Many know the Palace of Versailles as the personal project of French King Louis XIV, a palace he built to escape Paris and host lavish gatherings for the French elite. Through the lens of contemporary scholarship, the palace is now also known as a site of the extreme opulence and wealth that preceded the French Revolution.
As part of a September course in Paris titled Versailles: Art, Power, Resistance and the Sun King’s Palace, 19 College students immersed themselves in the study of Versailles and got a first-hand look at the palace in its entirety.
In collaboration with UChicago Study Abroad, this course has been offered as one of the College’s signature courses, intended to introduce students to themes, ideas, and materials in the humanities and social sciences through unique learning experiences and memorable. These Classes allow students from all backgrounds and interests to delve into a particular subject that they might not otherwise have explored as part of their university course.
Taught by Professor Larry Norman, a specialist in modern French literature, culture and history, the course mainly focused on the 17th and 18th centuries and the place of Versailles in history. Norman was Director of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures from 2020 to 2022. He is the author of two books: “The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Representation” and “The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and history in modern France”. He also teaches regularly at the Core des Civilizations Européennes in Paris.
Norman designed the course as a Signature Humanities Core in 2018 and taught it twice in Chicago. Last September, Professor Norman took the course overseas, immersing students in studying Versailles at the castle itself. Norman remarks that his Versailles course seemed like a “natural candidate”, given that it focuses on the physical space of Versailles.
Fourth-year student Ellie Ostroff, majoring in chemistry and minoring in English and creative writing on a pre-medical track, said she appreciated the opportunity to pursue her personal interest in Versailles outside of the academic year, an experience she may not have had time for.
“Having the chance to focus on a topic for three weeks and see in person what you discussed in class is extremely rewarding,” Ostroff said. “It was a very hands-on way of learning, which I’m not used to experiencing. We were also able to engage one-on-one with Professor Norman, which was invaluable.
Norman noted that choosing comprehensive readings for the three-week course without overburdening students was a challenge, coupled with the many site visits scheduled in France to the Louvre, the Loire Valley and the Palace of Versailles. He achieved this in particular by giving students recommended readings, which allowed them to explore aspects of Versailles that corresponded to their interests.
Another way to circumvent the short time, while promoting the group spirit of the class, was to give a final oral presentation on topics chosen by the students, allowing them to share their personal discoveries with the rest of the class. class. Students presented on a variety of topics, from the engineering behind Versailles’ water system to critiques of contemporary museum culture.
Several students have redesigned the contemporary site of Versailles, suggesting that it include spaces that address the class inequality that underscored Versailles and the role of slave labor in building the palace. Others reimagined Versailles as a space for community gatherings or for artists and fashion designers to display and sell their work.
Many students took a critical approach and treated Versailles more specifically as a physical space to encounter history and culture, in part because of the chance to see the space for themselves.
“The sense of scale, color saturation and feeling you get from being in the rooms is something that no photo can fully capture,” Ostroff said. “The disorientation you feel at this display of power and wealth is so palpable – it really changed my perception of Versailles.”
Norman said he was surprised at the reactions of students at Versailles when touring the palace.