The Palace Of Versailles, A 400-Year-Old Construction Site
The emblematic palace of King Louis XIV, born from the will of his father Louis XIII, is celebrating its 400th anniversary. Throughout its adaptation to different eras and restoration, the work has (almost) never stopped.
VERSAILLES — On Mondays, the Palace of Versailles is closed to the public. The usual tumult coming from the crowd of visitors has been replaced on a recent Monday by the clicking of tools and pieces of scaffolding colliding. Near the marble courtyard bathing in sunlight, facing the north wing covered for the repair of its roof, craftsmen are busy, like a swarm, restoring the splendor of the Œil-de-boeuf antechamber in the south wing. Versailles is under construction, once again. Or rather, as usual.
This “permanent work site” has been going on for 400 years. Records put the formation of the second greatest French palace after the Louvre . But on Sept. 15, 1623, it was not a palace, but a simple hunting lodge that Louis XIII ordered — a place where he could stay during his outings in the surrounding, abundant-in-game forests he had roamed since his earliest childhood.
The “modest house” quickly became too small. As Louis XIII was still reigning, it was replaced by a first castle, which was later greatly enlarged by Louis XIV. Redesigned to fit the needs of the court by Louis XV (1715-1774) then Louis XVI (1774-1792) until the French Revolution (1789), it was again reconfigured to possibly accommodate Emperor Napoleon (1804-1815) and the following kings of the Restoration. Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) turned Versailles into a museum, before the torment of successive wars required renovations which are ongoing today.
The first dismantling
“With a few exceptions, The Palace of Versailles has always been occupied, and has therefore had to adapt to its various uses and to the wishes of its users even when destructive,” underlines Maxime Blin, historian and co-author of the book Le Château de Versailles en chantiers ("The Palace of Versailles under construction").
“Its great longevity makes it an exception in the French castle landscape ,” he adds. Even today, Versailles is a historical monument and a museum, but also a palace of the Republic, where state dinners are held and where the Congress meets, as well as a place of work and life for some employees of the castle.
The Œil-de-boeuf antechamber is one of these rooms that bear witness both to the glorious history of the castle and to the more or less successful projects that were carried out there. The paint was still fresh when Louis XIV decided to refurbish his apartments. What used to be a living room and the former king's bedroom merged to create this antechamber. It became a central point of the castle, at the crossroads of the Hall of Mirrors, the King's new bedroom and the Queen's small cabinets , and is richly decorated in a unique style, where the Louis XIV style meets Louis XV’s.
Fooling the visitors is out of the question; it’s not Disneyworld.
Originally decorated with three paintings by Veronese, now kept in the Louvre, it was stripped of its masterpieces during the Revolution , then restored during the great reorganization campaign orchestrated under the reign of Louis-Philippe. The descendant of Louis XIII decided to adorn it with 17th century portraits of the royal family which have not moved since. In the 20th century, the program-law passed in the post-Second World War period led to a restoration but it was only "quick and cosmetic," as Frédéric Didier, chief architect of historic monuments, in charge of the Palace, recalls.
"This is the first time the entire woodwork has been dismantled,” he points out, as he stands in the middle of the room where gilders and carpenters are busy. The bare walls reveal roughly cut stones, still marked by the blows of the chisel.
Here, we discover a moving site sketch from 1701, drawn directly on the stone with a pencil, outlining a window or a decorative sculpture. The discovery of the sketch of a sculpted royal monogram, destroyed during the Revolution, will make it possible to restore and replace it. And there, an ornate beam was reused to plug a hole. “All of this is documented and left as is,” Didier specifies.
200 visiting students form the Olympic Rings a year before the start of the games in France.
Château de Versailles/ Facebook
A balancing act
A restoration at the Palace of Versailles is indeed a demanding job, with historical, artistic and archaeological aspects. “Before undertaking these restorations, we did documentary work for a year,” he says. For example, surveys were carried out in the walls to detect possible traces of the original gilding.
Then comes the time for restoration choices , always made in consultation with the curators. In the royal apartments’ case, the teams try, as much as possible, to restore the rooms to their state of October 1789, before the royal family was forced to leave by the revolutionaries.
