On land made available by the demolition of the Wall of Charles V, Louis Phélypeaux de la Vrillière, Secretary of State to King Louis XIII, asked architect François Mansart to build a private residence with courtyard and garden, comprising a gallery 20 toises in length (40 m) with the tip corbelled above the street. Ten original paintings were hung on the walls of the gallery. In 1646 he commissioned a mythological fresco from painter François Perrier to decorate the vault of the gallery.
This fresco, executed by painter François Perrier from 1646 to 1649 and renovated in the 19th century, was viewed by art historians as a prolific mythological fresco designed around the four elements of water, earth, fire and air. The restoration work completed in 2015 revealed not only colours that had disappeared with time, but also the hidden political meaning of the scenes of ancient gods and goddesses. Behind the mythology was layered the history of the reign of Louis XIII and the birth of Louis XIV.
The fresco is read across the four trompe-l’œil paintings (quadri riportati) at the four corners of the vault. Each of these paintings evokes one of the four elements in a scene with a god and a goddess. The central panel represents Aether, which is the fifth element (or quintessence), with the sun.
The first tableau, to the left of the entrance, depicts Water. It is illustrated by the story of Neptune, god of the seas (standing, holding a trident) and his spouse Amphitrite, divinity of the oceans (seated, in a rose-coloured robe). The god fell in love with the lovely Amphitrite, but she fled his advances and hid at the bottom of the ocean. Neptune sent a dolphin to woo the indifferent goddess. The dolphin succeeded in persuading her to return and wed the god of the seas. In its hidden meaning, the scene represents the 1615 marriage of Louis XIII, in the visage of Neptune, and Anne of Austria, daughter of the King of Spain, depicted as Amphitrite. The young couple were only 14 years old.
The second tableau, in the left rear, is dedicated to the Earth and represents the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, god of the underworld. The young Proserprina, daughter of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, was picking flowers not far from her mother when Pluto spied her. The god, touched by Cupid's arrow, instantly fell in love and unceremoniously swept her up in his chariot, despite the opposition of the nymph Cyane. At its deeper level, the painting represents the “Val-de-Grâce affair” of summer 1637, opposing Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, who were still without children after 22 years of marriage. France and Spain had been at war for two years. This situation faced Anne of Austria, sister of King Philip IV of Spain and wife of the King of France, with a cruel dilemma, which is said to have inspired Corneille's tragedy Horace. Anne of Austria continued to write secretly to her brother with the help of the Duchess of Chevreuse, but she had underestimated Cardinal Richelieu and his secret police. When Louis XIII's Prime Minister intercepted the Queen's letters, he obtained her written confession. Touched by her repentance, the King pardoned his Queen. At the same time the Duchesse of Chevreuse, alerted by a code, fled the country disguised as a cavalier and took refuge in Madrid. The tableau depicts Anne of Austria as Proserpina, abducted by Louis XIII (Pluto) from her family (Philip IV represented by Ceres/Cybele), despite the intrigues of the Duchess of Chevreuse (Cyane).
Opposite Earth is Fire, symbolised by the story of Jupiter and Semele. Juno, learning of Jupiter's renewed infidelity with the mortal woman Semele, decides to retaliate. She assumes the guise of her rival's old nurse, and when Semele evokes her divine lover, Juno plants a seed of doubt, sighing: “I hope it truly is Jupiter. But I fear: many men have gained access to chaste beds, claiming to be gods. And it is not enough that it be Jupiter. He should give you proof of his love, at least if he is the real Jupiter. Ask him to show himself in all the glory and power with which he welcomes noble Juno, and that he wear his true form for one loving embrace!” In her naivety, Semele follows Juno's advice and asks Jupiter to grant her a favour. The king of the gods swears in advance on the River Styx to grant his mistress what she desires. Jupiter shows himself to Semele, against his will, but a mere mortal cannot look on a god and survive. She perishes, incinerated by lightning. The political meaning of the work alludes to the almost miraculous conception of the future Louis XIV on 5 December 1637, after a providential thunderstorm that caused Louis XIII to spend the night in his wife's chambers in the Louvre palace.
The final tableau evokes the theme of Air in the story of Juno and Aeolus. In the prologue to the Aeneid, Juno in her hatred of the Trojans asked Aeolus to unleash the winds against Aeneas's fleet. At its underlying level, this scene alludes to the decision of Louis XIII (Aeolus), a few weeks before his death (14 May 1643), to name as Regent of the kingdom Anne of Austria (Juno) instead of his brother Gaston of Orleans (winged character opening the way to the winds). It illustrates the “Cabale des Importants” plot that preceded the Fronde wars: the winds represent the “Grands”, the nobles behind the plan.
The central painting evokes Ether, the fifth element according to Aristotle. At the mythological level, it depicts Apollo (Louis XIV) in his chariot, preceded by the morning star (Anne of Austria) and followed by the Moon, crossing the heavens. This panel evokes the birth of the future Sun King in the placement of the stars, which corresponds exactly to the astrological description of the heavens on 5 September 1638 at 11:45, with the sun (Apollo) at the zenith in the sign of Virgo, in conjunction with the Moon and Venus as well as Saturn in opposition.
Many other elements complete this cycle dedicated to the birth of Louis XIV.
The ten paintings purchased by Louis Phélypeaux de la Vrillière, except Guido Reni's Abduction of Helen, represent scenes drawn from Roman history and Plutarch's On the Fortune of the Romans. They recount the dispute between Fortune and Virtue, each claiming to be the source of Rome's greatness. The originals of these canvases confiscated during the French Revolution are now at the Louvre and other national museums.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (Book V, 362-437) http://bcs.fltr.ucl.ac.be/METAM/Met05/Met-05-250-437.htm#Pluton and https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/M%C3%A9tamorphoses/Livre_5
Ovid, Metamorphoses (Book III-253-315) http://bcs.fltr.ucl.ac.be/METAM/Met03/M03-253-338.html
Virgil, Aeneid, Book I, v. 69-75 http://bcs.fltr.ucl.ac.be/Virg/V01-001-222.html
Updated on: 06/12/2018 10:34