Despot Style: The Iconography of Power, Part 2

Despot Style: The Iconography of Power, Part 2

Anna Hoffman
Sep 8, 2011

I bet you think this is the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, a classic example of Despot Style — but it's not! Read on to find out which monarch created an enlarged replica…

Last week on Retrospect, we began a quick survey of 'Despot Style,' or the decor favored by absolutist rulers whose furnishings become a kind of manifestation or even legitimization of their power and privilege. Many readers noted how gaudy and over-the-top this style can be — it's kind of the "Because I Can" school of decorating. But though Emperor Nero's porphyry basin wasn't exactly subtle, last week's examples are no match for today's: let's continue the survey, from Louis XIV to Gaddafi.

Many books have been written about King Louis XIV's court at Versailles, and how its iconographic program served to justify and reinforce Louis' absolute authority. One of the most famous iconographic motifs is the identification of Louis as not only the Sun King, but also the Sun God, Apollo. Of course, the very lavishness of Versailles was in itself a strong message of royal power; the Hall of Mirrors was intended to intimidate enemies and foreign diplomats in its sheer expense, since no one had ever seen that much glass before (French glassmakers had just figured out how to make plate glass and flat mirrors).

The ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors was also designed to intimidate and to help legitimize Louis' rule. It was painted in the early 1660s with 36 scenes, both literal and allegorical, all glorifying Louis XIV as a victorious military commander and a generous bringer of domestic peace and abundance. The artist Charles Le Brun had originally proposed an allegory of Hercules, but the King insisted on removing the level of metaphor. In the scene above, entitled Le Roi gouverne par lui-même, or the King Governs By Himself, Louis XIV is enthroned, surrounded by the Three Graces and symbols representing Prudence, Royal Wisdom, Glory, Peace and Justice.

A little more than a century later, Napoleon came to power in a coup d'état. Ruling over a turbulent post-Revolutionary France, Napoleon explicitly styled himself after the emperors of Ancient Rome and the later Holy Roman Empire, while also incorporating traditional European royal imagery. In this 1806 portrait by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Napoleon wears a golden crown of laurels (very Roman), and a robe of ermine and red velvet (very traditionally royal). He holds Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne's sword and ivory hand of Justice, which is also visible in a very similar portrait of Louis XV by Hyacinthe Rigaud nearly a century before (very traditionally royal!). His throne sits atop a carpet featuring an Imperial Eagle, a well-known symbol of the Roman and Holy Roman emperors.

Some of the visual echoes between Napoleon's iconography and Ancient Rome are somewhat coincidental, since Neo-Classicism was very much the style even before he came to power. But in an effort to associate himself with the great rulers of the recent and distant past, Napoleon exploited Classical styles and motifs to extraordinary effect. He was even buried in a porphyry sarcophagus (cf. Last week's entry on the Roman emperors).

One of my personal favorite displays of royal power is Bavarian King Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle, built between 1869 and 1892 and never quite finished. Ludwig (1845-1886) may have been mentally ill, or he may simply have been a melancholic eccentric ill-suited to statecraft. Ludwig had four castles built in his lifetime (three unfinished), and had plans for more. Most of his building projects glorified the past in some way. Neuschwanstein was kind of Gothic fantasia (ironically, this pastiche is what Walt Disney used as his model for Cinderella's castle!). Another castle, Herrenchiemsee, was literally a replica of the center section of Versailles (he died before he could replicate the whole thing), but even bigger and more opulent — the Hall of Mirrors at Herrenchiemsee (see the top photo of this post) is a third longer than the one at Versailles (plate glass was easier to come by in the 19th century).

Ludwig's building projects were not really intended as royal propaganda; they were more like personal theme parks for an eccentric soul. But while he didn't use state funding for these projects, Ludwig's own finances were totally destroyed in the process, and his debts threatened Bavaria's standing in Europe, and were partly why his cabinet ended up deposing him (and possibly even killing him — his death is still a mystery!). Ludwig's palaces were literal icons of power, representations of European royal castles, and even if they weren't used to legitimize his position, they still expressed the fact that as King, he could have whatever he wanted.

So the Gaddafis' gilded mermaid couch clearly fits into this legacy of royal and despotic decor. This couch was found in the grand marble entrance to Aisha Gaddafi's Tripoli home within the Gaddafi compound (are those columns meant to look like porphyry?), and was custom-made to have Aisha Gaddafi's face.

The iconography of the mermaid is particularly important. Tripoli is known as "The Mermaid of the Mediterranean" (the rebel mission is known as Operation Mermaid Dawn), and the country is named after the mythological Libya, a granddaughter of Zeus, who bore children by Poseidon, King of the Sea, which could account for the mermaid connection (Poseidon was the progenitor of the race of Mermen — though it should be said that Poseidon fathered more than 100 children, most of whom were not mermen). It's possible, then, that the mermaid couch with Aisha Gaddafi's face was a way of legitimizing the family's claims to power, casting Aisha as a descendent of Libya and Poseidon, and as the personification of Tripoli.

Whether this was the intended message or not, the comparative luxury and comfort enjoyed by the Gaddafi family does suggest a "because I can" approach to consumption that certainly resonates with many historical rulers, and that is a crucial component of Despot Style.

Sun King Style: The Decorative Arts of Louis XIV
In Tents: The Napoleonic Origins of Tented Rooms
Quick History: The Curule Stool

Images: 1 & 4 The Atlantic In Focus; 2 Versailles Hall of Mirrors; 3 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Napoléon 1er sur le trône impérial (1806), in the collection of the Musée de l'Armée, via Wikimedia Commons; 5 Huffington Post.

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