The new Royal Gates at Versailles: replicas or frauds?

The new Royal Gates of Versailles have just been inaugurated in the midst of much media fanfare. The Daily Telegraph, quoting Frédéric Didier, Chief Architect of of France’s Historical Monuments, assures us that the new gates are exact copies of the originals built in the 1680s, under the reign of Louis XIV. “It was very well documented, which allows us to create a faithful replica,”says Mr. Didier.

Versailles royal gates

Not so, replies The Art Tribune. Apparently there is no reliable way of determining what the original gates, destroyed during the Revolution, looked like. These new gates are guesswork, loosely based on mutually inconsistent drawings and various 17th century gates found elsewhere in Versailles. The Art Tribune also questions the taste, ethics and cost (over $5 million) of the operation. The installation of the new gates destroyed part of King Louis-Philippe’s contributions to the entrance of the palace.

This raises the interesting issue of what we should consider the “real” Versailles: would it be the original Chateau, barely more than a hunting lodge, built by Louis XIII? Or should we include the magnificent palace created around it by his son Louis XIV? What about the major interior and exterior additions made by Louis-Philippe in the 1830s? I would be tempted to say that Louis XIV’s Versailles is the real thing, but it would be inconceivable to destroy the work of Louis-Philippe, which is of great historical and architectural value.

Paradoxically, we owe the preservation of much of Louis XIV’s palace to the French Revolution. In spite of France’s dire budget crisis, Versailles was slated for a major remodeling on the eve of the Revolution. The exterior look of the palace would have been completely altered by a new colonnade, inspired by Saint Peter in Rome, superimposed over the front of the central Marble Courtyard. Of course the Revolution put any such plans on permanent hold.

The Versailles we know is a composite, and the new gates are, and should have been presented as a modern addition in the style of the late 17th century, not a recreation of a former state of things, which is impossible to reconstitute. Certainly, as the Art Tribune points out, the “hammered” look is anachronistic. Also the glaring gilding gives the new entrance a “bling” aspect, more EuroDisney than Louis XIV. The money could have been better spent on sorely needed conservation work within the palace.

But I am sure that time and atmospheric pollution will soon give these shiny new gates a patina of authenticity. In a few years they will have become part of our mental picture of Versailles.

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