Art, power and performance: Cardinal Mazarin and cultural patronage at the court of Louis XIV

This paper will explore the relationship between the political career of Cardinal Mazarin and his patronage of the arts, especially the performing arts, at the French court between 1643 and 1659. It will suggest that Mazarin’s political career has been insufficiently studied and the consequent misunderstandings have produced a number of unconvincing attempts to contextualize his artistic patronage. A traditional historiography which treats Mazarin as a key actor in a process of state-building has understated the extent of contemporary challenges to the legitimacy of Mazarin’s political authority, and has failed to show how tenuous his hold on power was throughout his entire ministry, not just during the civil war [Frondes] of 1648-52. Overall explanations of Mazarin’s artistic patronage have treated him either as a self-conscious ‘missionary’ for Italian culture, or have argued that his sponsorship of the performing arts was an attempt, until 1648 to distract and divert the political elites from his ‘real’ political purpose, then from 1653 was a triumphalist prelude to the personal rule of the Sun King. I shall propose that before the Frondes we need to understand Mazarin’s patronage in terms of his unanticipated and extremely disruptive rise to power, the need to create a myth of continuity, and self-assertion in the face of powerful rivals. Finally I shall argue that the ballets de la cour of the post-1652 years can be properly understood only within their true political context, one in which Mazarin presided over a factionalized rump of supporters at court and faced continued political uncertainty within France.

David Parrott
Symposium Title: 
Le Ballet de la Nuit - 2004
Author affiliation: 
New College, Oxford