The Equestrian Statue of King Louis XIV is a late sculpture designed and partially executed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Bernini first discussed the project while in France in the mid-1660s, but it did not start until later in the decade, when back in Rome. It was not completed until 1684, and then shipped to Paris in 1685. Louis XIV of France was extremely unhappy with the end result and had it placed in a corner of the gardens of the royal palace at Versailles. Eventually, the sculpture was modified by François Girardon and altered into an equestrian sculpture of the ancient Roman hero Marcus Curtius A print of the sculpture, mistakenly identified as being by Bernini's father Pietro, exists in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
In another piece of royal propaganda, Bernini prepared an equestrian statue of the King dressed as a Roman General. The terracotta model of the piece is above. At the last minute, Bernini decided to carve the king smiling. Louis was furious when he saw the final piece and wanted to destroy it. Thankfully cooler-headed advisers counseled the King against this and had the face of the rider re-carved as a Greek General to “correct” the issue. Still a somewhat disappointing sculpture for Louis XIV, the altered statue was relegated to a far section of the gardens of Versailles, the King’s palace at the time.
About a hundred years later, revolutionaries stormed Versailles destroying images of the kings. Bernini’s statue was spared because it obviously no longer depicted Louis XIV. However, because of its placement at a far corner of the gardens, it continued to sit unnoticed for centuries.
In the mid-1980’s, I. M. Pei was selected to re-design the courtyard of the Louvre. To fit with his modern aesthetic and dramatic plans, he wanted all the statues and monuments removed from the palace courtyard, with one exception. I. M. Pei loves Bernini’s work and as a tribute, asked for a copy of the altered Louis XIV equestrian statue to be placed in the courtyard. Thus one of the few works designed by Bernini and executed in France by him (with his workshop) could be incorporated into the greatest art museum in the country. The original stone statue remains at Versailles, although now it is inside and protected.
Already in the shadow of the Louvre’s beautiful architecture and massive art collection, many visitors probably don’t notice the Bernini in the courtyard. Even fewer people probably realize that this beautiful piece survived an angry monarch, a violent mob and potential oblivion to come to a place of honor today.
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