Poliorcetic Art: La Rochelle
Richelieu on the sea wall
Although it took place during a century of titanic sieges, La Rochelle still stands out for its scope and suffering. France was less a kingdom than a medieval patchwork of sovereigns divided by religion, and Cardinal Richelieu was determined to forge a single unified state that could withstand her enemies abroad. Faith was a secondary concern; he aided Protestant Germans against Catholic Hapsburgs without a care for hollow consistencies. The French wars of religion were terrible, to be sure, but Richelieu was not waging a strictly religious war. After all, the foe being defeated in this painting is not the Protestant French city, but the hated English.
All that mattered to him was France.
Indeed, the English made great efforts to support the Huguenot city on the southwestern Atlantic coast of France, with the Duke of Buckingham leading three attempts to relieve La Rochelle from the sea. As a result of this experience, Richelieu determined that France needed a real navy responsive only to the monarch, and so the Marine Nationale was born. Historians call this “the early modern period.” It is defined by gunpowder arms becoming the primary mode of warfare, with all that entailed for a state.
However, navies take time to build. Inspired by the story of Alexander the Great building a great causeway to invest Tyre, Richelieu ordered the construction of a mile-long sea wall to cut the city off from resupply. This was accomplished by lashing together boats as pontoons and then filling them with rubble. Then he sent most of his remaining hulls on a suicidal mission to relieve the garrison on Île de Ré, possession of which allowed royal cannons to batter English ships trying to relieve the city. Although the cargo ships succeeded in landing badly-needed supplies, several fighting ships were lost in the battle to get them there. Nevertheless, Richelieu’s grip had closed around La Rochelle. Beset by disease and high casualty rates in siege conditions, the English soon departed in failure, leaving their fellow Protestants in the hands of God.
Thus our scene, painted in 1881 by Henri-Paul Motte. Le Cardinal de Richelieu au siège de La Rochelle shows the Cardinal in his red robes and breastplate, restlessly observing the relief of Île de Ré. A small staff of clerics huddles nearby, prayerfully watching the progress of the battle. Everything is wet with sea foam and spray, reflecting the human tempest in the background. Damage to the obstacles protecting the causeway suggests danger: a random cannonball could alter history in an instant. Obvious symbolism is obvious: Richelieu is the wall, the wall is the state, the man and the plan are there to defend the state.
Motte painted this during the Third Republic, a decade after the Franco-Prussian War, so the heroic portrayal reflects a nationalist view of Richelieu as the man who made a modern, unified France possible. Art historians: feel free to school me in the comments.