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 Interesting Article 
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Duc/Duchesse
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VERSAILLES, France: Once a week, Bernard Draux, a discreet Frenchman, joins the secret life of Versailles, a palace where even without its long-gone kings much still happens away from the public eye.

Draux is the chateau's official clockmaker and timekeeper. His task is to wind and repair close to 100 antique clocks that once served Europe's most glittering court.

Every Monday, when the monumental palace is closed, he sets out on his solitary mission with a small set of precision tools and a heavy bundle of keys, opening up contraptions that are often as baroque as the chateau itself.

There are gilded clock faces fixed onto bronze camels or marble elephants. Some have music boxes hidden inside. Grand 18th-century pieces, which remarkably have survived theft and revolution, record not just the hour, date and month but also the movements of the planets.

None of this seems to faze Draux, 49, a man with a mournful face and a heavy mustache, whose own modest wristwatch runs on a battery.

There

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he was, on a recent round, cantering through the chateau's labyrinth of back stairs, slipping in and out of salons and alcoves as if this were a visit to an old family home. He made frequent stops, tugging deftly at a weight here, nudging a pendulum there.

Why, he was asked, was such an effort being made to record the time in such a timeless place?

"Eh bien, the clocks belong here," he said with an irrefutable air. "They have two functions. They must preserve their beauty and they must work properly. It doesn't look good when clocks are not accurate."

But it is not quite punctuality - the French like a little leeway here - that perpetuates the task of the official timekeeper. France gives much weight to traditional skills, even as it adopts its share of American-style mass-produced consumer goods.

Draux's task may be one of a kind, but it offers a glimpse of the enormous energy and cost the country puts into preserving its heirlooms, its great museums and, with that, many here believe, the national cultural identity.

Arguably, the tradition of cherishing traditional workmanship and heritage is as much part of Europe as it is of France. But the French articulate more loudly their need to preserve distinction and often warn that globalized manufacture and trade, if left unfettered, may end up covering the world with a blanket of sameness.

The government employs a legion of men and women - their numbers vary according to the projects - adept at carving antique wood or stone, repairing stucco or wrought iron, or rehabilitating ancient frames and weavings.

Such trades, and the unfashionable patience they require, may gain little public applause elsewhere, but here they rank as high as patriotism.

Investing in history has its rewards. As one of the world's main tourist destinations, France received 75 million visitors in 2004.

Versailles is seen by 10 million people a year. Curators say the palace, with its 700 rooms and thousands of windows, statues, chandeliers and curlicues, has been high maintenance ever since the 1660s when the Sun King, Louis XIV, first moved in.

Today a staff of 900 looks after it, although hundreds more are now involved in the museum's most ambitious renovation project. The grand overhaul began in 2003 and is expected to take 17 years and more than $450 million in government and private money.

Draux hopes the restoration may include some of the exceptional clocks that are in storage, awaiting repair.

Clocks may not loom large in the lore about the extravagance of the royalty here, but by many accounts there was little free time.

"Clocks were very important here, even in the 17th century, because life at the court was full of rigor and rituals," said Mathieu da Vinha, a historian at the Versailles Research Center.

"There were fixed times for the rising of the king, for prayers, for government meetings, for meals, for walks, for the hunt, for the concerts and so on. Everyone had to be on their toes." Louis XIV had not one, but four clockmakers working for him, he said. "When he traveled, the clockmakers, and many clocks, went with him."

That accounts for the legacy of the timepieces here, and for the work of Draux, who learned his craft from his father and grandfather.

"Each clock here is unique because they were made like a work of art, before the age of mass production," he said.

He stopped at the oldest clock, marked 1706, shining his flashlight on a complex array of weights, toothed wheels, bolts and pivots. "Each one is so different, I don't really know a clock until I have taken it apart," he murmured. "And of course there are no instructions."

He activated the clock's music box and a mechanical show that usually is blocked "because it causes traffic jams in this room." As the small hammers sounded midday, a pair of eagles flapped their wings and a miniature king on a throne popped out. "Hear that sound," he said, "it's still in great form."

Draux showed his awe before the clock of Passement, named after its maker, an engineer and astronomer. It was crowned with a glass sphere. Inside it, golden rings registered the movements of the planets. "This is a perpetual calendar, it can show the date until the year 9999," he said.

Did he know how to repair it? No, he said, "fortunately there's been no need."

Draux pressed on, because he still had to fix a few laggards. As if to show he was not living in the past, Draux said he also looked after two giant electric clocks in the Stade de France, the main sports stadium in the Paris area. But he does draw the line against modernity somewhere.

"I will not use a cellphone," he said.

"In my job, I have to concentrate."


Wed Dec 12, 2007 11:00 pm
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Duc/Duchesse
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Joined: Mon May 28, 2007 8:21 pm
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That was interesting, thanks for posting.


Thu Dec 13, 2007 12:50 am
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I agree, very interesting; thank you. :D


Thu Dec 13, 2007 7:46 pm
Prince/Princesse
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Post Re: Interesting Article
Alice I love your avatar, it is a Vigée Le Brun, and I contemplated it for a long while recently in the Metropolitan art museum in New York, where it is hung. It is of Talleyrand's wife, Madame Grand, quite a character at the time, and very beautiful.

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Thu Jan 10, 2008 9:17 pm
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Thank you Baron. :D
If I ever get the chance to visit NY, I will definitly check out that museum.


Tue Jan 15, 2008 3:53 pm
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