing in a solar theme, to honor the Sun King.
Louis and Apollo were sun ‘gods’
And Our Man Louis did shine, in Europe and here.
I think we on the Mississippi Coast hear more about the LeMoyne brothers than we do Louis XIV, who sent the French Canadian brothers, Iberville and Bienville, to assure his claim of La Louisiane in the New World. Several years earlier Rene-Robert Cavelier LaSalle had claimed for France the vast land that would eventually make up 13 states, but LaSalle never successfully colonized.
So in 1699 the the LeMoyne brothers, flying under the the Sun King’s fleur-de-lis, arrived to accomplish the feat. They anchored off Ship Island and came ashore, likely somewhere near the current Edgewater Mall.
The brothers built the first French fort, Maurepas, in Ocean Springs, and named this newfound region Biloxi after local Indians. That fort was abandoned when the French moved to Mobile Bay area to be closer to Spanish claims.
Soon the French were back at present-day Biloxi with another fort before settling on New Orleans in 1722 as the final French capital on the Gulf. That was seven years after Louis XIV died.
I look at that photograph of me standing in front of his painted portrait and I realize that it is à juste titre, with good reason, that my head spins from all the history and connections.
NOTE: Next week, we will learn more about the fascinating Sun King.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.