Happy 400th Birthday Mr Silvestre… Louis should throw you a party

Serendipity strikes!  Last Thursday  just as I was finishing off last week’s post about trompe l’oeil paintings I saw a newsflash on a history website that it was the 400th birthday of Israel Silvestre that very day.   That probably won’t mean much to most people but since I’d just included some of his engravings in that post, I thought I ought  to know more.  Unfortunately it takes longer than 36 hours to put one of these posts together from scratch, so with apologies that its 8 days late…


But given that I’ve been giving over August’s  posts to Silly Season stories how could I link this distinguished artist to something a bit unusual?   The answer was his patron…

….who  was none other than  Louis XIV, and while no-one could really accuse Louis of being silly he did rather like fancy dress…and at times had pretensions to be Apollo or Jupiter.

In the early days of his long reign the young Louis XIV had to endure a long civil war and then,  rule by his mother and her chief advisor Cardinal Mazarin. When the cardinal died in 1661 Louis finally took full control of the government and began his move to absolute personal power.  Famously this began with a grand party thrown in his honour by his ambitious Finance Minister Nicholas Fouquet at Vaux le Vicomte.

Fouquet  had commissioned the architect  Le Vau, the painter Le Brun and the gardener Le Nôtre to rebuild his house and layout new gardens. These were recorded in a series of engravings by Israel Silvestre. When the work was finished Fouquet invited the king to visit and on 17 August 1661 he laid on a  dazzling display including a new play by Moliere. Fouquet’s plan backfired. It was too magnificent a show for the king who must have felt in danger of being overshadowed  Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life.

Voltaire was later to sum up what happened: “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody.” Vaux was confiscated and stripped of whatever Louis fancied, while the three masterminds  were  hired to work on Louis’s new project: the chateau and gardens at Versailles. Silvestre wasn’t far behind them.

Although building work to enlarge the existing chateau at Versailles didn’t really get under way until 1668 Louis had ordered Le Notre  to begin work almost immediately on  the transformation of the gardens and parkland, and it was the completion of the first stage of this  that became the excuse for Louis to have a party and, of course, outdo Fouquet.





The official account begins: “The King wished to honour the two queens [his mother Anne of Austria and his wife Marie-Thérèse] and give all the court the pleasure of several extraordinary  fetes, in a place which had been ornamented to the highest level possible for a house in the country: he chose Versailles…a chateau that could be called an enchanted palace.” [my translation]

Ostensibly in honour of his mother  and his wife  it was equally an opportunity to honour his mistress Louise de La Vallière, but probably most importantly it was to be a statement about Louis grasp of absolute power and his new determination to equate himself with the very state of France: the first sign of the famous phrase L’etat c’est moi  by the Sun King.

The party was to be no conventional one.    Instead it was to  last a week and include displays of all the arts that most interested Louis including music, dance, theatre,  swordsmanship and horsemanship.  There were also to be races, poetry readings, a lottery  and visits to the brand new royal menagerie.

News about the celebration was to be used to impress not just the French but all of Europe, and so, to spread the word as widely as possible Louis ordered a book. Not a handcrafted special edition with limited circulation but one that was to be accessible to everyone.  Like a souvenir programme  today it had a long account of all the  events and was, by the standards of the day, well illustrated with engravings based on drawings  by Israel Silvestre.

A second visual manuscript account survives too. It was drawn for the king  by a Monsieur de Bizancourt and although it mainly concentrates on the poems and the heraldry of individual participants there are also some views of some of the scenes.

Louis entrusted the organisation to his  loyal courtier, Duc de St Aignan. He in turn pulled all the strings with the royal administration to get things done, but in particular he turned to Carlo Vigarani  an Italian scenic designer who was “ingénieur du roi” and then “intendant des plaisirs du roi”.

The  theme of the first 3 days was  Les Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée – or the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island – from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso  a now effectively forgotten poem dating from the early 16thc but then a well known  source of inspiration for drama and music.  The section chosen  was set in the Palace of Alcine a sorceress who held  a brave knight, Roger,  prisoner with his companions  through the sheer power of her beauty.  Basically it was a story about the power of love and it gave everyone, but especially Louis, the chance to dress up. 

It was a fairy-tale come to life. The gardens newly laid out by Le Notre were illuminated while orchestras played  as the entertainment started with  a  magnificent parade.  Heralds  led the way followed by pages, and squires, who carried  banners and shields on which were written laudatory and romantic verses. Next came competitors in the races and then knights on horseback.  Then came Louis himself dressed in lavish fire-coloured garments for  the leading role of Roger.   It was reported that “all the diamonds belonging to the crown sparkled upon his clothes, and the horse which he rode.”   He was followed by all the leading courtiers equally magnificently dressed who were undertaking the other main parts.

