Of the many extraordinary sculptures to be seen in the exhibition, Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York between February 24 and May 24, 2009 (earlier at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and between June 30 and September 27, 2009 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) is a strange fragment. It is a left foot, wearing a sandal, fractured at the ankle so as to reveal the bronze wall and a fill of clay core material. This is no ordinary left foot. In the first place it is enormous: size 45 or thereabouts. And it is not just anyone’s foot, or at least it represents not just anyone’s foot. Shod in a Roman military sandal, it represents the left foot of King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).
This is the left foot from the gigantic equestrian statue of the French king by François Giradon (1628-1715), unveiled on the Place Louis-Le-Grand (Place Vendôme), Paris, on August 13, 1699 as part of the visual art campaign used so thoroughly by Louis’s government for royal aggrandizement. Like so much else associated with the monarchy, the statue was destroyed during the French Revolution. Only the left foot survives, and today it is in the collection of the Musée du Louvre.
We have an idea of the original appearance of the whole statue thanks to engravings, and small-scale bronze versions. Girardon depicted the king in Roman military garb, a common seventeenth-century means of investing a contemporary ruler with the prestige of antiquity. Indeed, Girardon had worked and studied in Rome in the 1640s. As one of the king’s favored artists, he had been given quarters in the royal palace of the Louvre in 1667.
For the equestrian statue, a long-term project begun in 1685, Girardon thought big, really big. Pride suggested that Louis’s likeness would have to be larger than the great Roman statue on which all such equestrian bronzes were based, that of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol in Rome. The casting fell to the Swiss bronze founder Balthasar Keller (1638-1702), who realized it in bravura fashion. It was so vast that during its installation twenty men are said to have sat down to lunch inside the horse. The quantity of bronze used was immense. The break at the ankle reveals not only clay core material that fills the innards of the foot, but the sheer thickness of the wall of bronze that forms it.
The sandal thongs expose the king’s toes—or at least those of whoever modeled on his behalf. His pinkie is realistically squished from having habitually worn other, more constraining (and more plausible) footwear. Knowledgeable seventeenth-century viewers paid attention to such antiquarian details as the accuracy of Roman military sandals. In a letter to Peter Paul Rubens dated November 24, 1622, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) singles out for praise Rubens’s attention to the accurate representation of the iron nails in the soles of a Roman cavalryman’s military sandal in the Collapse of the Milvian Bridge, one of the cartoons for his tapestry series the Life of the Emperor Constantine. French artists took pains to get the footwear right when depicting Louis XIV as a Roman military leader. You can’t miss the attention to his foot in the painting of the king on horseback crowned by a flying Victory by Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), Louis XIV Victorious at Maastricht, 1673 (Pinacoteca, Turin), or in the stucco high relief of 1681 by Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720) in the Château de Versailles, Louis XIV Trampling his Enemies. Louis demanded deference from all. His foot extends. Kiss it or be trampled, and when the king is on horseback as a Roman emperor, it’s too late to pucker.
Some years ago, it seems, a full-size reproduction of Louis’s foot, cast in aluminum, was available from the Louvre shop. A scan of the online store at http://www.boutiquesdemusees.fr/en/shop/products/8-sculpture suggests that this is no longer the case. Perhaps shipping is too much of a problem; or too many of the customers were too weird even for tolerant French tastes. I prefer to think of the foot not in fetishistic terms—although it clearly lends itself to such attention—but rather as subject to the aesthetics of degradation. This shattered remnant, revealing its rough inner core at the break, has become a thing in its own right, a thing fractured by human violence, arrested on its return to nature.
Inevitably, the king’s foot embodies a politics. The destruction of the whole of which it was a part was a political gesture, a social act of iconoclasm. Recent events have ensured that we are now all well aware of the symbolic power not only of gigantic statuary representing political leaders, but of the symbolic power of their destruction. The toppling of the monumental statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on April 9, 2003, with the help of US marines, signified not only the toppling of his regime, but revealed the manipulative propaganda mechanisms of those who orchestrated and exploited the event, no less than did the destruction of Girardon’s Louis XIV in 1793. Consider a reverse case. Those responsible behaved no better than did those in the Soviet Union who, the story goes—and whether true or apocryphal, it matters not—felt constrained to preserve flawed casts of statues of Joseph Stalin: likenesses in bronze still recognizable, and therefore impossible to destroy without evoking suspicion of treachery, so retained in secret storage, a gallery of dictatorial deformity. And where, one wonders, will Abraham Lincoln’s booted left foot from Daniel Chester French’s giant memorial statue eventually end up?