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1.9.15

Embalming a King

Three hundred years ago, on September 1, 1715, Louis XIV died. For 72 years, he had been the absolute ruler of France, a reign that remains the longest of any major European monarch. Most people in France -- all those born after 1643 -- had known no other government than his. Le Figaro has published a group of articles on the anniversary, including one by Eric Bietry-Rivierre (Il y a trois siècles, Louis XIV était embaumé, September 1) on how the Sun-King's body was preserved when he died (my translation):
Shortly afterward the autopsy began. It was necessary in any case to be sure that he had not been poisoned. In particular doctors and surgeons had to separate the entrails, destined for Notre-Dame, and the heart, which would repose, according to Louis XIV's wishes, alongside that of his father, Louis XIII, with the Jesuits of the Rue Saint-Antoine. The body itself had to be embalmed, work required before its presentation during multiple ceremonies that would take several weeks.

In an article for the catalog of an exhibit at the Château de Versailles for this event (from October 27 to February 21), the coroner Philippe Charlier describes the method. It is a sophisticated and very impressive technique, which has nothing to do with that of the ancient Egyptians. After the evisceration, embalming in the early 18th century consisted of filling the cavities with a powder of aromatic and desiccating herbs. The technique had not changed since the time of Philip the Fair and Louis le Hutin, Philippe Charlier specifies, giving the list of required ingredients.
In 1793, the bodies of most of the kings of France were profaned by the revolutionaries. So, we will never know what the body looked like, but at that point a witness said that Louis XIV "still commanded respect and, through the severity of his aspect, he still threatened those who defiled him." You can watch the special performance for the anniversary, by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants and filmed in the Opéra Royal, the Chapelle Royale, and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, on ARTE.

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