Europe
3:04 am
Fri March 29, 2013

Versailles Gets Spiffed-Up On Its Day Off

Originally published on Fri March 29, 2013 11:14 am

With nearly 7 million visitors a year, the Chateau of Versailles in France is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. But one day a week, it's closed.

So what happens at Versailles on its day off? A spa day, of sorts — involving cleaning and conservation work.

Catherine Pegard, president of Versailles, says the palace is always caught between history and modernity.

"There's always an equilibrium to be struck between preserving the history of the palace and operating in the 21st century, a constant pull between conservation and creation," she says. "But the better the conservation is, the more creative we can be."

A lot of conservation takes place on Mondays. We get to climb some scaffolding to the top of a room, where artists are dabbing at a magnificent ceiling fresco with tiny paintbrushes.

The team is removing cracks in the ceiling of the Salon d'Abondance. The last restoration of this ceiling took place 65 years ago, and head artisan Xavier Beugnot says the team is having a hard time removing the previous paint job. He says reversibility is a core principal of restoration work these days.

"Our work has to look good but it must be reversible. It must come off easily some day in the future when better methods are available," he explains.

Louis XIII built Versailles as his hunting lodge in 1624. Louis XIV loved spending time there so much that in 1680 he moved his entire court and government to Versailles and continued building. The grandiose chateau became the official residence of French kings and the seat of government until the revolution brought down the monarchy in 1789.

As we climb down from the ceiling, beautiful music wafts through the palace. Someone is practicing on Louis XIV's organ. I stand at a balcony overlooking the Sun King's ornate gold chapel and its massive organ pipes. Versailles curator Olivier Josse says Louis XIV also stood in this spot.

"He came every morning to the Mass here, at 10. As you can see, the music is just in front of him because music was very, very important for the king," Josse says.

'Sherlock Holmes' Of Locating Lost Artifacts

As you might imagine, closing day is also housekeeping day at Versailles. And with 2,300 rooms, there is plenty to do. The hardwood floors alone require nearly 1,000 gallons of wax a year.

Palace historian Beatrix Saule's vast knowledge about Versailles is rivaled only by her giant set of keys to the chateau.

Saule leads us into the bedroom of Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, the final monarch to live at Versailles. We admire the furnishings, including a bed that comes up to my waist.

And then Saule drops a bombshell.

Marie Antoinette's heavy brocade bedspread was found in New York in the 1960s. As it turns out, tracking down the chateau's furnishings is a major task of every Versailles curator.

On Oct. 5, 1789, a mob chased the court of Louis XVI from the palace, which was then emptied. Saule says Versailles' furnishings are still spread all over the world, so the staff is constantly scouring estate sales and auctions everywhere.

"It's like a police inquiry. We are Sherlock Holmes," she says. "We are obliged to follow the pieces from the sale at the time of the revolution to today and see is there something which is in a place in the world and is it possible for us to buy it."

Marie Antoinette's writing desk was recently discovered. Josse and Saule worked together to get it back.

"It was in a private house, and we have to buy it. So I tried to find some money to buy it. And we found two donors who helped us to have it again in Versailles," Josse says.

Donors are key to such acquisitions — that little writing desk cost $9 million to buy back. Americans are top contributors to Versailles. It began with Nelson Rockefeller, who helped out between the world wars, when France didn't have the means to keep the palace up. The Germans actually protected Versailles during the occupation of France because the palace is a shrine of German history. It was there, in the Hall of Mirrors, where Otto von Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire in 1871.

Google is Versailles' newest corporate star. The Internet company financed and helped build an impressive virtual 3-D exhibit that now kicks off every tourist's visit to the Sun King's chateau.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On most days, especially during the tourist season, the Chateau at Versailles is filled with visitors — nearly seven million a year, making it among the most popular attractions in the world. But one day a week it's empty because it's closed. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was lucky enough to pay a visit on Versailles's day off and roam about this storied palace.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Louis XIII built Versailles as his hunting lodge in 1624. Louis XIV loved spending time here so much that in 1680 he moved his entire court and government to Versailles and continued building. The grandiose chateau remained the official residence of French kings and the seat of government until the revolution brought down the monarchy in 1789. Catherine Pegard, president of Versailles, says the palace is always caught between history and modernity.

CATHERINE PEGARD: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We have to strike a balance between preservation and operating in the 21st century, she says. And the better the conservation, the better the experience for visitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

BEARDSLEY: A lot of conservation takes place on Mondays. We get to climb some scaffolding to the top of a room where artists are dabbing at a magnificent ceiling fresco with tiny paintbrushes. We're at the top of the ceiling. Wow. The team is removing cracks in the ceiling of the Salon d'Abondance. The last restoration of this ceiling took place 65 years ago and head artisan Xavier Beugnot says they're having a hard time removing the previous paint job. Beugnot says today reversibility is a core principal of restoration work.

XAVIER BEUGNOT: (Through translator) Our work has to look good but it must be reversible. It must come off easily for some day in the future when better methods are available.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: As we climb down from the ceiling, beautiful music is wafting through the palace. Someone is practicing Louis XIV's organ. I stand at a balcony overlooking the Sun King's ornate gold chapel with its massive organ pipes. Versailles curator Olivier Josse says Louis quatorze also stood in this spot.

OLIVIER JOSSE: He came each morning to the Mass here at 10:00. And as you can see, the music is just in front of him because music was very, very important for the king.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BEARDSLEY: As you might imagine, closing day is also housekeeping day at Versailles. And with 2,300 rooms, there's plenty to clean. The hardwood floors alone require nearly 1,000 gallons of wax a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

BEATRIX SAULE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Palace historian Beatrix Saule is leading us through the rooms. Her vast knowledge is rivaled only by her giant set of palace keys.

SAULE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Saule leads us into the queen's bedroom.

SAULE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: My God, we're in the queen's room behind the scenes, next to her bed, which comes up to my waist.

SAULE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: And then Saule drops a bombshell.

SAULE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Marie Antoinette's heavy brocade bedspread was found in New York in the 1960s. As it turns out, tracking down the chateau's furnishings is a major task of every Versailles curator. On October 5, 1789, a mob chased the king and his court from the palace and stole all the furniture. Saule says Versailles's furnishings are still spread all over the world, so the staff is constantly scouring estate sales and auctions everywhere.

SAULE: It's like a police inquiry. We are Sherlock Holmes. We are obliged to follow the pieces from the sale at the time of the revolution to today and see is there something which is in a place in the world and is it possible for us to buy it.

BEARDSLEY: Marie Antoinette's writing desk was recently discovered. Olivier Josse worked with Saule to get it back.

JOSSE: It was in a private house, and we have to buy it. So I tried to find some money to buy it. And we found two donors who helped us to have it again in Versailles.

BEARDSLEY: Donors are key to such acquisitions. By the way, that little writing desk cost $9 million to buy back. Americans are Versailles's top contributors, beginning with Nelson Rockefeller between the wars when France didn't have the means to keep the palace up. The Germans actually protected Versailles during the occupation because the palace is a shrine of German history. Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire here in 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors.

Google is Versailles's newest corporate star. The Internet company financed and helped build an impressive virtual 3-D exhibit, which now kicks off every tourist's visit to the Sun King's chateau. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Versailles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.