French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence by Francesco Granacci
France is the product of a centuries-long evolution during which a multitude of regional societies and cultures was welded together willingly—or more often forcibly—by a succession of monarchs, ministers, and commanders. Historian Alexander Mikaberidze examines four historical moments that marked crucial points in the emergence of France: the opening of Versailles, the grandest of royal palaces; the invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII that left a profound impact on Europe (and beyond); the transformation of young humanist lawyer Jean Cauvin into John Calvin; and the world’s first conference to standardize measurements across the world.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Charles VIII Invades Italy and Loses the World
In 1494, King Charles VIII led his army across the Alps and invaded Italy. His dreams fixed on Naples and Jerusalem, the king was certain that it was his destiny to change the world. Yet, four short years later, he was dead at the tender age of 28, while France became embroiled in a prolonged struggle for Italy, just as the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal were dividing the world between them.
11:00 a.m.–12:15 p.m. When Cauvin became Calvin
During the winter of 1534, Jean Cauvin, the 24-year-old humanist and lawyer, had a difficult choice to make. Just a year earlier, he contributed to a public address calling for reform and renewal in the Roman Catholic Church. The appeal, however, provoked a strong reaction from the Church and the faculty of the Collège Royal (the future Collège de France) who denounced Cauvin and his colleagues as heretics. After months in hiding, Cauvin finally decided to flee France and take refuge in the more tolerant Swiss city of Basel, where he began working on The Institute of the Christian Religion, a seminal work of the Protestant theology.
12:15– 1:15 p.m. Break
1:15 to 2:30 p.m. Versailles Becomes Capital of French Europe
In May 1682, the French court was fully installed at the new royal palace at Versailles. Formerly a small hunting lodge of the French kings, it was transformed under the orders of Louis XIV into the seat of his court and government, and, more crucially, a spectacular showplace of French grandeur. Intended to awe and impress, Versailles became the most public palace in Europe, accessible to anyone who was decently dressed. As such it reflected a careful political calculation, for it served as tangible evidence of the power, wealth, and prestige of the French monarchy.
2:45–4 p.m. When the French Helped Measure the World
In May 1875, delegates from 17 nations came together in Paris to sign the Metric Convention. Against a backdrop of imperial competitions, these nations agreed to elevate the French measurement system, which had been invented during the Revolution, to a universal scale and to form the International Bureau of Weights and Measures that would, for the first time, standardize measurements across the world.
Mikaberidze is a professor of history at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he also holds the Ruth Herring Noel endowed chair for the curatorship of the James Smith Noel Collection.
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