Bernini spent nearly six months at the French court, but except for a marble bust of the king, which had been commissioned as an afterthought, the trip was a failure. It was a foregone conclusion that an artist who believed his gifts came from god and who had been employed all his life by God’s vicars on earth would clash with a king who considered himself crowned by god. Two forms of divine right collided, as did also two chauvinisms.
At their first meeting Bernini traded compliments with Louis XIV. He said he would outdo himself for a king of such superb taste. “Let me hear of nothing that is small,” he said. The king replied that Bernini was the cleverest man in Europe. But Bernini was unable to keep up the niceties for long. After visiting the Tuileries with the king., he told Louis through an interpreter, “che li pareva una grande picciola cosa” – that it seemed to him a great tiny thing. He frowned at nearly all that Paris had to offer. The pleasant jumble of rooftops reminded him of a carding comb. He told Jean Baptiste Colbert, Louis’s first minister, who was also Superintendent of Buildings, that the Val de Grace cupola was like a little cap on a large head.
When Bernini visited the tomb of Francois I and his family, he said: “stanno qui molto male” -“they must be very uncomfortable here.” Colbert’s face clouded. Mansart, Bernini advised, might have been a great architect had he studied in Rome; while French painters, with their thin, sad manner,should visit Lombardy and study Raphael. Only Poussin found Bernini’s favor, and Poussin abhorred staying in France and made his name in Italy. Colbert said he was glad Bernini had finally found something he liked.