The Royal Chapel at Versailles gilded once more, courtesy of Swiss generosity

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The Royal Chapel at Versailles gilded once more, courtesy of Swiss generosity

Article published in Tribune de Genève on November 16

Three hundred years after its completion in 1711, the Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailles has been restored, courtesy of an anonymous donation from Switzerland.

The donor’s identity will remain a mystery. All we know is that they are a wealthy Swiss citizen whose passion for the Palace of Versailles arose through connections with its legendary former chief curator Gérald Van der Kemp, a well-known figure on the post-war Parisian cultural scene and an expert wooer of philanthropists.

Around ten years ago, our mysterious benefactor from French-speaking Switzerland left a bequest on their death of roughly CHF 20 million to Fondation Philanthropia, Lombard Odier’s foundation. The purpose: to restore Versailles where it is most needed. A decade later, anyone arriving at the palace gates cannot help but be struck by the brilliance of the Royal Chapel, which, thanks to our mystery Swiss donor, has regained the radiance and lustre it had lost over two centuries.

…our mysterious benefactor from French-speaking Switzerland left a bequest on their death of roughly CHF 20 million to Fondation Philanthropia, Lombard Odier’s foundation

At Versailles, renovations are constantly taking place on around ten different sites at a time – "As soon as we finish one, we start another," smiles Catherine Pégard, the President of the Palace. Yet works on the scale of the Royal Chapel are unusual. "The last comparable project was the Hall of Mirrors, which we finished in 2007.”

When she took on the job in 2011, she was told that the Chapel was one of the highest priorities. The roof was in bad condition, the timbers had rotted at the base and sunk, in some places, by around 20 centimetres and water was coming in.

"It had been a matter of urgency since 1990,” acknowledges Frédéric Didier, the Chief Architect for Historic Monuments. “But there was a huge problem: the site could not be split into sections. Everything had to be done at the same time, because of the importance of the protective scaffolding. Thanks to Philanthropia, which brought in other partners, we were able to get the works underway." In concrete terms, the Swiss donor covered EUR 11 million of the total cost of EUR 16.2 million.

Thanks to Philanthropia, which brought in other partners, we were able to get the works underway

The gilding returns

We climb a spiral staircase to the roof space where, above the arched vault, we find the timberwork. It dates from 1705 and is entirely original, apart from the sections at the base that had to be replaced "with great ingenuity". Frédéric Didier pays tribute to the artisans: carpenters, carvers and gilders.

Among these is Florent Bruneau who, with his teams, applied 185,000 leaves of gold to parts of the roof and the windows. Gilding is his craft, whether in the President’s office at the Élysée as he did this summer, or at the Royal Chapel. "There are around four and a half kilos of gold. The leaves are two-tenths of a micron thick and placed on a coating, but will easily last for decades," he says reassuringly.

Gilding reappeared on some sections of the Palace as recently as 2010. "The Chapel underwent a major restoration between 1875 and 1878,” explains Frédéric Didier. "The idea of gilding was considered back then, but dropped for political reasons: following the defeat of 1870, it was not a time for triumphalism..."

 

Graffiti in the stonework

We circle the building on a leaded walkway at the same height as the 28 statues that grace the façade. Up here, out of sight, those who have worked on the building have left graffiti carved into the stonework showing names and dates: 1778, 1876, "1896 Hellacour, born in Le Havre"..."We’re not supposed to do that anymore," Frédéric Didier notes, with a smile that perhaps hides what really goes on. In the blowing wind, Denis Pittet’s happiness is evident.

The foundation has been at CHF 130 million since 2008, and with our dynamic approach we have already committed CHF 65 million, with a focus on projects where the donation really makes a difference

As Managing Partner of the Lombard Odier Group, he chairs Fondation Philanthropia. He explains the principle of an "umbrella foundation", a service that handles or assists clients with their charitable intentions. "The foundation has been at CHF 130 million since 2008, and with our dynamic approach we have already committed CHF 65 million, with a focus on projects where the donation really makes a difference." But he insists, "The sums aren’t always as large as in this case. They can start at CHF 200 or 300,000 a year."

The wind is starting to bite, so we take in the view one last time, then head back down the staircase to ground level.

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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