One of France’s most brilliant architectural showpieces, the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, opened earlier this week after a painstaking restoration to remove layers of accumulated grime.
“The Hall of Mirrors is the heart of the Palace of Versailles,” said Frederic Didier, chief architect of France’s historical monuments. “It’s an absolutely magical place and one of the main impacts of this restoration is to bring the life back to the heart of the palace.”
The Hall, built in 1684 on the orders of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, was intended from the beginning as a dazzling setting to project the power and majesty of the French monarchy. The gallery witnessed both the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended World War I.
The decor is a high point of European art in the 17th century, a period when France’s power was at its zenith. But over the years, the gold-coated stucco and mirrors had become tarnished and the luminous colouring of the paintings had darkened. “The last restoration was 50 years ago, and it was showing worrying signs of age,” said Didier. “It’s the first time we’ve had the chance to restore the Hall in its entirety and to give it back a unity and coherence that it had lost for a very long time.”
Around 100 restorers and technicians worked for three years to clean up the site in a €12 million (Rs66 crore) project funded by the French construction group, Vinci. “We worked on everything,” said Didier. “We changed the parquet to hide the technical installations, we restored the marble and the bronzes, the mirrors and, of course, the stucco and paintings on the ceilings.”
Louis XIV used the gallery for particularly important ceremonial occasions, as well as for balls in which hundreds of courtiers crammed onto its parquet floor.
“Louis XIV wanted to give what he saw as the superiority of the French monarchy above all others an appropriate setting,” said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, head of the body that runs the palace. The 73m-long hall is dominated by a vaulted ceiling covered with paintings by the artist Charles Le Brun that depict a series of Louis XIV’s triumphs against the Dutch and other enemies, as well as farsighted administrative measures.
The ceiling paintings and the walls are framed in elaborate gilded decorations, and a wall panel of 357 mirrors reflects the vast palace gardens seen through the windows opposite to give the hall its name.
“It’s a mixture of political projection and fantastic artistic intelligence,” said Aillagon.