The Seventeenth Century Lady Interview with Richard Ballard, the author of Louis XIV’s Architect: Louis Le Vau

The architecture created during the seventeenth century in France, in particular, during the reign of the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV, is some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful ever made. Today, I am joined by the historian Richard Ballard, who has written a biography of Louis XIV’s Architect: Louis Le Vau, which was published in December 2023 by Pen & Sword History.

‘Louis XIV’s Architect: Louis Le Vau’ by Richard Ballard, as seen on display in a bookshop in the Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France.

AZ: Hello Mr Ballard and welcome to The Seventeenth Century Lady! You’ve had a long career not only as a history teacher at some of the UK’s most prestigious schools but you’ve also been a historian of France as well. Were you always attracted to French history? Did anything in particular spark your interest?

RB: My earliest memory about being interested in French history dates from 1940 when I was getting on for four years old. I had heard on the wireless, about the sinking of the French fleet at Oran.  I was out for a walk with my father, and asked him, who had served in the Royal Navy for eleven years, to explain why.  He told me that the captain of his ship on a “world’s cruise” in 1923, was now an admiral, and had been sent to Oran by “Mr Churchill” to offer the French admiral the choice, either of joining forces with the British to avoid Marshal Petain allying his fleet with Hitler or being disabled.  The result was that the British opened fire and French ships were sunk and sailors were killed, though many of them did come over fairly soon. Then, after D-Day in 1944, one of my aunts bought me a soldier suit that many boys were wearing as a patriotic gesture, but, when she got it home, she found it was French. My father was consulted about whether I could wear it or not. With a smile, he assured us all that I could because General de Gaulle had taken over from Petain who was in prison and the French troops were advancing on Berlin with the allies. Then, after May 1945, I wanted to know why the government in France changed so many times, and my father quietly explained it all based on his Newspaper reading.  In fact, my interest in all history was my father’s gift to me.  He had been an ERA (Engine Room Artificer) in the navy, but he had swallowed Cassell’s Illustrated History of England whole when he was a boy and passed on what he knew and what fascinated him.

At my state grammar school, we were taught the A Level History syllabus for 1955 by an inspired Welsh member of the Labour Party who admired Aneurin Bevan; a large part of it concerned France in the period after Waterloo until the Revolutionary Year of 1848, and then a special paper n Napoleon III.  When I became a teacher myself, I was required to teach the origins, the course and some of the effects of 1789, and was absolutely hooked.

When I had retired and was living in the Charente-Maritime from 2003 onwards, I found that, despite the tendency of English textbooks, there was many a journée révolutionnaire in the provinces as well as in Paris, and many a local revolutionary leader as well. With the support of brilliant researchers in the town archives of Saintes, I wrote a book (The Unseen Terror) which I was lucky enough to have published under the auspices of the same commissioning editor as took on this Le Vau biography. This same editor, who had become a friend by then, encouraged me to write A New Dictionary of the French Revolution with English and Anglophone sixth-form students in mind. Then, since I lived not far from Bordeaux, in the countryside overlooking the Gironde estuary where I imagined the English wine fleet of 250 ships arriving and departing twice every year in spring and autumn, I wrote the next one about the battle of Castillon in 1453, which expanded into England, France and Aquitaine: from Victory to Defeat in the Hundred Years War.

By that time, five years ago, I decided that I was living too far away from my children and grandchildren, so I moved to Versailles where a friend had found me a two-roomed flat, very convenient for a widower on his own only 400 yards (I am still a British citizen!) from the Chateau. In the chateau bookshop, I asked for a biography of Le Vau, the architect whom Louis XIV used for his first major expansion of the chateau, I was told that it was “yet to be written,” I offered my services, not expecting to be taken seriously.  But I was, and I have explained what happened in the Acknowledgements in my book. The result was that I was given a privileged position at a table in the reading room of the curators’ library, which gives access to all the archives of France and their book collections, and now, Louis XIV’s Architect, Louis Le Vau has seen the light of day! “What larks!

AZ: Amazing! Your book focuses on the life of Louis Le Vau, a major French Baroque architect of the 17th century who worked for King Louis XIV of France. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was self-taught, which I find very commendable. What about him inspired you to write this book?

