Sciences at Versailles part 2: astronomy, queen of sciences

If you look closely, astronomy is everywhere in the Palace of Versailles...

By Palace of Versailles

Telescope of Dom Noël, from BnF collections (1701/1800) by engraved under the direction of Dom NoëlPalace of Versailles

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.

View and perspective of the Observatory in Paris (1701/1800) by AvelinePalace of Versailles

The Paris Observatory

In the foreground of this engraving of the Observatory you can see the old wooden tower taken from the Marly aqueduct, transplanted on Louvois’ orders to prop up the large telescope.

Photo of the Paris Observatory (2010) by Jean-Marc ManaïPalace of Versailles

Founded in 1667 by Louis XIV, and presided over by successive generations of the Cassini dynasty up until the French Revolution, the Paris Observatory is the world’s oldest surviving astronomical observatory. To this day it is still France’s most prominent centre of astronomical research: 30% of French astronomers are attached to the institute and five research laboratories based at the Observatory.

Terrestrial globe (1700) by Guillaume Delisle (geographer)Palace of Versailles

Terrestrial globe

Guillaume Delisle was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer and pupil of Jean-Dominique Cassini. He constructed this globe shortly before his appointment to the Royal Academy in 1702. He was appointed Royal Geographer by Louis XV in 1718.

Armillary sphere (1705) by Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas Delure (maker), after Jean Pigeon (mathematician)Palace of Versailles

Armillary sphere

This armillary sphere, designed by Jean-Baptiste Delure, shows the Earth at the centre of the zodiac system, while the Sun and Moon are set on sliding copper arcs. This sphere thus corresponds to the Ptolemaic model of the heavens (with the Earth at the centre of the universe), at a time when the Copernican model (the first to surmise that the Earth orbits around the Sun) was already widely accepted in European scientific circles.

Astronomic clock of Louis XV in Versailles (1749/1753) by Claude-Siméon PassemantPalace of Versailles

The great astronomical pendulum

On 15 January 1754 the pendulum designed by Claude-Siméon Passemant, a monument of scientific endeavour as well as artistic achievement, was installed in the King’s Inner Apartments, which thereafter became known as the Pendulum Room. Get a closer look at the fine details of Passemant’s pendulum with this 360° reconstruction:

Armillary sphere and telescope (1788) by Jean-Siméon and Jean-Hugues RousseauPalace of Versailles

Sciences in Versailles’ decor

If sciences and techniques played a role in the construction and the beauty of the place, they are glorified in return by the way they are evoked in the decors of the ceilings in the great apartments and private cabinets.

However, science in these decors is imbued with a symbolism that is more allegorical than rational. Thus, the representations of science and its instruments constitute attributes of the royal function and its fields of predilection: trade, war, the navy, the arts, agriculture.

Detail from the decor of the Nobles' room (1601/1785) by UnknownPalace of Versailles

In the painted and sculpted decors at Versailles, the presence of many scientific instruments is of note, depicted with great precision and detail.

In one of the spandrels in the Nobles’ Room, loves are calculating longitudes.

Mercury on his chariot pulled by two roosters by Jean-Baptiste de ChampaignePalace of Versailles

The painted ceiling of the Mercury Room

The heir of a long history of teaching dating from the Renaissance, mathematics includes arithmetic, algebra and geometry, three disciplines that we find in the decor of the Mercury Room.

In the central panel a putto is holding a scientific instrument that is portrayed with remarkable precision: it is in fact a graphometer, consisting of a semi-circle inside which a compass is fixed along with a pivoting ruler. Nearby, other putti are holding a compass and a fabric with geometrical drawings.

In the same painting, a set square is represented and a putto holds an armillary sphere.

The chariot of Saturn between Justice and Piety (1672) by Noël CoypelPalace of Versailles

Saturn’s chariot

One of the most spectacular scientific discoveries made during the reign of Louis XIV was the observation of two new moons orbiting Saturn. Christiaan Huygens had discovered a first satellite in Saturn’s orbit in 1655. Invited by Louis XIV to head the new Observatory, Jean-Dominique Cassini spotted the second moon of Saturn in October 1671, followed by a third in December 1672.

This discovery prompted certain changes to the iconography adorning the ceiling of the Saturn Room in the King’s State Apartments. As we can see in this sketch by Noël Coypel, the central ceiling panel was supposed to show Saturn’s chariot being drawn by dragons. The artist subsequently added a young woman in the foreground, surrounded by three putti to represent the planet and its three satellites.

Photo of the wardrobe cabinet of Louis XVIPalace of Versailles

Louis XVI's clothes Cabinet

The Rousseau brothers, famous ornamentalist sculptors of the King's Buildings, designed the decor of one Marie-Antoinette and Luis XVI’s finest cabinets: the Wardrobe Cabinet, the king’s work cabinet.

Trophy from the Sciences panel in the Louis XVI’s Clothes cabinet (1788) by Jean-Siméon and Jean-Hugues RousseauPalace of Versailles

It is one of the smallest rooms in the palace (13 m2), and the last decor ordered by King Louis XVI for Versailles in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution. It consists of six major themes grouped in twos that illustrate the great domains of the government: Agriculture and Trade, War and Navy, Arts and Sciences.

Motif of the Sciences panel in the Louis XVI’s clothes cabinet (1788) by Jean-Siméon and Jean-Hugues RousseauPalace of Versailles

All of these attributes are allegories of royal power and of a modern State in step with its time.

Bezel (1788) by Jean-Siméon and Jean-Hugues RousseauPalace of Versailles

Explore all details of this unique room thanks to a virtual tour of Louis XVI’s Wardrobe Cabinet.

Credits: Story

Catherine Pégard, President of the Palace of Versailles

Laurent Salomé, Director of the museum

Thierry Gausseron, General administrator

Hélène Delalex, curator at the furniture and art object department and curator of the digital exhibition

Géraldine Bidault, in charge of the photography library and the digitization of the collections, curator of the digital exhibition

Ariane de Lestrange, Head of communication

Paul Chaine, Head of digital service

Gaëlle Bertho, coordinator of the digital exhibition

Keep on exploring in Chapter 3: discovering new worlds, geography.

Once Upon a Try :

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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