The Château de Versailles is getting the biggest renovation since the king moved out in 1789.
It would be impossible, wrote Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister, to build what the king has in mind without incurring “a prodigious expense.” That was in 1668. But of course, Louis built Versailles anyway. And it has been an enormously costly place ever since, setting the international gold standard for “high maintenance.”
“Versailles has been in a state of restoration for most of the past four centuries,” says Christine Albanel, president of the Etablissement Public de Versailles, which now manages the palace. “But the current campaign is the largest in its history.”
Albanel is referring to “Grand Versailles,” a €390-million renovation project launched in 2003 and slated to last 17 years. While not as big as the Grand Louvre—a 19-year, €1 billion program that included building I.M. Pei’s famous Pyramid—it is, by any museum’s standards, a major overhaul.
The vast renovation will touch virtually every aspect of the palace: roofs and windows, parterres and statues, fire safety and visitor amenities, security systems and research facilities. These desperately needed improvements had been on the drawing board for years, but it was Albanel, formerly a close advisor to President Jacques Chirac, who managed to get the government to free up the necessary funds. In what everyone agrees was a veritable palace coup, she began her tenure in July 2003 and by late October had the money needed to begin work.
Renovations at Versailles are always a daunting undertaking, if only because of the palace’s sheer size: 700 rooms, 67 staircases, 2,153 windows, 27 acres of roofing.... Originally a relatively modest “hunting lodge” built by Louis XIII, Versailles was transformed by Louis XIV into a sprawling palace housing Europe’s most glittering court. The king’s successors went on to gild the royal lily: Louis XV added the exquisite Petit Trianon and the Royal Opera House; Louis XVI contributed the English Garden and Marie Antoinette’s charming Hamlet. Together with the gardens, canals and other features, the ensemble takes up 2,100 acres.
Now Albanel and her team must steer this massive yet fragile domain into the 21st century. Some 10 million visitors come to Versailles annually, with more than 3 million of them touring the Château. Facilities are woefully inadequate, however. Grand Versailles calls for adding restaurants, boutiques and other amenities, as well as opening more of the Château to visitors. New transportation options will also be available to those wishing to visit the Grand and Petit Trianons, which are a rewarding but tiring half-hour walk from the main palace. And to help visitors get the most out of their experience, a state-of-the-art information center will also be set up.
To make room for the expanded visitor facilities, administrative offices will be moved to Le Grand Commun, a massive square building across from the Château. Originally built to house the kitchens that fed the thousands of courtiers who had bouche à la cour, it will be gutted and rebuilt to accommodate a wide range of palace-related services including heating and cooling systems, reserve storage, offices, a library and a research center.
Most urgent, however, is improving fire safety. No one wants to see the kinds of disasters that struck Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and Lunéville, “the Versailles of Lorraine,” so several million euros will be spent on the latest in fire-protection systems. Of special concern is the Royal Opera House, a jewel of 18th-century architecture built entirely of wood.
WHILE NECESSARY, none of these projects is particularly glamorous. Much more exciting are the renovations planned for the façades. Versailles’s longstanding policy is to restore the palace to the way it looked at the end of the Ancien Régime, that is in 1789, when Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette so hurriedly left. There are exceptions, however. For example, the oldest part of the structure, originally Louis XIII’s hunting lodge and now the Marble and Royal Courtyards, will end up looking as exuberant as it did during the mid-17th century. Along with refurbishing the massive statues and urns, workers are once again gilding the roof’s lead ornamentation as well as the wrought-iron grillwork on the windows. The most dramatic touch will be added later, when the Royal Gate, melted down in 1793, is finally replaced.
THE OVERALL impact should be as striking as when the Invalides’ gold dome was restored a few years ago. Baroque in all its splendor can be a bit gaudy, however, and bringing it back can sometimes spark a bit of controversy—not everyone was crazy about the newly gleaming Invalides. Lest anyone think that Versailles has embarked on some sort of gilt trip, Albanel points out that all the lead statues in the garden were originally gilded, but only those inside the bosquets will be recovered in gold. “Otherwise, it would be too much of a shock,” she says.
As for the palace’s magnificent formal gardens, they are not the main focus of Grand Versailles, but some funds will go toward carrying on current efforts to restore them to the way they were in André Le Nôtre’s day. The greatest of all French garden designers, Le Nôtre (1613-1700) spent 40 years crafting this masterpiece. At the time, the gardens were as much a part of the regal pageant as the palace, serving as a backdrop to an endless succession of spectacles—firework displays, music by Lully, plays by Molière.
It is here that Versailles’s dual nature is most evident. “Versailles is a mixture of baroque and classical, and often the baroque is hidden behind the classical,” says Albanel. “For example, the perspective is completely classical, but the interiors of the bosquets are entirely baroque.” The bosquets, or groves, are clearings surrounded by greenery that is clipped until it is as foursquare as the wall of a house. Each is like a secret place, full of fantasy and magic. In Louis XIV’s day, these “green rooms” provided secluded settings for more intimate entertaining and were sometimes furnished like interior salons with elaborately set tables, chairs and so on. Today, 12 of the original 14 bosquets have been restored.
Pierre-André Lablaude, the head architect for historic monuments in charge of the park and fountains, admits that the violent storms of 1990 and 1999 that uprooted thousands of trees actually made his job easier. While some of those losses—such as the two Virginia tulip trees planted by Marie-Antoinette—were heartbreaking, many of the felled trees dated from the late 19th century and created a look that was lovely but far from Le Nôtre’s concept.
