Academic Stories

September Course at Versailles encourages students to critically reimagine 17th century palace

19 students in the College spent three weeks in France as part of the new September Course

Many know the Palace of Versailles as the French king Louis XIV’s personal project, a palace he built to escape Paris and host lavish gatherings for France’s elite. Through the lens of contemporary study, 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 entitled Versailles: Art, Power, Resistance and the Sun King’s Palace, 19 students in the College took a deep-dive into the study of Versailles and got a firsthand look at the palace in its entirety. 

Gardens of Versailles
Gardens of Versailles (Photo by Molly Morrow)

In collaboration with UChicago Study Abroad, this class was 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 and memorable learning experiences. These courses allow students of all backgrounds and interests to immerse themselves in a particular topic that they might not otherwise explore as part of their degree track. 

Taught by Professor Larry Norman, who specializes in early modern French literature, culture, and history, the course focused primarily on the 17th and 18th centuries and Versailles’s place in history. Norman served as the Chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures from 2020-2022. He is the author of two books: “The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction” and “The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early-Modern France.” He also regularly teaches in the European Civilizations Core in Paris.

Norman designed the course as a Signature Humanities Core in 2018, and has taught it twice in Chicago. This past September, Professor Norman took the course abroad, immersing students in the study of Versailles at the palace itself. Norman remarks that his Versailles course seemed like a “natural candidate,” given its focus on the physical space of Versailles.

Fourth-year student Ellie Ostroff, a chemistry major and English and creative writing minor on a pre-med 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 otherwise.

“Having the chance to dedicate yourself to one subject over the course of three weeks and see in person what you discussed in class is extremely rewarding,” Ostroff said. “It was a very hands-on way to learn, which I don’t normally get to experience. We also got to engage one-on-one with Professor Norman, which was quite valuable.”

Norman remarked that choosing comprehensive readings for the three-week long course without overloading students was a challenge, coupled with the many scheduled site visits in France to the Louvre, the Loire Valley and the Palace of Versailles. One way he managed this was giving students recommended readings, which allowed them to explore the aspects of Versailles that aligned with their interests. 

Versailles Hall of Mirrors
Versailles Hall of Mirrors (Photo by Molly Morrow)

Another way he worked around the short time frame, while fostering the group spirit of the class, was assigning a final oral presentation on topics of students’ choices, allowing them to share their personal findings with the rest of the class. Students presented on a variety of subjects, from the engineering behind Versailles’ water system to criticisms of contemporary museum culture. 

Several students re-envisioned the contemporary site of Versailles, suggesting it include spaces which address the class inequality that underscored Versailles and the role of slave labor in the palace’s construction. Others reimagined Versailles as a space for community meetings or for artists and fashion designers to showcase and sell their work.

Many students took a critical approach and dealt with 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, the saturation of color, and the 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 students’ reactions to Versailles upon visiting the palace. 

“The study abroad class was much more critical of Versailles than the classes I taught in Chicago,” Norman said. “When I teach the course in Chicago, it is more abstract and focused on the literature and history. But when you go to Versailles, you see the reality of the lavishness or even garishness, and that impresses upon students some disturbing questions about that kind of consumption and the inequality which undergirds Versailles.”

Norman said these critical approaches to Versailles greatly shaped his approach to the course. He described it as “attraction-repulsion,” in that he appreciates the art created at Versailles, but disagrees with what it represents politically in terms of absolute monarchy. 

In the future, Norman hopes to teach the course again in Paris. He says he learned a lot from teaching the course abroad and is currently thinking about how to continue improving it. Though he was very proud of how the class went, one goal he has for the future is to better include underrepresented voices from Versailles in the course’s future iterations.

“There are two types of courses I enjoy teaching: those on subjects that I love, where the challenge is to make sure that you bring a critical perspective and are open to rethinking things, and those that I have a lot of resistance to, like Versailles,” Norman says. “With a course like Versailles, I’m able to more easily bring a critical view of the work, which I find beneficial.”