Mass intimacy requires a dilution of one’s complexities. In order to become a celebrity, a person necessarily becomes a personage.
On May 14, 1643, thirty-three years after taking the French throne, Louis XIII died of complications from tuberculosis. Throughout his reign, he had found difficulty in centralizing power, and felt forced to exile his mother, Marie de’ Medici, and execute many of her followers in order to stave off both Italian influence and the followers of his late father, Henry IV, who had been assassinated when he was just eight years old.
Louis XIII left the throne to his four-year-old son, who would ably learn from his father’s mistakes. When Louis XIV entered his twenties, he realized he would have to cement his monarchical legitimacy not exclusively through the violent realpolitik of his father, but also by making himself into a celebrity—someone the people and the courts could understand, could like, could dream of being. It was largely through soft power that he would affirm and centralize his domestic rule.
In order to do so, he declared himself “the Sun King.” He ordered that his triumphs on the battlefield be engraved and distributed. He had two arches—the Porte Saint-Denis and the Porte Saint-Martin—constructed, as well as two squares—the Place des Victoires and the Place Vendôme, both of which surrounded statues of him. He had Versailles turned from a hunting lodge into a palace, bringing together the previously decentralized French nobility, and he hired Israel Silvestre the Younger as his designer and engraver, who was tasked with distributing high-quality etches and prints of the new palace and gardens to the French populous. Perhaps better than any other monarch in history, Louis XIV understood that power could be realized most efficiently and most persuasively not by hard-fought accomplishment but by performance and artifice.
Today, we would call someone like Louis XIV, who was adept at managing his image and performing a high social role, a celebrity. But the history of celebrities as we now know them is a relatively recent one. In its current definition—as someone who is given or achieves major public recognition—the word dates back to only 1849, when it first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, just a decade after photography was commercially introduced. Mass intimacy requires a dilution of one’s complexities. In order to become a celebrity, a person necessarily becomes a personage.