As part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi agreement between Abu Dhabi and France, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan made a generous contribution to restore the Imperial Theatre in the Chateau de Fontainebleau to its former glory. The Chateau de Fontainebleau, located 55km outside Paris, is the largest royal domain in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over eight centuries, it has housed 34 kings and three emperors of France, each adding his own stylistic signature to his predecessor’s reign.
It was from here that Napoleon went into exile in 1814. He called this palace, “The true home of kings, the house of ages.” His nephew, Napoleon III, had this breathtakingly beautiful jewel-box of a theatre built by architect Hector Lefuel as a gift to his wife, Empress Eugénie, an admirer of Marie-Antoinette’s theatre in the Palace of Versailles. Cultural entertainment was an essential part of court life. The theatre was designed for the Emperor’s private galas. Guests in their finest attire went to see and be seen in the imperial presence, to enjoy the majesty of the place and the excellence of the entertainment. Lefuel created a 400-seat auditorium on four levels, each corresponding to the social hierarchy of the era.
The first dress circle held the non-partitioned Imperial box, facing centre stage from a projecting gilded latticework balcony painted with flowers. The Louis-XVI-style seats were gilded and upholstered in buttercup-yellow buttoned silk. Upper circle seats were upholstered in yellow damask, the parterre bench seats padded in blue velvet with silk trim. Walls were hung in yellow lavish silk damask. Door frames and wall mouldings were gilded in gold leaf. A ceiling mural, Allegory of Music and Poetry by André-Charles Voillemot, was lit by a massive bronze and crystal chandelier with two rings of light from 60 candles and 40 oil lamps. A thick wool carpet woven with roses completed a decor as intimate and voluptuous as a boudoir.
A view of the Imperial Theatre and the Allegory of Music and Poetry ceiling mural. Photography by Gilles Coulon
Right over centre stage, Napoleon III’s insignia, the 'N' monogram in an oval, was upheld by two golden angels. The theatre was only used less than a dozen times in its lifetime, and after the fall of the Empire, it lay mouldering and neglected under a blanket of dust. In 1926, the chandelier’s central hemp cable snapped. It crashed to the floor, shattering the cut crystal globes into thousands of pieces. It was a cry for help. The Imperial Theatre was closed to the public due to safety concerns, and lay abandoned until the 2007 agreement for its restoration. Like the Louvre and Versailles, the Chateau de Fontainebleau enjoys the double status of being both a national museum and an historic monument.
The restoration was entrusted by France’s Ministry of Culture to Patrick Ponsot, a state-registered heritage architect, together with Jean-François Hebert, president of Chateau de Fontainebleau. “I cannot stress how important this theatre is for the Chateau,” says Ponsot. “It is perfectly intact, a miracle of history. Architectural discoveries of this kind are so important. They teach us to understand the past.” Ponsot and Hebert agreed on a two-word leitmotif for the restoration: “Rien faire! [Do nothing] By this, we mean add nothing, simply remove the dust and mould and repair the effects of time. Structurally, everything was in perfect condition. The theatre’s worst enemy was damp. We intervened invisibly, with the greatest delicacy.”
A view of the restored upper dress circle and painted balcony. Photography by Gilles Coulon
The first phase was completed in April 2014 with 25 specialists and 135 craftsmen reviving the theatre’s original décor. A 450-square-metre workshop was created on site to restore the furniture without the necessity of transferring it elsewhere. One of the most telling examples of “understanding the past” is the Emperor’s seat. Ponsot delicately removed the two bespoke linen protective sheathes. “The fabric on the armrests was badly damaged, the left in particular. The Emperor would attend a performance in full regalia. The silver buttons on his dress tunic and the scabbard of his sword shredded the silk.” Clearly, delicate silk was not the ideal fabric choice for buttoned upholstery. “An imperial caprice,” smiled Ponsot. The second phase of restoration began in June 2017 with the focus turning to air filtering and heating machinery. This Second Empire architectural masterpiece will be open to the public in spring 2019.
Has Ponsot ever suffered from stage fright in the face of eight centuries of history? “Never. There was no urgency, no deadline. I always distance myself from the size of the edifice and the passage of time. All my projects are long undertakings. We have to live up to our predecessors. I’ve recently completed the restoration of the Chateau de Chambord. It took 15 years. Part of it involved integrating access for handicapped people. On one of my last days on the site, a busload of children in wheelchairs came through for the first time in history. Seeing their joy and the happiness on their faces remind me why these projects are so worthwhile.”