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The Gilded City

photo: figure, pont alexandre
Gilded tableau on the Pont Alexandre III.

Paris Life - No 26

by Laurel Avery

Paris:- Friday, 21. November 2003:- To me, Paris has always been the gilded city. While I have been told that other cities employ similar amounts of gold on their architectural monuments, I have never personally seen so much used anywhere else.

As I was riding the number 28 bus the other day, just as the sun was setting, we rode by the Hôtel des Invalides, whose gilded dome was standing out like a beacon against the dark stormy sky behind it.

Later that evening, while on a different bus, I was able to observe through the windows of the apartmentsphoto: decor, place concorde we passed by - it's amazing how few people bother with curtains in Paris - that a good number of them had gilded ceilings and walls.

Gilded elements of lamp piller on the Pont de la Concorde.

Maybe a couple hundred years ago there was some itinerant gilder going door-to-door convincing all the residents that to have a gilded ceiling was the height of fashion. Hey - look at all the gold used at Versailles! You never know when the king might stop by for an aperitif, and you want to make him feel at home.

Perhaps one of the reasons the gilding is particularly striking here is that Paris is so often dark and rainy. Real gold has a property that reflects light unlike any other metal, which may be why I use it so often in my own art work.

Medieval illuminators, whose work I base mine upon, knew the power of using gold in their manuscripts. Technically, an 'illuminated' manuscript must contain either gold or silver leaf, even if it is lavishly embellished with painted decoration.

In the days when these books were created, the only available artificial light came from candles, sophoto: tuileries grille the addition of gold to these books reflected any ambient light, which helped to illuminate the page.

It's amazing that such a wispy, ephemeral thing can have such a powerful effect. A single leaf of gold is practically weightless, and to manipulate it is no easy thing. It can't be picked up with bare hands, as it sticks to any slightly greasy surface. Due to its extraordinary thinness, if you rub a leaf between your hands, it will disappear completely. To gild the entire dome of the Hôtel des Invalides took only six kilos of gold.

Detail of grille surrounding the Tuileries.

When placed on a prepared surface and burnished, gold leaf can be as reflective as a mirror, making whatever it is covering look like it is made of solid gold. One of the best properties of gold is that it does not tarnish. Hundreds of years later, the gold in a medieval manuscript still shines as brightly as the day it was burnished. The gilding on an outdoor monument lasts about 25 years.

The Cluny Museum in Paris has some of the finest examples of illuminated manuscripts that are available for public viewing. Since the pages are encased in glass frames that you can turn like pages in a book, you can get up close to them, enabling you to examine the exquisite detail and craftsmanship involved. The gold in them positively glows.

Dimitri Shipounoff, a master conservator of gilded objects on wood who specializes in antique frames, or 'leaf jockey,' as he calls himself, tells the tale of an old gilder in Washington D.C. who worked with the Smithsonian.

The gilder was being paid a visit by a young man one day at his atelier when the young man noticed thephoto: illuminated d, by l avery gilder's cushion with gold leaf laid upon it. He went over to examine it and the old man said, "Son, don't touch that stuff. It will drive you crazy."

The young man became a gilder soon after. Whether he subsequently ended up in an asylum, I don't know.

One of my illuminated letters.

After having worked with it for few years now, I have definitely caught a kind of 'gold fever' myself. It makes you want to gild everything in sight. My roommate misunderstood what I said one day and thought I said I wanted to gild the television. I'm not quite that crazy yet, but give me some time.

Le Musée National du Moyen Age - Cluny - as well the Hôtel de Cluny being one of three existing remaining medieval structures in Paris, it contains remains of Roman-era thermal baths. Hours from 9:15 until 17:45, but closed on Tuesdays. At 6. Place Paul-Painlevé, Paris 5. Métro: Cluny- Sorbonne. InfoTel.: 01 53 73 78 00.

Text & photos, Laurel Avery © 2003
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