Treasures from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
From its inception, the French monarchy sought to expand state control over culture in order to consolidate its political power both nationally and internationally. This process reached its climax during the reign of Louis XIV. The death of the Sun King in 1715 marked a turning point in the relationship between power and culture in France. Since the Enlightenment, the "producers" of culture--artists, artisans, scientists and intellectuals--have gained an unprecedented degree of creative freedom. No longer servants of the state, they have become increasingly emancipated from those who wield political power. The democratization of culture, or what could be termed the spread of Enlightenment values, in turn made political democracy possible. Those values remain the cornerstone of contemporary French culture.
Behind this historic change in the power-culture relationship in France lies a historic continuity every bit as important. Today, as under Charlemagne twelve centuries ago, French culture is irrepressibly vital because it is open to creative forces from both within and beyond France's borders. French kings, seeking beautiful objects to embellish royal power, did not hesitate to look abroad--in particular to Italy--for artists, architects, and craftsmen. The latter influenced, and in turn were influenced by their French counterparts. Similarly, many of the French writers, philosophers, artists, and politicians who contributed to the demise of the monarchy and later defended democracy, drew inspiration from sources and exchanges which transcended national boundaries. Over the centuries, these incomparably rich and diverse influences, filtered through the genius of French artists, craftsmen, and intellectuals, have come together, creating French culture.