The sparkling renovation of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles reveals age-old secrets
FranceGuide 2008 – Outside of Paris, the extensive restoration of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles also brings the past as close to us in the present as possible.
The Sun King’s Galerie des Glaces is once again a sparking chamber of history, spotlighting the military and domestic achievements of Louis XIV, as well as the architectural innovation of its 17th century creators. The reflection of the incredible gardens by Andre Le Notre through the 17 mirror-lined arcades and French windows looks as remarkable today as it did when the king brought his vision of this infinite space to line in 1683.
The 19€-million renovation was made possible by an innovative private-public partnership between the Etablissement Public de Versailles and the Vinci Group, whose subsidiaries handled all of the restoration tasks, from administrative to creative, with invaluable assistance from a scientific council composed of international experts in 17th century art and architecture.
Of the 357 mirrors that give the hall its name, two-thirds have been cleaned and restored, while those damaged beyond repair have been replaced with antique substitutes. The walls of polychrome marble have also been cleaned and polished to a reflective shine, and the elaborate stucco work of cherubs, eagles and garlands on the dramatic vaulted ceiling has been restored to its original luster.
In addition to the mirrors, the incredible ceiling canvases of First Painter to the King, Charles Le Brun, have been painstakingly hand-cleaned, a process that took more than 18 months to complete. Over 40 restorers labored fulltime on Le Brun’s masterpiece, uncovering centuries of secrets in the process. For example, workers discovered that the huge paintings gradually lighten from the Salon of War at the north end to the Salon of Peace at the other, a subtle depiction of the resolution of conflicts during the Sun King’s reign. They also exposed the original colour of the skies, a rare lapis lazuli blue lost over the years to previous restoration attempts.
Similarly, the cartouches describing le Brun’s work had been effaced during the French Revolution and later covered with bronzine, which oxidized over the years, turning them a greenish colour. All of these have been resorted to their smalt blue and gold, in keeping with the mission of returning the Hall of Mirrors to its original and authentic décor. New gilding on the room’s decorative accents and even the highly polished hardware on the windows add to its renewed glow.
In the paintings themselves, restorers found several pentimenti, or figures that Le Brun drew but them either discarded or moved. One particular fascinating example was an additional image of mercury, the messenger of the gods, who had originally been positioned off-centre in the huge double canvas but later, in the final painting, pushed to the center between the Sun King and his adversaries.
While the Hall of Mirrors did remain open during the renovation, visitors were not able to see the center panels of Le Brun’s mammoth ceiling mural, or take in the full luminous view of this dazzling and ornate chamber. Today, audio guides in either languages, a tourist shuttle train throughout the estate and a dedicated handicapped-accessibility coordinator are ready to welcome people from around the world to the Chateau de Versailles and its sparkling Galerie des Glaces.