Fig. 17. Bernini, “Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV as Marcus Curtius,” 1671-1674, Versailles, France (source–Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

Projects for the Louvre: Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV as Marcus Curtius

Isabel Smith

Bernini received the commission for the the Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV on December 7, 1667 several months after Colbert announced that construction on the Louvre would stop (fig. 17). There had been talk of an equestrian statue that would be placed between the Louvre and the Tuileries while Bernini was in Paris, but Colbert had never approached Bernini directly about it. Bernini was reluctant to accept this commission citing the incident with the Louvre, he waited three years to begin this project, only after he received payment of the pension. [1] This project was a joint effort between Bernini and the students of the French Academy in Rome. Bernini was to allow the students to work on the body, but he was to complete the head of Louis XIV himself.

The same year that Bernini began working on the equestrian statue he finally unveiled his Equestrian Statue of Constantine, located in St. Peters Basilica. Colbert was aware of this statue and asked that Bernini use it as a model for his statue of Louis; however Bernini disagreed (fig. 19).

“‘This statue will be completely different from that of Constantine, for Constantine is shown in the act of admiring the vision of the Cross and the King will be in the attitude of majesty and command. I would never allow the King’s statue to be a copy of that of Constantine.'” [2]

Bernini had been inspired by Louis’s 1672 successful Blitzkrieg against Holland and wanted to depict the King during a moment of pure happiness, while he admires his victories from afar.

“‘ I have not represented the King Louis in the act of commanding his armies. This, after all, would be appropriate for any prince. But I wanted to represent him in a state, which he alone has been able to attain through his glorious enterprises. And since the poets tell us that Glory resides on top of a very high and steep mountain whose summit only few climb, reason demands that those who nevertheless happily arrive there after privations joyfully breathe the air of sweetest Glory. The wearier the labor of the ascent has been, the dearer Glory will be. And as King Louis by virtue of his many famous victories has already conquered the steep rise of the mountain, I have shown him as a rider on its summit, in full possession of the Glory which, at hgih cost, has become synonymous with his name. Since a benignant face and a gracious smile are proper to him who is contented, I have represented the monarch this way.”’ [3]


Bernini’s proposal for the equestrian statue concerned Colbert,  presenting the King with a “benignant face and gracious smile,” would convey much more emotion to the viewer than what was considered acceptable within the French court and  the French Academy.[4] Louis wanted to be seen as the powerful and relentless King and Bernini’s depiction would directly contradict that.

Bernini’s Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV was finished in 1674, but did not arrive in Paris until  1685. The equestrian statue presents Louis on a rearing horse wearing classical attire, looking down at his people, and was an immediate failure. In 1687 Louis had sculptor François Girardon transform the Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV into an Equestrian Statue of Marcus Curtius.[5]  Girardon did this by removing Louis’s flowing locks, which can be seen in the terra cotta model, and replacing them with a Roman helmet (fig. 18).


Fig. 18. Bernini, “Model of the Monument to King Louis XIV,” 1670, Rome, Galleria Borghese (source–SCALA archives)


Fig. 19. Bernini, “Equestrian Statue of Constantine,” 1670, Vatican City, St. Peters Basilica, (source–SCALA archives)








To an extent, Bernini’s Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV failed for the same reason as Bernini’s first two designs for the east façade of the Louvre; in this work Bernini appeals to emotions rather than to intellect. Bernini’s depiction of the King as he looks down, directly at those passing by, makes him far too approachable and vulnerable, As King of France it was Louis’s goal to be more than human, incapable of vulnerability.

René-Antoine Houasse. "Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre, on Horseback," ca. 1679-1690. Versailles, Musée National de Versailles et de Trionon . (source-- Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

Fig. 20. René-Antoine Houasse. Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre, on Horseback, ca. 1679-1690. Versailles, Musée National de Versailles et de Trionon . (source– Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

An example of what the French would consider a more appropriate representation of the King on horseback is René-Antoine Houasse’s Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre on Horseback (fig. 20). In this work Louis is again featured on a rearing horse, but he is wearing clothing contemporary of the time and does not look down, instead he looks ahead with a calm and yet forceful expression. In contrast to the Louis of Bernini’s statue, who is caught in an uncontrolled moment of happiness and victory, this Louis is controlled and completely focused on his task.















[1] Rudolf Wittkower, “The Vicissitudes of a Dynastic Monument Bernini’s Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV,” in De Artibus Opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, ed. Millard Meiss, (New York: New York University Press, 1961), 497-501.

[2] Wittkower, 501.

[3] Wittkower, 503.

[4] Wittkower, 505.

[5] Robert Berger, “Bernini’s Louis XIV Equestrian: A Closer Examination of Its Fortunes at Versailles,” The Art Bulletin 63 (June 1981): 235.