In the course of his celebrated discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Michel Foucault wondered whether Bentham had got the idea for his perfect prison from Le Vau’s octagonal design for Louis XIV’s menagerie at Versailles: ‘At the centre was an octagonal pavilion which, on the first floor, consisted of only a single room, the king’s salon; on every side large windows looked out onto seven cages (the eighth was reserved for the entrance), containing different species of animals. By Bentham’s time, this menagerie had disappeared. But one finds in the programme of the Panopticon a similar concern with individuating observation, with characterization and classification, with the analytic arrangement of space. The Panopticon is a royal menagerie; the animal is replaced by man, individual distribution by specific grouping and the king by the machinery of a furtive power.’footnote1 Like the Panopticon, Louis’s menagerie was a kind of observatory in which, from a single central point of view, a series of specimens, both confined and illuminated, could be examined and controlled. Observation was indeed for Louis a form of mastery. As Colbert noted at the opening of a new Observatory in 1671: ‘Triumphal Arch for the conquests of the Earth. Observatory for the heavens.’footnote2

It is hard not to take another step and wonder whether it was not so much the menagerie as the Court of Versailles itself that was the virtual prototype of the Panopticon. In the Memoirs prepared for his son and heir, Louis came rapidly to this vivid summation, when discussing the work of the King:

In a nutshell, the nobility of France were confined, illuminated (and classified) in the palace of Versailles in order to gratify the solar scopophilia of their all-seeing supervisor, a pleasure in looking which led directly to the sublimated sadism of his pleasure in governing and ordering.

Yet Louis’s regime is usually associated not with surveillance so much as with display, with exhibitionism rather than voyeurism; with the fabrication of the king’s image as visual spectacle, rather than the pleasure of the king as the furtive power at the centre of a global panopticon. Foucault begins his book by describing, in grim and gruesome detail, the ‘spectacle of the scaffold’, a ceremony of annihilation, revealing an absolute lack of power, in contrast to the positive spectacles of the king’s totalized surplus of power—the coronation, the entry into a subject city, the submissive ceremonial of the court. Yet, in Foucault’s view, this regime was soon to be swept away and reversed by another—that of surveillance, with the panopticon rather than the public scaffold as its emblematic figure. In the economy of this order, the annihilation or concentration of power were doubled by a spectacular fragmentation or surplus of the body, whereas within that of surveillance, the body is idealized (the observer) or classified and disciplined (the observed), reduced to an abstract order rather than vividly displayed in its concrete carnality.

It is clear that the image of Louis XIV was indeed that of a spectacularly excessive body, enhanced by all the resources of art, ceremonial and ritual. It was a body magnified and designed to be looked at. Courtiers were forbidden to turn their back on it and, in his absence, they were even forbidden to show their heels to his portrait, which hung in his place, and substituted for his presence, a true ‘representation’.footnote4 Perhaps the most directly spectacular display of the king’s body was that of the king as dancer. In this role, the king was explicitly a performer, literally centre stage in the theatrical sense. The king danced over a hundred roles in public and the court ballet was, for a period, the leading art form of the court, in which the royal family and high nobility both participated as performers and formed the admiring audience, attending as both stars and fans.footnote5