BOOK REVIEW / The sun king takes a shine to style: The fabrication of Louis XIV - Peter Burke: Yale, pounds 19.95

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THE FRONT cover admirably conveys the message of Peter Burke's new book: dressed like a Roman emperor and astride a horse, Louis XIV is silhouetted against the horizon and points decisively forward with his right hand. A second glance, however, reveals the artificiality of the scene, for horse and rider are bronze and immobile, waiting to be deployed like an over-large stage prop. The Fabrication of Louis XIV is not concerned with the biography of a king, but rather with the techniques employed in fashioning the image of the most powerful monarch in 17th-century Europe. In many senses, it is a story more fascinating than the mere historical data of Louis' 71-year reign.

From the first, the cards were stacked in Louis' favour. At the start of the reign, France was emerging as the dominant state in Europe, moulded by Richelieu and Mazarin into a highly centralised bureaucracy. The victories of the early years created a myth of invincibility with which Louis dazzled his contemporaries. Among his closest advisers were men like Colbert and Louvois, who controlled the machinery of public patronage and had a genius for assembling the best artists and writers to fashion the regime's propaganda. With Colbert, love of art was not the motivation, but rather, as one contemporary put it, a recognition that only through literature and the arts would the achievements of the king be transmitted to posterity.

The record of achievement was, by any standard, impressive. Academies were founded or reorganised; journals were published; poets and scientists were cultivated; the factory of the Gobelins wove endless tapestries for the court; hundreds of paintings, statues, and medals recorded the king's deeds. But it was the transformation of Versailles from a simple hunting-lodge into the seat of government that became the most visible embodiment of the sun-king's splendour. Its marbled interiors and silver furniture, its allegorical paintings and vast formal acreage, all revolved around the king's person and, ironically, remained Louis' most enduring achievement. As Montesquieu observed, Louis accomplished more through building Versailles and Marly than through all his conquests, for it was his extravagant example in patronage that lured so many German princelings into bankruptcy.

Peter Burke examines the king's public image with the trained eye of a cultural historian. He is at his best in explaining the tensions that developed between the myth and the reality of the regime, as well as illustrating the other side of the medal, the lampoons that presented Louis to his contemporaries in a distorting mirror.

Burke also places Louis' image in context by noting the role models in his own family, especially his Spanish father-in-law, Philip IV, whose palaces and portraits by Velazquez provided a bench-mark for the young king's efforts. Closer to home, the patronage of Louis' grandmother, Marie de' Medici, was equally decisive. She employed Rubens to paint a major cycle of paintings which celebrated the reign of her husband, Henri IV, and her own ill-starred regency. With these paintings Rubens forged the tools with which all later artists sang the praises of absolutism.

Burke then brings the argument down to the present by comparing the presentation of Louis with that of modern rulers. Here the pattern established in Louis' reign acquires an added resonance, for contemporary assumptions about the 'packaging' of politicians or the staging of 'non-events' for television ignore the role of ceremony in all societies from Mesopotamia onwards. Personality cults and the rewriting of history were not the peculiar preserve of Stalin or Mao; even the recent debate over the Queen's image on the new pounds 5 note raised questions of decorum recognisable to Louis and his courtiers.

What makes Louis XIV such a fascinating phenomenon is that his career is one of the first examples of what would now be termed public relations. His investment in great gestures and patronage of the arts was, moreover, decisive for the expectations of a leader by French public opinion; in this sense, both Napoleon and Mitterrand are the heirs of a political machinery assembled by their legendary predecessor.

Peter Burke offers a stimulating account of the 'invention' of Louis XIV, but his book is much more than that. It gives food for thought on the necessity for recreating myth and symbol in the politics of each generation, or, as he trenchantly puts it: 'The contrast between 17th-century leaders and 20th-century ones is not a contrast between rhetoric and truth. It is a contrast between two styles of rhetoric.'

(Photograph omitted)