“In a way, the storm was a stroke of luck,” he says. “With all those trees gone, it was easy to make the decision to return the gardens to their original design.” Lablaude is currently working on the Obélisque bosquet and dreams of one day reconstructing the Labyrinth, a maze of vegetation that boasted 41 fountains and sculptures illustrating scenes from Aesop’s fables.
AS GRAND AS Grand Versailles is, it’s not quite grand enough to cover all the work that needs to be done. “The most essential projects are being paid for by the state, but all the rest will have to be paid for by private donors and corporate sponsors,” says Albanel. “And it’s precisely those extra projects that give Versailles its charm and poetry.” She would love, for example, to see the 55 fountains with their 600 water features turned on at least one hour a day so that every visitor would have a chance to see them. The play of the jets is a vital part of the intended effect of Versailles, she explains, of its opulence and spectacle.
But water has always been a problem here. Fountains were originally developed in the mountainous areas of Italy where streams and waterfalls could be harnessed, and even Louis, with all his money and power, had trouble getting water jets to spout in this low-lying landscape. Gardeners would scurry ahead of him, opening the taps just before he came into sight—and closing them just after he left. Today, the fountains are turned on only on weekends and during special events because of the cost involved. Engineers have come up with ways to remedy this, but doing so would require a hefty investment.
No sponsors have yet come forward for that project, but Albanel can console herself with several other renovations made possible by recent donations. In 2002, the Fondation BNP Paribas, which had already financed two other projects at Versailles, took on the urgent task of restoring the barrel-vaulted ceiling in the Salon des Nobles, where the queen granted official audiences. Painted in 1672 by Michel Corneille the Younger, it is dedicated to the god Mercury, with nine individual scenes framed by ornate gilded plasterwork. Some were painted directly on the ceiling, and many of these had developed deep cracks due to the natural settling of the building. Others, painted on canvas attached to the plaster, were literally coming unglued.
The project was further complicated by the fact that the ceiling had been restored twice before. Scientific analyses indicated that much of the work was badly done and not in keeping with the artist’s style, so layers of paint had to be removed. Ten months and €460,000 (half of it from BNP) later, the brilliant results were unveiled to the public.
Then there’s the Bosquet des Trois Fontaines. Launched in 1998, fundraising efforts lasted six years, finally yielding the entire €5.5 million needed to re-create what is considered a masterpiece of landscape design. Much of this money came from the American Friends of Versailles, which rewarded donors with a once-in-a-lifetime ball at the Grand Trianon, receptions at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence and other exclusive events, including private parties at Paris’s hottest nightclubs.
Apparently, the discreet patronage of the 20th century has pretty much gone the way of the Bourbon monarchy. These days, donors want something in return for their largesse—recognition of course, but also glamour, access, a rare experience. Versailles can offer that in spades. In a related trend, corporations are increasingly entrusting philanthropic decisions to marketing departments rather than to in-house foundations, the assumption being that they will do a better job of identifying appropriate targets for their contributions, ones that complement their corporate image. What everyone is looking for is the kind of natural affinity illustrated by L’Oréal’s involvement with Louis XV’s bathroom.
Last year, the beauty-products giant financed a top-to-bottom refurbishment of this room designed by royal architect Pierre-Ange Gabriel. Louis XVI had turned the space into an office, and the original bathtubs—one for bathing, another for rinsing—had disappeared long ago. Fortunately, the stunning gilded white-wood paneling had survived, but it was in dire need of attention. With L’Oréal’s support, artisans were able to carefully clean and retouch these scenes of carefree nudes bathing and frolicking outdoors, and their exquisite palette of yellow, green and lemon-colored golds once again gleams in this intimate space.
By far the most ambitious philanthropic undertaking at Versailles, however, is the five-year restoration of the Hall of Mirrors. Vinci, the world’s leading construction company, is underwriting the entire €12 million project, the largest cultural donation in French history. While less than record donations in the U.S. (the Smithsonian’s largest benefactor gave $100 million), it is a considerable sum in a country that is only beginning to offer the kind of tax breaks and incentives U.S. businesses and individuals have enjoyed for years.
Along with funds, Vinci will contribute 40 percent of the labor, calling upon the skills of 15 of its companies that specialize in the restoration of historic monuments. The 11,000 square-foot ceiling—the largest painted expanse in France—alone requires 40 full-time restorers. Then there’s the stucco and chandeliers, sculptures and gilding, marbles and bronzes that fill this 240-foot-long room, all of which will be carefully coaxed back to their former glory. And of course, there are all those mirrors.
Echoing the shape of the French windows that run the length of the gallery, these 357 “mercury mirrors” form 17 different arcades. Like the rest of the room, they were made using state-of-the-art techniques that were meant to dazzle—if not blind—anyone the king invited into this rarefied space. Each cost the equivalent of €5,280, took 5,000 hours to craft and, as the name implies, involved mercury, whose toxic fumes killed more than one unfortunate artisan.
Work is expected to last through May 2007, and although Vinci will surely benefit from this historic partnership, it will not be throwing a celebratory corporate ball in the Galerie des Glaces. Only the President of the Republic enjoys the privilege of hosting events in this historic room, which has witnessed not only glittering royal balls but also the declaration of the German Republic, the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the 1982 G7 summit.
Vinci may have snagged Versailles’s most high-profile project, but Albanel is quick to add that there are plenty of opportunities left for those interested in associating their name with haute culture. Still up for grabs is replacing the famous Royal Gate, which once graced the entrance to the palace. Noting that the €7 million required for that effort may be a bit rich for most budgets, she points out that there are a number of garden statues in need of repair—each can be given a royal makeover for less than €3,000. “Everything at Versailles is expensive,” she sighs. “It was expensive for Louis XIV, and it’s still expensive today.”