Exhibition: Science at Versailles

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on November 12, 2010

From the Palace of Versailles:

Sciences and Curiosities at the the Court of Versailles
Château de Versailles, 26 October 2010 — 27 February 2011

This exhibition reveals a new, unexpected face of Versailles as a place of scientific inquiry in its most various forms: the Hall of Mirrors electricity experiment, Marley Machine on the banks of the Seine, burning mirror solar power demonstration, etc. It brings together works and instruments from the old royal collections, spectacular achievements of beauty and intelligence, for the first time.

Versailles is the place where control over science was exercised. At the urging of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s “prime minister,” the royal authority became aware of the benefits of scientific research. In 1666 Colbert founded the Academy of Science, establishing a new contract between the government and scientists. Many “natural philosophers,” as they were known at the time, including some of the most famous, assiduously frequented the Court as physicians, army engineers, tutors, etc. The physicists Benjamin Franklin and Abbot Nollet compared their theories in front of the king and the encyclopaedists Diderot and D’Alembert met in the office of Dr. Quesnay, physician to Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s favourite. Some courtiers were real experts.

The Château de Versailles offered many research resources. Anatomists and zoologists could study the menagerie’s ostriches, pelicans, rhinoceroses and other rare animals, botanists and agronomists the plants on the grounds of the Trianon and “hippiatrists,” the forerunners to veterinarians, the horses in the Grand Stables. Educators developed new teaching methods using cutting-edge tools for the royal children and the kings’ personal practice. While Louis XIV considered himself a protector of the arts and sciences without practicing them, his successors, Louis XV and Louis XVI, became true connoisseurs. A presentation to the king or demonstration before the Court was the highest honour, equivalent to winning a Nobel Prize. Many people know about the first hot-air balloon flight, but numerous other events have fallen into oblivion, such as the burning mirror demonstration in front of Louis XIV or the electricity experiment in the Hall of Mirrors under his successor’s reign. The mosaic of places, people and events that Science and Curiosities at the Court of Versailles presents must be perceived not as a conclusion but as a stepping-stone to further research.

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