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:

All that is most necessary to this work is at the same time agreeable; for, in a word, my son, it is to have one’s eyes open to the whole earth; to learn each hour the news concerning every province and every nation, the secrets of every court, the moods and the weaknesses of every prince and every foreign minister; to be well-informed on an infinite number of matters about which we are supposed to know nothing; to elicit from our subjects what they hide from us with the greatest care; to discover the most remote opinions of our own courtiers and the most hidden interests of those who come to us with quite contrary professions. I do not know of any other pleasure we would not renounce for that, even if it was given to us out of curiosity alone.footnote3

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

Louis’s father had himself been an accomplished dancer and musician, dancing in court ballets and singing and playing the lute to airs of his own composition. From an early age, Louis was given dancing lessons and he became an adept and enthusiastic pupil. He is said by a contemporary to have had a dancing lesson every day for over twenty years from his dancing master, Charles Beauchamps, and his medical records show evidence of collapse after exhausting dance rehearsals as well as injury incurred by strenuous vaulting.footnote6 He seems to have had an acute musical sense, being able ‘to distinguish among a troop of musicians the one who makes a false note’,footnote7 and as a result he insisted on high musical standards at his court. During his youth, he is reported to have practised the guitar and discussed dance steps rather than sit through tedious meetings of the royal council. The Venetian ambassador noted censoriously in 1652, when Louis was fourteen, that ‘games, dances and comedies are the king’s sole pursuits’.footnote8 The previous year he had made his debut public appearance on the serious stage as a dancer in the Court Ballet of the Feasts of Bacchus, in which he appeared in a number of roles, culminating in that of Apollo.