Why Versailles?

As we anticipate the opening of the Splendors of Versailles exhibit, we might ask, "Why Versailles?" (Pronounced "vair sih") Why should we visit an exhibit dedicated to this particular palace? Why is it important?

First, the Splendors of Versailles presents us with an unusual and exciting opportunity to investigate Mississippi's French roots. This exhibit is not only a display of magnificent artifacts from what may be the most well known palace in the world, but it is also a mirror which reflects the influences and the history of the French in the establishment and development of our state. We will have a firsthand opportunity to explore France's rich history, art, and culture and in doing so will discover the connections between Mississippi and France. Many of us may never have the opportunity to visit Versailles, but with the Splendors of Versailles, we can enjoy the beauty of this wonderful palace.

Not just a building, Versailles stands as a monument to the artistry of humanity, as a symbol of absolute political power, and as an instrument of a king's control over his country and court. Versailles also represents the irony of history as we see its role in the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the destruction of the French monarchy.

Versailles was built originally as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII (b.1601, d.1643, r.1610-1643), but it was his son, Louis XIV (b.1638, d.1715, r.1643-1715) who created the splendor that we know as Versailles. Louis XIV became king when he was only 5 years old. In 1661 when he was 23, Louis XIV began to rule in fact as well as in name. Because he wanted to curb the power of the nobles who had rebelled against his rule when he was a child, Louis XIV found that the most effective way to keep them under control was to have them at court. The royal court was installed at Versailles in 1682, at which time the French nobility was required to live there at least part of the year. Louis XIV used Versailles not only to manage domestic affairs but also to instill awe in foreign visitors by demonstrating the power and riches of the French monarch. The palace and surrounding grounds were designed with infinite detail to exhibit the power of the monarchy.

Other European rulers saw Versailles as the physical representation of Louis XIV's power and modeled their palaces accordingly. It became the model for many of the royal residences in Europe, including the Peterhof, the palace of Czar Peter the Great of Russia; the palace of the Prussian King Frederick the Great at Potsdam; and Ludwig II of Bavaria's palace, Herrencheimsee.

European courts copied more than just the architecture of Versailles. They also adopted the practices of the French court. French not only became the language of diplomacy during Louis XIV's reign but also became the official language of the royal courts of Sweden, Russia, Poland, and Germany. French culture thus began to dominate Europe. Because the French were seen as cosmopolitan, reverence and respect for French culture spread throughout Europe.

The role of Versailles did not diminish with the collapse of the monarchy. It has remained at the center of many historical events in the last 300 years. The document suspending hostilities between the American colonies and Great Britain during the American Revolution (1775-1783) was signed at Versailles on January 20, 1783. The Prussian Army used Versailles as its headquarters during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) while it laid siege to Paris. After the defeat of France in that war, the German empire was declared in Versailles' Hall of Mirrors on January 18, 1871 with the crowning of Kaiser William I (r.1871-1888). The palace was used by the allies as their headquarters during the First World War. It also was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919) after Germany's defeat, leading to the rise of Hitler in Germany and to the Second World War. During World War II, the palace once again served as the Allied General Headquarters (1944-1945).

The Palace of Versailles and the history which surrounds it also have a direct connection to Mississippi. It is impossible to ignore the French influence in the early history of our state. The early explorations of Marquette, Joliet and La Salle claimed the lands surrounding the Mississippi River for France, which were named Louisiana in honor of their king, Louis XIV, the monarch responsible for creating the splendors of Versailles. Family names and place names all over our state attest to our close connection to France.

Why Versailles? It stands as a testament to the beauty man can create, the power of one man over many, the fall of power, and the irony of history. The reasons to explore Versailles are numerous and the opportunity is ours. Not only can we enjoy the beauty of this exhibit, but we can investigate the lasting connections of France to Mississippi. Bonne chance and bon voyage!

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© Copyright 1998, MUW (Teachers' Guide text)
Last modified: Wednesday, 28-Oct-98 12:14:45