You’ll know that Louis was often depicted as the Sun King or Apollo.  This was an association that had only begun around 1660 but very quickly it caught on. Here because the the king was playing Roger he couldn’t be Apollo himself so  was  followed by the chariot of the sun, eighteen feet high, fifteen broad, and twenty-four long. In turn it was followed by representations of the four historical ages – gold, silver, brass, and iron-  the celestial signs, the seasons, and the hours who then performed a ballet.

Spring pranced in on a Spanish horse surrounded by dancing gardeners. Summer, on the back of an elephant supervised a group of  acrobat harvesters…

while Autumn, astride a camel, was followed by grape pickers…

Finally Winter  who was precariously perched on the back of  a bear was accompanied by a group of old men carrying  bowls of ice – which was, of course, a rarity in May.



This was all played out in an open air theatre with tiers of benches  for  the 600 guests. T here were triumphal arches  through which the procession, and later the performers,   entered and left.    

Apparently another 3000 people turned up to try to gain entrance to see the extravaganza but obviously had to be content to be witnesses simply to the arrival of the invitees.

Next came  a  carrousel, a kind of hangover of a mediaeval tournament that saw riders tilting with lances and and trying  to unhook a ring from its stand.  Louis had already held a similar tournament, next to the Louvre in Paris,  a couple of years earlier in front of 15000 spectators and that too had been recorded by Silvestre.










At nightfall four thousand flaming torches  illuminated the park and supper  tables which were also  lit up by 500 chandeliers in the arcading behind them.

A mountain covered with trees trundled in carrying the gods Pan and Diana who delivered  exotic dishes to the tables, while more food was bought in by servants dressed as the seasons, mythological characters such as  fauns dryads, or peasants.   While they were eating ranks of singers and musicians played and sang to entertain everyone.







At nightfall on the second day, on another stage this time set up on the Royal Way, the main avenue through the gardens, Louis XIV once again appeared as  Roger.

Louis was renowned for his ability to dance and so he took the lead in a 5 act comic ballet La Princesse d’Élide which had been specially written for the occasion by Molière, with musical interludes and songs  by Lully. It was their first collaboration  and  included lots of shepherds,  shepherdesses and  animals dancing and singing.



On the third day, it was back to the palace of Alcine. A leading Parisian actress  Madame Du Parc took centre stage as the witch in her palace, which stood  on an artificial island  in the lake and surrounded by whales, sea monsters and nymphs.  Once again there was a ballet.

The climax came when Roger was  given a ring that belonged to  his only truelove.  The moment he puts it on his finger the spell is broken.  There are claps  of thunder and  flashes of lightning followed by a gigantic fireworks display orchestrated by Vigarini  that set the sky ablaze …and of course Alcine’s palace went  up in smoke.


On the following days (10-13 May), there were  of all kinds of other entertainments, which unfortunately  were recorded not for posterity – probably because Louis did not play the central role – but they included races, a lottery, and performances of more  Molière plays, including the first staging of Tartuffe, and visits to the new royal menagerie which had only just opened a 20 minute walk through the park from the palace.

I’m going to finish with a brief account of  the life of the 400th birthday boy.

Orphaned at the age of 10 he was brought up in Paris by his uncle Israel Henriet,  an  excellent draftsman who was associated with the court and became dessinateur  du Roi  or royal draughtsman/drawer who even gave lessons to  Louis XIII himself.  He also ran a profitable print-sellers business on the side.

The young Israel became his uncle’s apprentice and was obviously soon good enough to make an independent living from his etchings and prints.  It led him to travel around France in search of suitable subjects, and then when aged only 19 he set off for Italy to see and copy old master paintings. Two more trips to Italy followed in 1643-4 and 1653 and his sketches became the subject were turned into etchings which were sold separately or in series of albums of views, rather like the later Italian  vedute  which I’ve written about elsewhere on here.

After his uncle died in 1661 Israel inherited his stock which included the printing plates for much of the work of  two other leading printmakers  Stefano della Bella. and Jacques Callot. This bought him a substantial income, and  the following year, at the age of 41, he married. and also succeeded his uncle as   dessinateur et graveur du Roi [draughtsman and engraver to Louis XIV]. This first royal appointment was followed by further advancement at court  in 1668 which entitled him to studio space in the palace of the Louvre,   then in 1670 by membership of the Royl Academy of Painting and Sculpture, before finally  in 1673 he became  drawing master to the heir to the throne, Louis the Grand Dauphin.

Silvestre was a talented and prolific artist, and when he died in 1691 he left a large collection of drawings, and well over 1000 different etchings and prints, mainly topographical views of palaces and gardens in both France and Italy,  to his five surviving children.  They remained in the family until   1810 when they were sold at auction. Its quite likely that any search for topographical drawings in France or Italy  for the  second half of the 17thc will lead you to Silvestre’s work.

Sadly I dont think Louis ever did throw Israel a party – birthday or otherwise.

If  you want to see more of Silvestre’s work a good place to start is…. https://israel.silvestre.fr  a website about him and his descendants. Although it’s in French it is easy to navigate and currently has 1647  images of his work and lots of links to other sites including a series of video clips about him made for recent exhibitions.



About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.