Residence of Voltaire France

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Louis XIV after Rigaud Louis XIV

born: Sept. 5, 1638, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
died: Sept. 1, 1715, Versailles

Louis XIV, known as Louis the Great and The Sun King, inherited the throne when he was four years old, and was a neglected child taken care of by servants while Cardinal Mazarin governed the country.

Louis was nine years old when the nobles and the Paris Parlement rose against the authority of the crown in 1648. During a period of several civil wars, Louis suffered poverty, fear, humiliation, and hunger. He never forgave the nobles or the common people. Upon taking control of France, Louis had two goals -- he wanted power and fame. In his Memoires, he wrote:

"In my heart I prefer fame above all else, even life itself. . . Love of glory has the same subtleties as the most tender passions . . . In exercising a totally divine function here on earth, we must appear incapable of turmoils which could debase it."

At age 23, following the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis informed his ministers that he intended to assume all responsibility for ruling France. He wanted to control everything, and the smallest detail did not escape his attention.

To centralize his control, Louis built splendid palaces at Saint-Germain, Marly and Versailles. Because pensions and punishments had not controlled the nobles in the past, he now lured them to his court, corrupted them with gambling, kept them busy with court etiquette, festivals, games, hunting and other amusements, and made their destinies dependent on their ability to please him.

France was made self-sufficient by the encouragement of manufacturing. With the aid of capable ministers, Louis built a navy and merchant marine, a modern police force, roads, ports, and canals.

Louis was a patron of the arts, and established the Academy of Painting and Sculpture (1655) and the Academy of Architecture (1671). He gave pensions to writers, and ordered them to sing his praises. The spectacular Court of Louis XIV enhanced French prestige throughout Europe. Foreign monarchs attempted to imitate him, and even adopted French as the accepted language at court.

Louis's desire for power led to a series of wars that lasted for many years and extended the boundaries of France. The extravagent building projects at Versailles and almost constant wars were paid for by the people of France in the form of heavy taxes, and many soldiers lost their lives on the battlefield. Louis died in 1715 at the age of 77. He had achieved the power and fame he desired, and at the time of his death, was greatly disliked by the people of France.

Both Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet were born during the reign of Louis XIV. Emilie's father had the position of Introducer of Ambassadors at the Court of Versailles, and this position placed her among the highest of French noble society.

Voltaire was particularly impressed by Louis XIV who honored poets, writers, and artists, and he spent more than five years writing a history of Louis' reign titled, The Age of Louis XIV. This work, published in 1751, was the most researched and carefully prepared of Voltaire's works. He began work on this project in 1734 while at the Chateau Cirey, put it aside in 1738, and resumed work on it in 1750 when he was at the Court of Frederick the Great in Prussia. For it he read 200 books and reams of unpublished memoirs. He consulted with scores of people who give accounts of what happened at Louis' Court, and in the archives at Versailles, he studied the original papers of Louis' ministers, and the manuscripts left by Louis himself.

Voltaire's The Age of Louis XIV established a new way of writing history. Prior to this work, history books were an account of political and military history. To these topics, Voltaire added the history of the achievements of the great artists, writers, and builders of the day in order to achieve a better understanding of the era. This new approach to writing history was adopted by many historians who later followed Voltaire's example.

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