The VERSPERA research project is an ambitious undertaking to digitise and model the plans of the Palace of Versailles as it was during the Ancien Régime. From 11 December 2017, the public will be able to view 16,000 digital images from what is an extraordinarily diverse collection.
The aim of the project is to preserve a unique and fragile resource that, up to now, has been difficult to access. It also enables some of the ‘lost’ areas of the former royal residence to be digitally reconstructed.
An ambitious digitisation project
Since 2013, the Centre de Recherche du Château de Versailles (Palace of Versailles Research Centre) has been conducting a unique, large-scale project. The programme was launched in partnership with the French National Archives, the French National Library and the ETIS laboratory (Équipes Traitement de l’Information et Systèmes, UMR8051 at the University of Cergy-Pontoise/ENSEA Cergy/CNRS), with the financial support of the Foundation for Cultural Heritage Sciences/LabEx Patrima and the Ministry of Culture.
It involves a huge effort to digitise almost 9000 graphic documents relating to Versailles (palaces, gardens, park, estate and town) dating from the late 1660s up to the early 19th century. Most of the plans are from the National Archives but there are also some from the National Library and the Public Institution of the Palace, Museum and National Estate of Versailles. They are free to view on the respective websites of the various partners.
An exceptional collection
This corpus of documents, comprising general plans, cutaways, elevations and architectural or decorative details, is exceptional in terms of its history and volume. It is primarily the result of work by the king’s principal architects. All of them – from Louis Le Vau to Richard Mique, by way of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Robert de Cotte or Ange-Jacques Gabriel – exemplify the excellent standard of French architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries. The collection constitutes one of the greatest public architecture resources, on a par with the Tessin-Cronstedt-Härleman collections held by the Swedish National Museum of Art and Design in Stockholm. It also represents the largest
body of documents on French classical palatial architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Reproducing these images in digital high-resolution format involved a significant effort to restore 750 fragile and valuable documents, and the use of innovative procedures to meet the myriad technical challenges – due, mainly, to the dimensions of some very large-format documents (up to 3m x 4m in size) and the existence of numerous and complex amendments.
Using these digitised plans, the ETIS laboratory developed a new 3D modelling programme. The sheer size of the body of documents now available will allow comparisons to be made that, up to now, were difficult or even impossible. This will give a better idea of the layout of the various spaces, of their purpose and how they were used, relative to the topography of the royal residence. In fact, since the 17th century, the Palace of Versailles has gone through several architectural evolutions that have been amalgamated with or subsumed into the buildings (the hunting lodge, residences for pleasure, official residences of the court and the royal power, historical galleries, national palace). These different features make it impossible, today, to create a linear interpretation of the various stages of construction and planning that went on at Versailles. While 3D modelling of architectural plans
may now be common, it is particularly challenging when the plans to be digitally processed are extremely old, owing to the specific nature of such documents (absence of standard symbols, lack of straight lines, etc.)
and the digitisation process itself (fold marks, sometimes watermarks).
The resulting 3D models are saved in a standard format, so they can be accessed using any viewing application. The viewer can manipulate, ‘circle around’ and even ‘go inside’ the models. The VERSPERA software
also features a 3D route-setting function, via which a ‘subjective’, or ‘first-person’ video is created in the model based on a route through the plan determined by the user. The software is free to share.
Explore further with virtual reconstructions
For some of the more historically interesting areas of the palace, a series of realistic virtual tours of very high technical and aesthetic quality has been produced by students from the University of Cergy-Pontoise vocational degree
course in ‘multimedia: digital art and 3D modelling’.
Discover verspera at
VERSPERA Research Log www.verspera.hypotheses.org
Image library of the Palace of Versailles Research Centre www.banqueimages.chateauversailles-recherche.fr
Verspera at the National Archives