Versailles, the castle that never sleeps

Versailles, the castle that never sleeps

The boxwood embroidery is cut with a line, the 250 statues hooded for winter and the fountains emptied but, without the crowd of tourists trampling the alleys of Le Nôtre, Versailles languishes, shrouded in an unreal silence. I only come once a week, to do the rounds ”, says Philippe Gouley, surveillance agent here for thirty years, “ I miss the castle, the contact with the public too. This place is made to be open to the world. Empty, it no longer makes sense. ” Behind the closed gates, the kingdom in the sleeping wood is however only a facade. Of the 1,000 public establishment employees, 70% are active in the four corners of the estate, supported by around sixty companies …

in Trianon, desert, the teams undertook the major cleaning of the upper parts, chandeliers and cornices, after having carried out that of the Hall of Mirrors in the spring which had been waiting for it for… thirteen years. In the majestic Orangery, Joël Cottin, head gardener of the small park, reviews his troops, who have just returned. The pomegranate trees stand at attention, lined up in the shade of tall palm trees, behind the thousand fragrant sour orange trees dominated by the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in general Roman, a masterpiece by Bernini. I believe that if the king came back he would not be too surprised ”, slips the gardener, proud to maintain at Versailles this Unique orangery in the world , with its deliciously bitter berries, as at court feasts.

Soon his team will start the annual visit of the 1,600 cash registers ” to install the young trees, imported from Sicily, further afield, to change hundreds of oak panels, to treat the sick, warm behind the double berries designed by Mansart. For the time being, everyone is pampering the last fall plantings, hoeing the alleys, awaiting the return of visitors. From the first confinement, we insisted on continuing to come to work, explains Joël Cottin. Here, as soon as you stop, nature takes back its rights … Unthinkable in Versailles, a world showcase of the French-style ordered garden!

In the north wing of the castle, Laurent Salomé, director of the National Museum of Versailles, is just as impatient to meet the public again, from December 15. He has just hung on the picture rails more than 140 portraits for the first retrospective devoted to the painter Hyacinthe Rigaud. Coming from the Louvre, his famous portrait of Louis XIV, dressed in the coronation mantle and his leg sheathed in silk, found his double kept in Versailles, surrounded by a whole array of prelates, financiers, artists and writers who had arrived. the Getty in Los Angeles, the Museum of Art in Cleveland, the Albertina in Vienna, the National Gallery in London, all united in these difficult times… ” The exhibition, postponed to spring, has been maintained at all costs, as a symbol of resilience », Underlines Laurent Salomé.

Pier Luigi Pizzi’s stage design sets the scene, with its faux marble columns, its mirrors crisping our portrait and its picture rails hung with moire or lily-flowered fabrics, woven by the Rubelli house in Venice. Our support for crafts is crucial in this period of crisis, insists Laurent Salomé. Many craftsmen of excellence remain mobilized on our restoration sites. Our first mission is to protect this castle, not to let it be damaged. Routine maintenance alone costs us 15 million euros per year. “ In the attic (1) Chimay, in fact, Sébastien Ragueneau, upholsterer, stretches an indigo fabric on the walls, adorned with an old gold band. He has just taken part in the refurnishing of Louis-Philippe’s apartments at the Grand Trianon. The period is delicate for a small workshop of three people, like mine, he confides. The entire production chain is slowed down, we cannot intervene with private individuals… Seeing large institutions honor their orders does us good. “

Illuminated by new lighting, the picture rails he dressed in blue should soon receive 150 paintings from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic collections, deposited in the cash register for five years. Among them are treasures such as the monumental sketch of the Oath of the Tennis Court (6.5 meters long by 3.7 meters high) by David, with his gallery of revolutionary heads, half of which will end up guillotined. This is one of the surprises that the chief curator, Frédéric Lacaille, reserves for the reopening.

Other novelties are being prepared in many secret corners of the castle, such as these little apartments of the queen, all of whose refined decor has been meticulously restored, from the first to the second floor, not to mention two basic rooms where Count Fersen spent the night! On the garden level, another very special project is taking place in the Dauphin’s apartment. After an airlock, protective slippers, full suit and FFP3 mask are required. The danger here, much more than the Covid-19, is the lead of the old paintings that a dozen craftsmen restore. Benoît Tendero, of the Arcoa company, struggles to free under heavy layers of repainting, all the rococo decor of the library. A blue and white, imitating porcelain, he specifies. This is the work of the Martin brothers, the inventors of the famous Martin varnish, based on copal, of which we will try to find the original recipe, from laboratory analyzes. “ No question of cheating in the shadow of the Sun King!

