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,
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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