RB: You have pin-pointed what I found most interesting. Louis was the eldest son born into a family of craftsmen in the Paris building trade, the menfolk of which gathered each morning in the Place de Greve near the Hotel de Ville to be taken on for one of the building sites in the city at the time of the large scale urbanisation of the city which was taking place ever since Henri IV established the new Bourbon dynasty at the end of the Wars of Religion.  The date usually given for that is 1598. Louis’s father, also called Louis, was a stone cutter, but an ambitious one. By the time young Louis had finished at the parish school, where he acquired his elegant handwriting and his thirst for information, he was actively involved in the family small business in which his father bought small plots, developed them, and rented them out so that he could build one or two more.  The boy’s and then the young man’s skills as a designer of buildings was recognised by the larger contractors with whom his father associated, and he began to collect his library of architectural books, like Vitruvius and Palladio, and especially a recent one in French by someone called Le Muet, which was all about the style of houses currently being built in France. Several of his early works are modelled on illustrations in that book.  The clever boy was learning his craft by practising it, and his father’s associates gave him commissions among the new class of middle-class financiers and speculators who bought the right to collect national taxes so as to lend the king money for the financing of the state for its wars and public buildings, like the Tuileries and the Louvre. His most significant early work was done in association with Charles Le Brun: the Hotel Lambert, on the ile Saint-Louis that was then being developed from a green field site.

He bought the plot next to Lambert’s to house his own family, having married and become a bourgeois himself, but still in a rather perilous financial condition.  He changed the family name from Le Veau to Le Vau, since “to play the calf” was referred to in a current French dictionary as “to play the fool”, and Le Vau had all the connotations of a pleasant countryside landscape of valleys. He also developed an elaborate signature to append to contracts. He was taken on as assistant to the king’s First Architect, Jacques Lemercier, then working at the Louvre, and, when Lemercier died in 1654, was appointed First Architect in his own right, taken on my Mazarin’s deputy Colbert to design the new royal apartments at Vincennes to be occupied briefly in 1661 by Louis XIV and his bride, the Spanish infanta, Marie Therese, not long before Mazarin died and the king established his absolute monarchy. Through Colbert he came to know the Superintendent of the Finances, Nicolas Fouquet, and he commissioned him to design the chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which he intended to offer to the king.  The king refused the offer, and imprisoned Fouquet for life on suspicion of treason.  Le Vau was taken back into the king’s service to expand Versailles. It seemed that he had arrived when he was also employed again at the Louvre and was given a grace and favour apartment in a townhouse to the east of the planned site for the famous colonnade, of which he was most likely the designer.  We have to say “designer” during Le Vau’s lifetime, since, before the foundation of the Real Academy of Architects in the king’s name by Colbert in 1671, there was no recognized profession of architect as such.  The word was in use, but had no real meaning, despite the title of my book!

AZ: What’s your favourite example of his work?

RB: What he designed between Vaux-le-Vicomte, which remains a baroque work with traditional French high roofs, and the beginning of the expansion of Versailles was the Memorial raised for Mazarin and paid for out of his enormous fortune. It was to be a new college of the University of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine in full view from the king’s new apartments in the Louvre which Le Vau had also designed. This was to be called The College of Four Nations, and was thoroughly in the baroque style, with a domed church, curved wings on either side of it intended for use as luxury shops and accommodation for the royal academies’ meeting rooms, study bedrooms for the sixty boys (at fourteen when they arrived they were too young to be called students) from noble families in the four regions that had been brought into the French kingdom to become Frenchmen as a result of the military actions of Mazarin’s years as Prime Minister. A particular feature of the building complex (or the complex building) was to be the library, to house Mazarin’s collection of books – 38,000 of them – to be made available to researchers without payment to Parisian intellectuals – a feature that was accepted by the men of 1789 who kept it going. When Le Vau died, the project was faithfully continued by his apprentice and draughtsman Francois D’Orbay, who had been sent to Rome beforehand, a journey and sojourn paid for by money advanced for the work at Versailles. Entry to these buildings is still free on the days when the Institute of France, Napoleon’s creation, is not in session.  It is a beautiful calm space.  For reasons yet to be explained, Le Vau’s reputation was under a shadow when he died, but he was reinstated in national respect on the 300th anniversary of his death (on 21st October 1970) with speeches and a concert conducted by the famous Nadine Boulanger.

