Versailles. The name evokes intrigue, hunting, entertainment, and especially art, which was ubiquitous. Mentioning science in the same breath as Versailles may seem incongruous. Yet many of the most acclaimed scientists were part of the Court, and others came to Versailles for the ultimate honour of performing a demonstration for the king, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize.
Sciences at Versailles
From 1682 to 1789, Versailles held sway over the various scientific fields through the Royal Academy (also called the Royal Academy of Sciences), founded in 1666, and became an exceptional testing ground for scientists. Due to the unprecedented scope of the Estate, Park, and Gardens and their need for water, geodesy, perspective-optics, and hydraulics were required. Experimental demonstrations, staged like veritable shows, were immensely successful at Court. Science and technology therefore greatly contributed to the beauty of the site. In return, they were glorified through references in the decorations of the State and Private Apartments in the Palace
The kings were passionate about science and studied the various disciplines in their private cabinets. Louis XV, who loved astronomy and medicine, also discovered botany as another way to escape boredom. Louis XVI’s passion for the navy and geography was expressed through La Pérouse’s expeditions, but he also devoted himself to mechanics, physics, and chemistry in the libraries and laboratories of his Private Apartments. The kings’ personal practices led to the invention of an exceptional range of instruments.
This virtual exhibition will provide an entertaining look at Versailles’ pathways to science at Versailles.
Chapter 1: Sciences & power
Presided over by Colbert, the newly-founded Academy redefined the balance of power between the authorities and France’s leading scholars: provided with steady salaries to enable them to continue their research, they were expected to put their talents at the State’s disposal, working to further the practical interests of the kingdom. That meant prioritising astronomy in order to improve navigation, geometry and chemistry for better artillery, geodesy and cartography for fiscal and land registry purposes, medicine and pharmacology for public health reasons, botany and agronomy to fight famine, and physics for its technical applications.
chaptEr 2: astronomy, queen of sciences
In the 17th century, astronomy was considered to be the only scholarly pursuit worthy of kings and the most prestigious scientific discipline. Its profile was further elevated in France in 1666, when Louis XIV founded the Royal Academy and the Paris Observatory. The great Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens had already joined the new Academy when famous astronomer and pride of the University of Bologna Giovanni Domenico Cassini was called on to lead the Paris Observatory.
In Versailles, astronomy is everywhere you look: providing inspiration for the decorative ceilings, and taught to the young princes with the help of sumptuous celestial and terrestrial globes. Observing the heavens through a telescope was also a constant source of amazement: on 22 May 1724, from their vantage point in the Trianon gardens, Jacques Cassini, the King and the whole court gathered to watch the total eclipse of the sun.
Last but not least, astronomy served an essential strategic purpose for the kingdom: astronomical observations helped to decisively settle the debate over lines of longitude which had raged for much of the eighteenth century. This allowed for a greater degree of precision in the maps used by navigators, thus bolstering France’s political and military capabilities.
chapter 3: discovering new worlds, geography
Geography as a science has always been a corollary of the exercise of power: it is associated with knowledge of the Earth and the discovery of new worlds; he who masters maps masters the territory he governs.
Throughout the 18th century, the Cassini dynasty contributed to elevating geography to the higher ranks of science.Similarly, geography occupies a choice position in the architecture of the royal apartments: on the first floor of the Stags Courtyard, the king had a private geography cabinet where he could devote himself to the pleasure of drawing maps on a specially designed drawing table.
chapter 4: Cascade of creation, water engineering
From the very beginning, the Versailles yard became a field of experimentation for scientists.When the estate was originally created, the scale of the Park and Gardens, not to mention the water they required, made it necessary to deploy the very latest scientific and technical expertise.
In order to survey and level the land, plotting out grand views over unprecedented distances, the members of the Academy made use of geodesy, geometry and optics-perspective.In order to supply water to an ever-growing number of fountains, on a site naturally lacking in fresh water, the king’s engineers came up with a spectacular network of pipes. Finding sufficient water to supply Versailles involved such great distances that astronomers were called in to design new telescopes for the surveyors, and the calculations were adjusted to take account of atmospheric refraction and the curvature of the earth.
chapter 5: Botany and zoology, a taste for exoticism
Under the supervision of Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, the King’s Vegetable Garden was a veritable botanical laboratory and a concentrate of the most important innovations. Like Louis XV's domestic menagerie, the royal vegetable garden was a source of food provision, as it was destined to provide the king's table with fruit and vegetables, but also a place of scientific research with the application of new techniques for vegetable acclimatizing and forcing, thanks mainly to costly greenhouses and glass garden cloches.
chapter 6: fit for a king, medecine and surgery
In the seventeenth century, medicine was a highly prestigious field. Doctors were leading thinkers, pillars of the university, great botanists and respected chemists, held in high regard despite the fact that their treatments were largely ineffective, limited mostly to bleeding patients and administering purgative concoctions. Surgeons, on the other hand, belonged to the professional guild of barbers. They were practitioners and not scholars, ill-regarded men whose talents were limited to “shaving, bleeding and delivering babies.”
The year 1686 marked a turning point. The phenomenal level of public interest in the successful operation on Louis XIV’s fistula dealt a definitive boost to the prestige of surgery as a discipline in its own right. Surgery reached its institutional height during the reign of Louis XV, with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Surgeons in 1731.
Kings and princes made an invaluable contribution to the advancement of science by putting their sacred bodies and royal blood at the mercy of their doctors. In doing so they served as examples and pioneers: the inoculation of the royal princes against smallpox after the death of Louis XV is a case in point.
chapter 7: the science show, physics and chemistry
While games always occupied an important position in the court of Versailles, demonstrations of chemistry and experimental physics lie at the heart of the science spectacle of the 17th and 18th century. In Paris, as in Versailles, everybody was excited about these amazing and surprising demonstrations.
chapter 8: Mechanics, automatons and hot-air-balloon
Louis XV's interest in clock-making, locksmithing and wood turning is well known. The extraordinary secretaire in three parts, now lost, made by Roentgen and equipped by Mercklein with mechanisms enabling the user to play up to twelve different organ compositions, illustrates the culmination of these skills. Installed after 1780 in the former after-the-hunt room, it was a reminder of the king's fancy for technical masterpieces, and the support he provided for the artisans who produced them.
The exhibition curators
Hélène Delalex, curator at the Furniture and Works of Art department, curator of the virtual exhibition.
Géraldine Bidault, in charge of documentary studies and responsible for the digital photo library, curator of the virtual exhibition.
The Palace of Versailles presented the exhibition Science and curiosities of Versailles from October 26, 2010 to April 3, 2011, with the curation of Béatrix Saule and Catherine Arminjon.
This exhibition was the subject of a video web series that you can find on the YouTube channel of the Palace of Versailles.
Upstream of the 2011 exhibition, a research program was developped between 2007 and 2011 entitled Science and Power: Princes and Scholars at the European Courts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The research program was directed by Antoine Picon, Professor of history of architecture and techniques at Harvard University in the United States at the time, and Thomas Widemann, astrophysicist at Observatoire de Paris. A presentation of key areas of study as long as productions are available for consultation on the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles website.