The art of gilding
The unique and stately appearance of the whole CITY PALACE as it is today is largely the work of Peter Hubert Desvignes. On assuming the regency in 1836, Prince Alois II inherited among other properties the palace on Bankgasse, which was no longer occupied at that time. Originally the building was to be renovated and modernized without any significant construction costs. However, things were to take a very different turn.
A REMODELLING IN THE ROCOCO REVIVAL STYLE
He commissioned the English architect and designer Peter Hubert Desvignes to remodel his CITY PALACE
in the Rococo Revival style. Desvignes’s plans entailed structural alterations and the latest technological innovations. He moved the piano nobile up to the second floor, where the golden Ballroom is situated, because the first floor was shaded by the nearby city walls. An annexe was added on the Löwelbastei,
one of the city’s bastions, and joined to the CITY PALACE by a diaphragm arch. The majority of the Baroque furnishings were removed, and while Desvignes left the Baroque staircase more or less untouched, he overlaid Santino Bussi’s stuccowork with additional ornamentation. The Baroque décor of the walls and floor was also entirely reworked. Only the most exquisite materials and the very best artisans were good enough for the interior decoration.
THE REVITALIZATION OF THE CITY PALACE
The restoration of the gilding constituted a major focus of the complex revitalization of the Liechtenstein CITY PALACE (2008–2013). In order to restore the original lustre of Desvignes’s opulent nineteenth-century décor and to guarantee the authenticity of the interiors, the gilding, where possible, was simply cleaned. Depending on the type of gilding, it was either gently vacuumed with a special appliance, or dusted with a soft brush, or cleaned with cotton buds and soapy water. Regilding was only undertaken where sections were missing, with all the newly regilded elements being matched with the original gilding. This approach meant that only 1.5 kilograms of new gold were used. That may not seem very much in terms of weight, but it translates into around 150,000 pieces of gold leaf that all had to be applied by hand.
The wafer-thin sheets are made from pure or very high-carat gold alloys. However, the making of gold leaf from fine gold is a long and complex process: first, the fine gold is alloyed with silver and copper to produce different shades. The metal is then melted in a furnace at a temperature of more than 1200 degrees Celsius and cast as a bar weighing a little more than a kilogram. Afterwards the bar is milled mechanically into a band approximately 100 metres long and just four centimetres wide. The gold is now about as thick as a piece of newspaper. Cut into squares and placed between parchment paper in several hundred layers in a press, the gold is beaten by a gold-beater until it is just a thousandth of a millimetre thick. In a final step, the sheets are laboriously beaten by hand with ever heavier hammers until each one is many times thinner than a human hair. A pile of around ten thousand sheets would reach a height of one millimetre.
Applying these thin, fragile leaves without any creasing to the element that is to be gilded is an art in itself. There are two types of gilding, depending on the base used: water-gilding and oil-gilding. In the case of water-gilding the gold leaf is applied to a wooden support with egg-white or glue. The disadvantage is that this type of adhesive is water-soluble and the gilded elements are thus very difficult to clean. Metal, stone or stucco can be enriched with oil-gilding. The surface of the object is brushed with specially treated oil. Once it has hardened the gold leaf can be applied in the same way as water-gilding. The advantage of this method is that the gilding is then weatherproof and thus suitable for applying to objects out of doors. Nevertheless, it is not possible to polish the gold, in contrast to water-gilding. In both cases the gilder has only one attempt at applying the gold leaf. Once it has been applied it cannot be removed and reapplied.
It is thus unsurprising that the gilders working on the CITY PALACE took approximately 54,000 working hours to restore its historic interiors to their former glory.