Dramatic Nighttime Illumination for the Palace of Versailles

Originally the site of a hunting lodge built for Louis XIII, the splendid palace of Versailles is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of France's most visited monuments, hosting almost 10 million tourists annually. During recent years, the location has had a new lease on life, thanks to receptions, concerts, high-profile conventions, and such. Several years ago a plan was drawn up to upgrade the palace from a technical point of view. The latest stage in this program is the illumination of the town side of the chateau, which had unbelievably been left without permanent night lighting up until now.

Frédéric Didier, responsible for designing the new system, is head architect for historical monuments at the Chêteau de Versailles and other monuments in the district. He confirms, “It's incredible but true — the chêteau had no night lighting and when hosting receptions, conventions, theatrical and concert events, temporary rigs had to be brought in. It was decided to study and design a suitable system. Being an ‘établissement publique,’ it was thanks to our president Hubert Astier that the decision was taken to install a permanent system. We contacted several companies, including France's national electricity board. When we spoke to Philips France, we found them very interested in the idea, so began work with them on the project, which they eventually sponsored, covering all the costs and supplying the hardware.”

Didier worked with the Philips France technical design team, led by Jean-Marc Dupont and Thierry du Mangeat. Although he specializes in heritage restoration, Didier explains, “I wanted to ensure that the lighting showed the monument at its best and, rather than show the buildings at night as they are during the day, give them a completely different look at night. I therefore tried to imagine what the palace looked like when ceremonies and parties were held during the reign of Louis XIV, and tried to recreate this atmosphere, explaining what I wanted to illuminate, what kind of light I wanted to use and where.”

The new illumination starts from the Gate of Honor, then proceeds up the slope towards the Chateau, with a view of the Royal Chapel, focusing attention on the Marble Courtyard and the Old and Gabriel wings. This zone is one of the chateau's key points and the most important part of the system, with over half the 500 instruments installed recapturing the opulent festive atmosphere of the court of the Sun King. The luminous intensity of the various stages of the route up from the gate accentuates visitors' impression that they're approaching the heart of the chateau.

The Philips fixtures chosen for this high-profile project were selected from the firm's Decoflood integrated range of floodlights, available with 12 different lenses and various lamps, including two compact instruments called Mini-Decofloods. These are fitted with Masterline ES (Energy Saving) low-voltage dichroic halogen lamps and all the available beam widths (8, 24, 36, and 60°) have been used, according to specific requirements. Two other types of Philips instruments are also utilized at Versailles: ground-recessed Pompei fixtures, fitted with 100W Philips SDW-T white SON lamps, and HRM floods.

“Preliminary design work started about a year ago,” says Didier, “after which the project was presented to the authorities for approval, then the definitive project was prepared, with numerous on-site tests to see what results the fixtures gave at night. It took three months to install the whole system, inaugurated in October 2001.”

In the very heart of the palace, full floods light the Marble Courtyard and highlight the details of the balustraded facades overlooking it, with their statues and busts, and the richness of each of the iron and lead ornaments on the roof is now highlighted thanks to numerous instruments installed on the rooftops.

Didier continues, “Difficulties to be solved included that the instruments not be visible during the day and deciding how to illuminate the roofs. A very important part of the building's architecture is the decorative metalwork — the original gilding has worn off, but we hope to replace it. The lighting of these parts of the palace was extremely important to us. Although it was difficult to accomplish, we managed in the end.”

The busts and decorations on the three levels of the facade at the top end of the Marble Courtyard are illuminated by a symmetrical setup of five Mini-Decofloods with anti-glare visors, installed on the top balcony on the side wings of the courtyard.

Eight Mini-Decofloods installed at the height of the first-floor balcony on either side of the windows are used as uplights on this same facade. On ground-floor level there are eight Mini-Decofloods behind the columns, focused on the busts, and four Mini-Decofloods as downlights. Lastly, two Decoflood SVF 606 narrow-beam fixtures with SDW-T 50W lamps are installed on the roof to light the ornate top section and the famous sun clock on the fronton.

Four HRM rectangular symmetrical floods with CDM-TD 150/830 lamps and frosted glass are mounted on this facade's second-floor balconies to light the roof. From the roof of the right-hand wing, two Decoflood MVF 606 narrow-beam fixtures with CDM-T 70/830 lamps light the roof of the main section, as does a Decoflood MVF 616 medium-beam unit with a CDM-TD 150/830 lamp installed on the roof of each of the two wings. Six Mini-Decofloods are mounted along the second-floor balcony of both wings, lighting the opposite facade, a bank of 16 more HRM units with frosted glass is installed on each wing, lighting the roof and windows, and, lastly, a series of Mini-Decofloods fitted with glare-control visors is mounted on the cornice and behind the balustrade, two for each of the statues along the top balcony.

The ends of the Old Wing and the Gabriel Wing, seen when arriving from the gate, have been equipped identically, with eight Mini-Decofloods behind the ground- and first-floor columns and on the balcony. Two Mini-Decoflood downlights illuminate the busts between the columns. Three HRM rectangular symmetrical floods with CDM-TD 150/830 lamps and frosted glass are mounted on the top balcony, lighting the roof. Also up on top, eight Mini-Decofloods with visors are installed on the cornice and behind the balustrade, two for each statue. In the courtyard paving along each wing, five ground-recessed Pompei instruments illuminate the walls and busts. Of the three reflectors available for these fixtures (narrow-, medium-, and wide-beam), the Pompei uplights have the medium version, and are fitted with an external non-slip frosted safety glass (which also softens the beams on the facades) and MasterColor SDW-T 100 lamps. From the second-floor balconies, 10 more HRM units also light the ornate roof.

Didier concludes, “As part of the lighting is for security and the rest for decorative purposes, it was decided to control the entire setup via custom software running on a computer used by our security staff. Although it's technically possible to turn on four lighting zones separately, it's normally all turned on together from dusk to midnight. When the Palace hosts the numerous special events which often run later, our staff can intervene manually and set other times as required.”

Mike Clark is an Italy-based UK writer specializing in lighting and audio and can be contacted at mclark@rimini.com.