LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Versailles' Crowning Glory


A breathtaking tribute to France's profuse past, Versailles' world-renowned chateau unveils the fruits of an arduous three-year labor of love – the newly restored Galerie des Glaces.

Hailed as one of the most ambitious operations in the Chateau's over-300-year history, Versailles' Hall of Mirrors has had a magnificent makeover of epic proportions.

There is no greater homage to France's most eminent monarch, Louis XIV, than the Château de Versailles. Originally built in 1624 as a grand hunting chateau by Louis XIII, it was the artful vision of the Sun King that put this illustrious landmark on the map as one of the world's most superlative marvels of regal splendor. Over the centuries, this magnificent monument of opulence made its mark as a center stage for some of the most defining moments in history. As we herald a renaissance in culture and refinement, it is fitting that this bastion of elegance should be thrust into the spotlight once again.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the illustrious ruler, then at the peak of his power, enlisted the aid of the architect Louis Le Vau and landscape designer André Le Nôtre to transform the chateau into the center of France's royal court and the impressive epitome of an era of lavish unrestraint.

The palatial structure has undergone many restorations to retain its original glory, but none so ambitious, costly or laborious as the recent renovation of the pièce de résistance of the former royal residence, la Galerie des Glaces - the hall of mirrors. Created by the architect Jules Hardain-Mansart, to form the stately corridor, the final two rooms of the King's state apartments, a terrace and two of the Queen's rooms were sacrificed. The prodigious walkway became a lavish reception hall, which has since continued to play host to highly auspicious occasions, such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, marking the end of the First World War. However, for Pierre Arizzoli-Clémentel, General Director of the Public Establishment of Versailles, the most fitting tribute to the hall's opulent image was the grand bash, attended by the first lady of style, Jackie Kennedy. "General de Gaulle once held a dinner in the Galerie des Glaces, and she was the heroine of the party. It was said that she was the most elegant person in attendance. She wore a Givenchy gown embroidered with flowers in red, white and blue, as a nod to her French heritage," he cites.

Within this imposing anteroom, seventeen mirror-clad arches flank the interior wall, mirroring the windows that overlook the breathtaking Le Nôtre landscape, but the most time-consuming of this extraordinary exercise in artistic indulgence was the awe-inspiring ceiling, completed in 1684 by Charles Le Brun, first painter to the king.

In 2004, the world heritage site received valuable funding to the tune of 12 million euros, enabling work to begin on one of the most outstanding restorations of modern times. The much-needed aid was acquired through a unique program touted as the biggest cultural sponsorship operation ever funded in France. The project benefits from an exceptional new form of partnership. Skills-based sponsorship is the latest incentive for companies who have more to offer than cash contributions. VINCI, a world-leading conglomerate specializing in concessions, construction and related services, headed up the three-year project, along with its Energies subsidiary SDEL Artec, in charge of electrical works; Socra, a group subsidiary, was responsible for the restoration of the marbles and bronzes, and Degaine was in charge of delicate masonry work. For the companies involved in the project, this was no mere donation; their generous contribution has secured them immense worldwide exposure, as well as a favorable place in the annals of French history. "The state can pay for the major works, like walls and roofs, but when it comes to interior restoration, such as the Hall of Mirrors, they ask for sponsors to come forward. In the 1920s, Rockefeller donated a huge amount of money toward restoration, but this was quite different because it was a 'gift.' Nowadays, these sponsors are looking for some kind of 'retour d'image' explains Arizzoli-Clémentel.

Fréderic Didier, chief architect of historic monuments in charge of the chateau, led the committee of experts, along with an elite team of 60 restorers, 40 of whom were dedicated to the ceiling alone throughout the duration of the works. One of the most amazing discoveries unearthed during initial cleaning tests was the original, vibrant lapis lazuli tones of the painted skies of Le Brun's overhead paintings and the background color of the cartouches, which had been altered over previous renovations. The French museum's research and restoration center discovered that at the time of the French Revolution, any inscriptions making an allusion to royal power were unscrupulously erased, and the gold leaf gilding lay concealed beneath bronzine. As the bronzine began to oxidize, the background color of the cartouches took on a greenish hue. Early 19th century restorers mistook the shade for the original color and reinforced the remaining sections in the same shade. "We had to look back as far as the 17th century, because many parts were repainted, so we had to find out if it was possible to find some original paintings. That was a challenge, because we had to make a great deal of exploration in the beginning. We found that there were many that were preserved. We knew that it had been repainted several times in the 19th and 20th centuries, but we were unaware that the original work of Le Brun was still there. That was very interesting," says Arizzoli-Clémentel.

The 357 "mercury mirrors" which line the grand hall were all reinforced, while damaged panes were carefully replaced. As the original mercury-coated glass was outlawed in 1850, the only obvious concession to this spectacular revamp is the difference in luster between new and old. Today the space is once again vivified in original tones, restoring it to its opulent past glory.

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