Château Borély: where old and new luxury meet

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Having lived in Marseille a long time ago it was great to have the opportunity to explore the city and familiar sites after it was chosen as European Capital of Culture in 2013. Back in ‘Ye olden times’ when Marseille was home the Château Borély was a museum for archaeology, but I remember it as a closed building in a nice park. Nowadays the park is still very nice, and its a popular area to escape the city with wonderful beaches and green spaces to explore. The castle received an overhaul in time for the 2013 events, it is now a museum of applied arts, faïence and fashion.

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Above:  l’escalier d’honneur with its grisaille wall paintings of female figures of classical antiquity and a ceiling with Apollo on his chariot painted by Louis Chaix. 

The château was built for a family of very successful merchants of Marseille that were ennobled by Louis XV in 1753. After aquiring several properties next to each other the plan emerged to build a large retreat for which the first design was commisionned from Charles-Louis Clérisseau in 1767. Clérisseau was to become an influential figure in the dissemination of the neo-classical style, and he had links with Thomas Jefferson and Robert Adam and was later appointed architect at the court of Catherine the Great. His design was not used exactly but did inspire the end result which is far more restrained in appearance.

This château should not be seen in the same light as a great country house or historic castle with long family connections to a domain, instead this is a grand house used to escape the city on warm days and receive guests. In the Provence these are known as Bastides, and several of them survive in and around Marseille, though the Borély family undoubtedly created the most sumptuous example.

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Above: The Salon doré with the long Radassière

The original interiors survive to a large extent and they have undergone conservation and restoration treatment for the recent re-opening. Of note are the vestibule with its grand staircase, the Salon doré, the state bedroom, the study, and the oval chapel and bathroom. Even though the Borély spared no expense in displaying thefact that their taste was up to date with the latest fashions there are still some clues that features that are specific to the region such as the use of clay tiles, or tommettes, on the floors. Another example can be found in the opulent Salon doré which has a piece of furniture known as Radassière, a long bench with cushions used to repose on during the warmest hours of the day.

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Above: The study, the original glazed bookcases adapted for the display of small objects such as carved ivory and Chinese snuff bottles. 

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Above: The State Bedroom

The ensemble of the State Bedroom displays the fashion for exotic textiles and patterns. The bed hangings, walls and seating are all covered in Palampore fabrics with intricate tree of life motifs. Next to this bedroom is the chapel with an intricately inlaid oval floor.

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Above: The Zuber panoramic wallpaper of 1815

A long corridor has been transformed to exhibit a very fine example of panoramic wallpaper. The design is known as la grande Helvétie and depicts an idealised bucolic vision of Switzerland and it was printed at the Zuber factory in Rixheim in 1815.

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Above: The Galerie des céramiques

The approach taken to the design of the new museum within the historic spaces is interesting. Rather than simply adding some unobtrusive glass cases the approach here is very much a dialogue between old an new. the designer Mathieu Lehanneur created interiors with decidedly new materials such highly reflective plastics in unusual colours. In the Galerie des céramiques for instance the reflective terra cotta of the historic tommettes on the floor seems to have inspired the use of an high gloss orange finish for the new elements.

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Above: The Grand Salon

Another great example of this balancing of old and new can be seen in the Grand Salon. Here Mathieu Lehanneur used the hexagonal pattern of the tommettes as inspiration for the luxurious version in bronze which is then also used as a background colour for the display cases. Suspended below the original ceiling is a undulating black epoxy ceiling which reflects and distorts the luxury displayed below.

This approach to designing exhibits in historical settings is of course easy to criticise as its not a purist approach to the surroundings, yet i do like it. especially within opulent interiors there is a risk that any new or temporary insertion that was designed to be unobtrusive will detract both from the surroundings and the exhibit. Cheap MDF and similar materials often seen used in such cases simply cannot hold their own against the sheer opulence of spectalucar settings like this. The French understand this very well, a case in point can be found in the Grands Projets of Mitterand that not only transformed but significantly added to the existing architectural heritage of Paris to such an extent that most of these sites have gained iconic status.

A the Château Borély this approach illustrates that the wonderful examples of luxury of the past have contemporary echoes.

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