Project VERSPERA (2013...)

Digitisation and modelling of the plans relating to Versailles under the Ancien Régime

The VERSPERA research project, Digitisation and modelling of the plans relating to Versailles under the Ancien Régime, aims to make the plans of the Versailles Estate under the Ancien Régime available to the public and to restore some of the missing parts through 3D modelling.

Since 2013, the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles in partnership with the Archives nationales, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the laboratoire ETIS (Équipes Traitement de l’Information et Systèmes, UMR8051, CY Cergy Paris Université / ENSEA Cergy / CNRS), and with financial support from the Fondation des sciences du patrimoine and the ministère de la Culture, has been leading a vast digitisation programme whose aim is to create a virtual corpus comprising the majority of the graphic documents relating to Versailles (palace, grounds, estate, royal administrations and town planning).

The objectives of this major project are to preserve collections that are both fragile and difficult to access, to facilitate Internet access to them for the interdisciplinary academic and scientific community throughout the world, and, through modelling, to inform thinking about how a royal residence might have been used during the early modern era.

A remarkable corpus

To date, the VERSPERA digital corpus consists of drawings and engravings (plans, sections and elevations) which are, for the most part, conserved in the collections of the Archives nationales (7,500 drawings from the collections of the secrétariat d’État de la Maison du roi sous l’Ancien Régime), although some also feature in those of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (560 drawings from the Robert De Cotte collection and from the Topographie collection).

This corpus of documents, remarkable in terms of its history, its homogeneity and its volume, primarily results from work conducted by the offices of the kings’ principle architects, from Louis Le Vau to Richard Mique, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Robert De Cotte and Ange-Jacques Gabriel, whose names are all synonymous with the excellence of French architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries. This compilation is one of the largest public collections of architecture, similar to the Tessin-Cronsdedt-Härleman collections at the musée national de Stockholm, and the largest assembly of documents on classical French palatial architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 2013, an initial assembly of documents was established for the Archives nationales, based on a catalogue by Danièle Gallet-Guerne and Christian Baulez Versailles. Dessins d’architecture de la direction générale des Bâtiments du roi (Paris, archives nationales, 1983 and 1989, 2 vol.) and, for the Bibliothèque nationale de France based on a catalogue compiled by François Fossier Les dessins du fonds Robert de Cotte de la Bibliothèque nationale de France architecture et décor (Paris, BnF, 1997, 1 vol.). The corpus was then supplemented, revised and expanded by curators and researchers from the various partner institutions, eventually comprising over 8,000 documents.

In 2023, with the VERSPERA project reaching its tenth year and the first digitised collections going online, the renewal of the partnership represented a fitting opportunity to expand the initial virtual corpus. Thus, the graphic collections relating to Versailles under the Ancien Régime, belonging to the Bibliothèque municipale de la Ville de Versailles and the Archives départementales des Yvelines, are to join those conserved at the Archives nationales and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. With the addition of these two collections, the VERSPERA virtual corpus, once it is fully online, will comprise nearly 20,000 images taken from almost 10,000 drawings.

The end goal of the VERSPERA project is to assemble the digital collections of all institutions that hold graphic documents about Versailles.

Digitisation and online publication

As one of VERSPERA’s three objectives is to facilitate access to the plans by publishing them on the Internet, producing high quality digital images of all the documents in our partners’ collections is crucial.

Eventually, this ambitious digitisation programme aims to make the whole VESPERA corpus available to the public free of charge via the picture library of the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, representing around several tens of thousands of digital images from a remarkable, highly varied corpus (general plans, sections, elevations, architectural and decorative details). This initiative contributes to the preservation of these unique and fragile collections, which had until now been very difficult to access, and will make it easier for both the international research community and the general public to access this source of heritage information.

At the Archives nationales, the digitisation process first required the conduct of a significant restoration programme involving 750 precious, fragile documents, and the introduction of innovative procedures to overcome various technical challenges, mainly relating to the size of certain very large format documents and plans (up to 3m x 4m) or the presence of numerous, complicated annotations on paper. An initial section of the corpus from the Archives nationales relating to the palace and its wings and consisting of 2,220 drawings (6,375 images altogether) was published online in the picture library of the Centre de recherche in December, 2017. Two other migrations of this same collection are scheduled: one, in 2024, focusing on the gardens, grounds, Menagerie, Grand and Petit Trianon, and the other, in 2025, on the Versailles estate (including the water supply works) and the buildings in the town of Versailles supervised by the King’s Director of Buildings.

Plans, sections and elevations relating to the palace, the gardens and the town of Versailles belonging to the Robert de Cotte and Topographie collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France were published online in May 2019. They comprise 560 drawings (i.e. 821 images).

3D modelling software

Using the digitised plans, the ETIS Laboratory, one of the project’s partners since it began, has developed a 3D modelling software. Although modelling using architects’ plans is commonplace nowadays, performing the same task using old plans is much more challenging, owing to the distinctive characteristics of the documents (symbols are not standardised, straight lines are imprecise, a variety of different types of drawing relating to the same place, etc.) and the fact that they have been digitised (crease marks, occasionally watermarks).

The 3D models produced are published in a standard format and can be viewed on any visualisation app.

The VERSPERA software can be used for any heritage building where there are enough sufficiently detailed archive plans to describe the building well, thus opening up infinite possibilities for the appreciation and promotion of both French and international built heritage.

3D virtual tours (in French)

In addition, for certain areas of the Palace which are of particular historical interest, students at the CY Cergy Paris Université (studying for the Vocational Bachelor’s Degree « Métiers du numérique : patrimoine, visualisation et modélisation 3D ») have helped to produce realistic virtual tours of extremely high aesthetic and technical quality:

>  La petite Galerie dite de Mignard (1685)
>  Le théâtre rêvé de Louis XV (1774)
>  Le salon des Nobles de la Reine (état actuel)
>  La quatrième chapelle (1682-1710)
>  Le grand cabinet intérieur de la reine Marie Leszczynska (1738)
>  La bibliothèque de Madame Sophie (projets de 1769)

Project research log (in French)

The project research log is a communications tool for reporting VERSPERA project content, its progress, and the work performed by the various teams and professions involved (scientific and technical staff). It also provides project updates and news, including the many scientific communications and publications produced by the project team.

Press releases (in French)

Communiqué de presse des 10 ans
Communiqué de presse BnF
Communiqué de presse lancement
Website produced with the support of:
Château de Versailles
Conseil général des Yvelines