The duty of the prince is magnificence. Or at least this is what the four sons of King John II convened; the likely one thing they could agree upon was to accumulate and collect art and precious objects with an obsessional passion. They were the world’s first great materialists who reconciled Roman Catholic orthodoxy with material wealth while their co-citizens of France had no relief from dire poverty. The son’s collections were in themselves works of art, spawning a mentality that has carried on to the modern age. They inaugurated an era of the commoner being hypnotized by visual glamor and surface sophistication whose illusions, when stripped away, leave the underlying greed and decadence on display.
Charles V had a library that contained about a thousand manuscript volumes, and was the source of the present Bibliotheque Nationale. It was rich in French romances and in religion, philosophy, law and science, including sixty works on medicine and surgery. The library was established in richly decorated rooms in a tower of the Louvre, with gratings on the windows ”to keep out birds and other animals”. The artists who produced the court’s elegances were treated as respectable craftsman and belong to guilds.
The time of secular painting was barely beginning. Had such works of art existed, there would have been no place to display them; or perhaps it is better to say that because there was no place to display them they did not exist. One cannot hang pictures on the stone walls of castle interiors.
Charles V died of accumulated ills in 1380, leaving the throne to his twelve year old son, Charles VI, a flighty and unpromising youth. The dying king named to the regency his three brothers, Louis D’Anjou, Jean de Berry, and Philippe de Bourgogne. His eyes had hardly closed when the eldest brother, Louis d’Anjou, seized his jewels and treasures, reckoned to be worth nineteen million francs, and tried to impose himself as sole regent. Defeated by the younger brothers, he undertook to enforce his claims to the kingdom of Naples, and while on a disastrous campaign he died there of disease in 1384.
The obscenity of French royalty is almost pornographic in nature, not dissimilar to the world described by Stanley Kubrick in ”Eyes Wide Shut” ; these efforts to acquire, and create markets for accumulated goods that began in the early Renaissance reveal, as Kubrick conveys, that prostitution would become the basic defining transaction of our society. These great french patrons were almost Kafka cliches: portraits of insanity as being perfectly sane, abnormally normal. ”The real pornography in this film is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of millennial Manhattan, and of its obscene effect on society and the human soul. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex, and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element of the film-the trappings of stupendous wealth, its references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, its Christmastime setting, even the sum Dr. Harford spends on a single night out-says more about the blindness of the elites to their own surroundings than it does about Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer. For those with their eyes open, there are plenty of money shots.”
The paintings that cover the Harfords’ walls from floor to ceiling (painted by Kubrick’s wife Christiane) almost all depict flowers or food, making explicit the function of art in their environment as mere décor-art for consumption. Most of them probably come from Alice’s defunct gallery, which brokered paintings like any other commodity. (Helena, the Harfords’ daughter, helps her mother gift-wrap a massive collection of paintings by Van Gogh–the icon of an artist who died in obscurity but whose reproductions on calendars, ties, and coffee mugs now make quick millions for the canny marketers in the museum industry.) The Harfords aren’t the only art–lovers in the film; the apartment of Bill’s patient Lou Nathanson is decorated with even more expensive objets d’art (and his bedroom, like the hall outside the Harford’s apartment, is wallpapered with imperial French fluers-de-lis); Victor Ziegler has a famous collection, including antique china arrayed in glass cases, a soaring winged statue of Cupid and Psyche in his stairwell, and, reputedly, a gallery of Renaissance bronzes upstairs; and the house in Somerton is hung with tapestries and oil portraits of stern patriarchs, and decorated in appropriated historical styles from Medieval to Moorish to Venetian to Louis XIV. Like the trashed mansion of the renowned playwright and pedophile Clare Quilty in Lolita, these people’s houses are tastefully stacked with the plundered treasures of the world.
Louis d’Anjou shared the family delight in magnificence, but his taste is said to have been more ostentatious than discriminating. The incomplete inventory of his possessions lists 3,600 items, mostly jewels, goldsmiths’ work, and tapestries. Even his battle dress was richly jeweled and gold-inlaid. His helmet was adorned with gold, pearls and diamonds, and was surmounted by a gold fleur-de-lis. He had a nef representing the Fountain of Youth, with fifty four figures in the round, ”some coming in litters, or walking on crutches or riding on mules to the magical fountain, some making ready and casting off their shoes, and others bathing in its waters. The body of the vessel was decorated with people crying their wares as they might in the streets of paris, and with dances of men and women.” ( Joan Evans )
With Louis d’anjou out of the way , the two brothers ruled France until Charles VI assumed control at the age of twenty. Four years later, in 1392, the young king went suddenly insane, attacking his familiars with his sword. In his recurring fits he was convinced he was made of glass; sometimes he barked like a dog or ran howling like a werewolf. His queen abandoned him out of fear; loose women were brought into the palace to substitute for her. For thirty years the king suffered prolonged and increasing attacks of madness, while the enemies of France brought her lower and lower. Meanwhile, the two uncles regained rule as regents for the mad monarch, adding to their power and wealth and noteworthily to their collections.