With 8,100 Sculptures, 5,000 Pieces of Furniture, 2,150 Windows and 67 Staircases, the [Pounds Sterling]400m Restoration of Versailles Will Take 17 Years in Total. but as These Stunning Photographs Show, It Will Be Worth the Wait; RESTORATION

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LOUIS XIV would have been thrilled. Dripping with gold leaf and awash with gilded cherubs, frescoes, marble and 358 mirrors, the glittering Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles has been restored to its former - if over the top - splendour.

Gone are umpteen layers of dust, grime and the thick, sticky paint used in a botched restoration half a century ago. Now, the lapis lazuli used to decorate the vast, vaulted ceiling blazes bright blue once more.

A formerly dark patch of one fresco, The Acquisition Of Dunkerque, painted in 1662, has turned a light cornflower, revealing a previously obscured human face. Meanwhile Mercury, the god of speed and commerce and the centrepiece of the ceiling medallion, gleams young and virile.

Veronique Sorano-Stedman, a conservation and restoration specialist, has spent the past 20 months painstakingly restoring the salon's ceiling paintings as part of a 60-strong team.

'It has been an incredibly slow, but amazingly rewarding process,' she says.

'We'd spend months on a single painting - sometimes weeks on a section of sky no bigger than a handkerchief, working with tiny brushes and high-tech solvent gels, but to see 17th-century paintings re-emerge is magnificent. The heart and emblem of Versailles has recovered its splendour.' Versailles occupies a special place in French history, as an architectural treasure and a political symbol. In 1789, during the French Revolution, it was ransacked, the silver and gold melted down, the furniture auctioned off and the royal family carted off to prison. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were later beheaded.

Today, with seven million people passing through its ornate gates each year, it remains one of the country's most popular attractions. The [pounds sterling]12 million makeover is just the first phase of an extensive renovation of the 700-room chateau and its surroundings, which is expected to take 17 years. …