“Versailles was and still is considerably influenced by the theories of Viollet-le-Duc whose objective is to restore the monument's historical coherence, sometimes by taking some liberties and creating approximations, even if archival research or excavations are carried out,” the historian Maxime Blin explains. “Restitutions are not always 100% historically proven,” he says.
“We are putting history back on the right track: people can believe everything when they visit Versailles. Fooling them is out of the question; it’s not Disneyworld ,” Frédéric Didier says, adding: “If we do not find sufficient elements for restitution, we do not do it.” Certain choices, such as the restitution of the royal gate entirely adorned with gold leaf or the contemporary layout of the visitor reception, have upset some people.
“Taste is not expertise; taste is not knowledge,” Catherine Pégard, President of the Public Establishment of the Palace, Museum and National Estate of Versailles, explains. “When we prepare the sites, architects and conservators do not always agree. Our goal is to harmonize points of view, based on science.”
Workers fix a window at the Palace of Versailles
Château de Versailles/ Facebook
Constant hunt for funding
Currently, there are 15 projects underway on the estate, which includes the Palace of Versailles, but also the vast gardens and the Petit and Grand Trianon. And many more are on the waiting list. According to Catherine Pégard: “The castle is in good general condition, but some works are becoming urgent.” Like the renovation of large sections of roof, while work has started on the roofs of the North wing and the Grand Trianon.
“We only do projects that are absolutely necessary. So many dilapidated points are adding up that we cannot afford to do anything that is not necessary,” says Sophie Lemonnier, director of Heritage and Gardens. “At the moment, we have a lot of work sites underway,” she continues. “Could we have twice as much at the same time? I doubt it. In any case, we want to be able to have as many tomorrow, but we lack visibility on this.”
In 2022, the castle's own revenues, excluding sponsorship, represented €72 million, including €57 million from ticketing, or a little less than half of the expenses (€149 million). The state obviously contributes, with the castle benefiting from €102 million in public funds, including €47 million in state investment subsidies. But the Palace’s needs are so great that the intervention of patrons is essential .
"The site is about transmission."
“We try to convince companies and individuals on a case-by-case basis, with projects related to their activity or passion,” says Pégard. Last year, the castle received €14.5 million in patronage, donations and legacy donations. The model makes major projects possible, such as the recent complete restoration of the chapel, but essential restorations difficult.
“For roofing work, which is very, very expensive, one thinks that it is up to the state to intervene,” the Director of Heritage and Gardens reports. “The restoration of a section of roof, as important as it may be, is obviously less attractive than that of a room occupied by the Countess du Barry or a spectacular fountain in the gardens.”
Every opportunity is then good to seize. The 2024 Olympic Games , for which horse racing events will take place in the gardens, where temporary arrangements will be installed without harming the heritage, "allow us to put the spotlight on lesser-known spaces," underlines Lemonnier. “Maintenance campaigns for the Park are necessary and recurring, but these arguments give them a particular importance.”
Before and after photograph of a re-painted roof in Versailles.
Château de Versailles/ Facebook
Generations of ateliers
But the Olympics are not only benefiting the Palace of Versailles. According to the Director of Heritage and Gardens: “The combination of the works launched for 2024 and the reconstruction of Notre-Dame Cathedral creates competition to find specialists in historic monuments," she explains.
“The call for tenders for the water pavilion has not found any candidates for now,” she adds, even if such cases remain rare.
“High quality companies are fighting to be in Versailles, offering a great value for money,” Frédéric Didier explains. He continues: “What keeps them alive is the work commissioned by private decorators.” Participating in the restoration of Louis XIV's castle is undoubtedly a token of quality as well as a marketing argument. The architect also recalls that these works helped save some artistic professions, “like the last weaving workshops in Lyon.”
The castle is also a wonderful school for generations of stonemasons , carpenters and other apprentices. Strolling through the OEil-de-boeuf antechamber, we see several generations of gilders working side by side, some experienced craftsmen taking a look at the work of their younger colleagues from time to time.
“The site is about transmission. I have worked with three generations of gilders from the Gohard family,” Didier says. A source of pride for Catherine Pégard, who recalls that certain specifications require candidate companies to have apprentices. The very people who, tomorrow, will bring the great Versailles work site to life.
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