Louis XIV assembled the world’s largest collection of three-dimensional urban models. Today the collection provides a unique look at some of Europe’s earliest cities. By Jeffrey S. Murray Jeffrey Murray is a former senior archivist with Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Canada, and author of Terra Nostra: The Stories Behind Canada’s Maps, 1550-1950 (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).
“There is nothing which represents a place more perfectly than … a model in pewter, plaster or some other solid material,” declared the great military theoretician Alain Manesson Mallet in his famous treatise Les Travaux de Mars ou l’Art de la Guerre, which was published at the peak of King Louis XIV’s reign. Mallet is credited with having introduced model building to France in 1663, when he presented the French monarch with a scaled relief model of Pignerol, an important fortified town in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, then part of France.
The life-like qualities of the model made an immediate impression on the royal court. The three-dimensional effect offered a realism that was somewhat similar to a low-level aerial photograph. “By the magic of the art,” writes geographer David Buisseret, “the engineers of Louis XIV in effect provided their master with an aerial view [of his kingdom long] before it was technically possible.” This advantage more than offset the extra costs of making relief models over paper maps, and more than made up for the challenges they offered for transport and storage.
King Louis XIV’s minister of defense, François-Michel Le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois, realized that plans en reliefs (as the French called them) were indispensable not only for managing fortification projects, but for giving the king and his counselors a good understanding of the work French engineers envisioned for a site. At times they even permitted the king to direct sieges of enemy towns. For the next 150 years, model building would be undertaken as a matter of course in France whenever new defense schemes were contemplated. In one 30-year period alone, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the engineer responsible for fortifications, assembled more than 140 of them for the Sun King, disposed of another 60 (because their defense works had changed drastically since the model had been prepared), and repaired another seventeen. The end result was a collection unlike any other in Europe.
With the monarch taking such a personal interest in model building, it is not surprising that the engineers—and the craftsmen who assisted them—worked hard to perfect their techniques in miniaturization in order to faithfully reproduce all aspects of the landscape (both man-made and natural).
Constructed sometime before 1691, the model of Mont-Saint-Michel, for example, was designed so that the gothic abbey in the monastery could be opened to reveal the alter. And the model of Château Trompette de Bordeaux, constructed in 1715 was made from hundreds of salvaged pieces of roofing, framing, flooring, and walls from the actual town itself. These pieces were used to show not only the casemates, but the reception rooms of the governor as well.
Model detailing went well beyond the immediate needs of the military and was obviously meant to impress and astonish—to show Louis the wonders of his kingdom and the beautiful things that were being built in his name. These “princely toys,” as they have been nicknamed by one modern-day curator of the collection, were as much representative of the grandeur of France and the richness of its cities, as they were tools for military strategists, engineers, and artillery officers. The collection certainly had an effect on Peter the Great. The Russian czar spent six hours in the model galleries at the Louvre in March 1717 and is said to have admired them “with wonder.”