The author’s drawing of Mazarin’s Library at the College of Four Nations.

AZ: I love the aesthetic of Vaux-le-Vicomte, though I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit in person. Someday, perhaps! What do you think he’d make of more recent styles of architecture? For example, Brutalism? I know, it’s the opposite extreme, but I think it’s rather fun to think of such things.

RB: He loved detail and wanted to use the features of the baroque style.  Colbert forbade him to do so at Vincennes because of the excessive cost of providing walls that would set blocks of shade amid the light stone. The interplay of light and shade – chiaroscuro – was a principal feature of Baroque. It was, however, given full licence at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Mazarin’s college.  So, the brutalist style would have had little appeal for him. He might have liked Gaudi’s Holy Family cathedral in Barcelona, the neo-Baroque buildings in Australia at Melbourne or works like Portsmouth Guildhall or the Liver Building on the Liverpool waterfront. I don’t think he would have admired Corvoisier’s work, or the tower blocks in any modern city, particularly in the Paris faubourgs. He was for Corinthian capitals, colossal columns, intense decoration, as appeared on his final work, the Porcelain Trianon at Versailles, built to please the king’s mistress Mme de Montespan, with its elaborate chinoiserie which was left to decay in harsh weather when she had fallen into disfavour, and was replaced by a new Trianon in coloured marble, partly designed by the king himself when its architect, Hardouin-Mansart, was away to take a cure at Vichy.

AZ: I would have to agree with him, as I find most 20th-century architecture to be rather ugly. That’s a whole other story! In the course of research many writers find themselves going down several rabbit holes; was there anything you found particularly interesting that you would like to investigate further?

RB: Yes. The baroque style as manifested in papal Rome and other Italian centres, Spain under the absolutist Philip IV and his minister Olivares, the New World of Peru and Mexico, even the Netherlands in Rubens’s time, and Wren’s London, the Habsburg lands, with the shock registered on the faces of defeated Protestants when they found pagan deities painted on their church ceilings. The important question is whether the style which Louis XIV adopted for his buildings was baroque or not.  The answer turns on the visit paid by Gianlorenzo Bernini to Paris in 1665 with a view to completing the Louvre.  Bernini left without doing anything of value except the portrait bust of the king now in the Diana salon at Versailles. His equestrian statue of the king was changed into that of the ancient Roman general, Marcus Curtius, and set up as far from the chateau as possible while remaining in the park.

AZ: What’s your writing routine? Do you listen to music or enjoy silence while you write? A little French Baroque, perhaps?

RB: Having been retired for so long, I don’t take kindly to routine, and I work as seems best, whether in full night time (a habit I got into as a teacher because I didn’t like marking and so did not spend daylight on doing it!) or the full light of day. I do listen to music when it seems appropriate, and the European seventeenth and eighteenth century is, indeed, my favourite source for it, starting with Monteverdi and reaching towards Mozart, going via Lully, Couperin, and Rameau. A new enthusiasm, introduced by a friend, is the master of the music at the Versailles Royal Chapel, Michel Delalande, the last one before the revolution.

AZ: Oh, I love all that music, too! Delalande is so underrated – but hopefully someone people reading this will go online and listen to some of his music. Are you working on a new history project? If so, can you share with us what the topic is?

RB: Yes, the topic is the question of what label, if we need one, we should put on the style adopted for the buildings of Absolute Monarchy in France.  This is particularly vital in these days of the polarisation of the world’s governmental systems between those of authoritarianism and those which try to maintain democracy. Members of my ageing generation who grew up in times of both hot and cold war are virtually obsessed by this.  We worry about what our grandchildren might have to cope with. It seems, in spite of everything, that we have not remembered our history.

AZ: Lots to think about there, thank you, and thanks so much for your time!

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