At the end of the park, in the Queen’s Petit Théâtre, the painter and scenographer Antoine Fontaine is tackling an equally crazy challenge: the identical copy of a proscenium curtain, painted in 1836 by the great decorator Ciceri. Having become too fragile, this work must be rolled up and lowered into the “canvas tank”. In the meantime, she serves as a model for the painter and his three assistants, who, armed with brushes, spread on the leaves lying on the stage, the first shades of blue with skin glue. Attentive, like a troop of dancers, to the regularity of their movements. The pigments retained are from the period, the damask patterns carefully copied on the tracing paper, while waiting for the final gold chips of the copper sheets fixed with wax …

Redoing this decor is like stepping into a time machine ”, summarizes Antoine Fontaine. My dream, adds the chief curator, Raphaël Masson, it is that once this curtain is finished nobody realizes the sleight of hand. “ With the team of machinists, he concocts a new scenic effect: a painted tree found in the old fund, which they cause to spring from below. We can’t wait to find the public to share this magic. Here, the guided tours are unique. “

Catherine Pégard, the president of the public establishment, is convinced: If we want to convince the French to come back to Versailles, it is by showing everything they do not know. ” While the Louvre this summer only showed 70% of its permanent collections, she insisted that the castle be fully reopened, including its annexes such as the Coach Gallery “, even though attendance had fallen to 25% of the usual level. Same choice for the reopening in mid-December. The crisis gives us a sense of urgency to complete the work in progress. We are lucky to be in France with state support. And this castle obliges us… You will see, in the spring, the end of the restoration of the Royal Chapel will be a great moment. », Promises Catherine Pégard, who received a visit from the Minister of Culture on November 13.

The spectacular site, entirely financed by private sponsorship, was one of the first to resume in Île-de-France, at the end of April, in full confinement. Sophie Lemonnier, director of heritage at Versailles, fought for this, alongside companies: With the sanitary rules, our work was three or four months late. There, we want to take advantage of all the funding we have to move forward. Straddling the scaffolding, nearly 50 meters high, a squad of rope access workers is already preparing to dismantle the huge tarpaulin covering the facade. Heavyweights of one ton each, the cherubs, deposited, gilded with leaves, then reassembled at the top of the brand new slate roof, sparkle under the royal sun. In the forest of the roof spaces, major beams were changed, a day of smoke extraction installed at the request of the firefighters. Outside, overlooking the main courtyard, the giant statues of the apostles and the Church Fathers have regained their whiteness and superb expressiveness. Stéphane Masi, the operations manager, admired the resistance of their Tonnerre stone which spanned three centuries: We pleaded to keep these original works in place . Below, the “stony” still polish the northern frieze of musical angels, here changing a trumpet or a face eaten away by the weather, guided by plaster models. On the south side, a painter is already patinaing their covers with tinted lime …

Every late afternoon, as soon as the work stops, a very real music rises under the vaults of the Royal Chapel. To compensate for the cancellation of concerts until December 15, Laurent Brunner, director of Château de Versailles Spectacles, has scheduled no less than twelve recordings in November and December, for his label, launched two years ago. “This will represent three thousand five hundred days of work for the musicians. It is essential to continue to support them in this way ”, he notes, disappointed however that no television channel has deigned this fall to come and capture these concerts. That day, it is the young conductor Gaétan Jarry who makes sound, with about fifty singers and instrumentalists, The Grands Motets Rameau, as in the old days at the king’s mass. Plexiglas desks and sanitary distancing have not cooled the voices which rise, crescendo, in a jubilant fugue. What a relief to be able to play here, blows the conductor. At the first confinement, we had a tour planned, and about 40 of our concerts were canceled. For an artist, nothing could be more unsettling. We wonder about our usefulness … The tenor Mathias Vidal adds: “It is difficult in music to work in isolation. Finding this exceptional chapel is a chance. As for the still empty benches, he admits populating them in his head: It’s the audience that gives me the impetus to sing! “


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