Arts / Palace of dreams comes to Canberra

WILDLY opulent and extravagant, the Palace of Versailles looked ripe for demolition when the French Revolution burst into being – but it never happened.

Director of the National Gallery of Australia Gerard Vaughan, who has been hard at work on the new exhibition “Versailles: Treasures from the Palace” with co-ordinating curator Lucinda Ward, thinks he knows why.

The aristocracy may have been destined to meet Madame Guillotine, but among the wider populace, there remained strong and patriotic support for exhibiting craftsmanship by the people of France, so the palace was quickly re-designated a museum.

And he’s spotted a curious parallel with the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which also survived the ravages of proletarian dissent.

One third of the palace’s annual expenditure went on the elaborate hydraulics and timing mechanisms needed to set the grand fountains in motion when royal visitors were shown around by monarchs such as  Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour.

“Disgusting”, the “sans culottes” of Paris would no doubt have said. Mao would probably have pulled it down, Vaughan agrees, noting more pragmatic revolutionary figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Joseph Stalin kept the buildings but flogged off many of the artworks. And anyway, after the French government embarked on major refurbishments after World War II, many of those treasures came back on the market.

“We are bringing to Australia the entire Palace of Versailles,” Vaughan exults, making no bones about his view that it is the greatest palace complex in the world.

Vaughan and Ward have not forgotten that the ambience of the court at Versailles derived from pleasures other than the visual arts, too, noting that Louis XIV (the Sun King) in 1682 moved the court to Versailles. He  had a penchant for recitals, ballet and the comedies of Moliere, mounting extraordinary productions and commissioning composers to define French culture as simply the best.

Later Queen Marie Antoinette, whose own harp, exquisitely decorated jewellery box and favourite Japanese lacquer pieces are on show, continued a royal tradition of exhibiting the finest examples of Sèvres porcelain in the Royal Apartments each year. And what a showcase venue that was – as Vaughan says: “Making it into the Royal Apartments was it.”

The NGA is bent on immersing summer visitors in the Versailles culture by all means possible. There will be an extensive series of public programs, the new children’s gallery will feature a mini-theatre and music will be heard throughout the galleries and in Gandel Hall, where the Brandenburg Orchestra will perform baroque music favoured by the monarchs.

It’s not just a feast for the eyes and the ears, but the olfactory senses will be at work, too, when master parfumier Francis Kurkdjian unveils a new scent based on Louis XIV’s favourite fragrance, to perfume the exhibition foyer in a bouquet displayed alongside two candelabra from the famous Hall of Mirrors.

Even the exhibition catalogue has a starring role. All the glisters is not gold, but the embossing on covers of the illustrated publication comes very close to it – “very beautiful,” as Vaughan says.

So what will visitors experience?

There won’t be a virtual reality tour of the great halls and royal apartments, but there will be video and film throughout, as well is the subtle insinuation of music from the 17th and 18th centuries.

A meticulously reconstructed replica of the 1.5-tonne statue of Latona and her children, from one of the main fountains, forms the centrepiece to a carefully selection of more than 130 magnificent paintings, mostly portraits, sculptures, authentic furniture and, of course, that Sèvres porcelain. All will reveal the exquisite taste of the great pre-revolutionary French kings, the Queens and their mistresses.

The whole exhibition will exude quality, Vaughan promises, saying “each object is beautiful. But at the end of the day, I hope people will feel experience some facets of the grandeur of being at Versailles”.

“Versailles: Treasures from the Palace”, National Gallery of Australia, December 9-April 17. Bookings to

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra baroque concert at the NGA, December 11 and February 11. Bookings to

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