The splendour of the Palace of Versailles and its magnificent, expansive gardens is truly breathtaking. The architectural grandeur of the palace exudes opulence and the perfectly manicured verdant estate is punctuated by lakes and gravelled pathways.
It is possible that words, in this case, are insufficient to accurately capture the experience of visiting this French former royal residence. The only way to appreciate it fully is by viewing it in person. However, if you cannot make it to Paris, residents of the UAE have another option. Using state-of-the-art technology, tours around a collection of European palaces and royal residences, including Versailles, which was built for King Louis XIV in the 17th century, are now available at the Alliance Francaise centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Also in the pipeline this year are encounters with renowned artworks from a network of museums. Viewers will be able to speculate, and even zoom in, on the famous smile of the Mona Lisa, gaze in wonder at the detail of Van Gogh's Starry Night or deconstruct the cubist forms of Picasso's Portrait of Dora Maar.
This is all thanks to the opening of Micro-Folie, a French cultural initiative that functions as a digital museum, allowing viewers to witness works of art and architecture on a cinema-size screen and a hand-held tablet that offers additional content, explanations and games about the images on the screen.
Launched in 2017 by La Villette, a French cultural organisation, Micro-Folie's first home was in Sevran, a suburb of Paris. The initiative now has a presence in 72 cities in countries including Turkey, Myanmar, China, Mexico and Peru. It has a database of digital images of 1,200 masterpieces from 12 major French institutions, including the Musee d'Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, the Musee du Louvre, the Musee Picasso-Paris, the Musee du Quai Branly and the Philarmonie de Paris, as well as a network of 34 museums under the Reunion des Musees Nationaux. Those images include artworks, artefacts, architecture and landscapes. Micro-Folie also offers a virtual reality experience that allows viewers to delve inside paintings or have a guided tour of a site of historical importance.
Alliance Francaise Dubai held an open day for Micro-Folie last Saturday and the technology was opened to the public in Alliance Francaise Abu Dhabi last year. Melanie Martini-Mareel, director of Alliance Francaise Dubai, says the venture allows audiences to be empowered by knowledge and understanding, assets that are particularly vital for younger generations.
“In terms of technology, this city is one of the most advanced in the world and people in Dubai
are used to being amazed so, this digital museum fits into the landscape well," she says. "However, at the same time, there is a need for deeper encounters with art and artists and Micro-Folie is bridging this gap. We are giving people weapons to understand and appreciate the images that they see around them in daily life."
While there are clear benefits to the technology in terms of education and cultural diplomacy, the question remains whether it is ever as effective to rely on a virtual experience in lieu of the real deal. Martini-Mareel says that rather than act as a replacement to seeing the original art, Micro-Folie is a way of increasing interest in museums and enticing people to visit.
Rose Balston, an art historian in Dubai and founder of Art History UK, says the opening of Micro-Folie adds an interesting dimension to the art scene in the UAE. "Digital art is hugely important and Micro-Folie is an exciting addition to the fabric of Dubai's art scene," she says.
However, she says the experience should be viewed as a resource and encourages art fans to see the works in real life. "Of course, nothing beats the original and as an art historian I am so fortunate to regularly be in the presence of the authentic work," she says. "Standing within a piece of architecture or next to a piece of art, the spine-tingling creativity packs the greatest punch. The history, provenance and atmosphere can be felt most potently. If you can get to Europe to see these works in the flesh, then go. If not, then this is a fantastic alternative and excellent resource."
Didier Fusillier, the president of La Villette, says he began the venture primarily to serve children who lived outside France's major cities. To overcome the difficulties of travelling to the museums, the concept was simply to move the work to the children using advanced technology.
The idea was so successful that it quickly grew internationally and is no longer limited to French museums. After a project was set up in Mexico City, for example, Micro-Folie collaborated with local museums to add several works by Frida Kahlo to the collection.
Fusillier is passionate about the benefits of the digital resource and says that rather than reduce the real-life experience of seeing art, it can actually improve it. "We've heard it said that nothing can ever replace seeing the Mona Lisa in person. And I actually agree, nothing will ever replace seeing the Mona Lisa for real," he says. "Except that the Mona Lisa cannot be seen, she is behind a window and there are always 15 rows of tourists standing in front of her. Anyone who tells you that they have seen the Mona Lisa has basically only seen a reflection of the painting. Within our device, you see an image of the Mona Lisa as you have never seen it before in very high resolution so that every detail is apparent."
The documents that accompany the works in Micro-Folie are designed and written by curators from various institutions. Therefore, when a visitor views the Mona Lisa, for example, they can also read about Leonardo da Vinci, as well as who the subject was, the landscape and Leonardo's painting style. Furthermore, there is a certain luxury in being able to take your time to ponder these works individually and receiving additional information about them.
To make the most of this venture, Alliance Francaise Dubai host guided tours of the collections every Saturday afternoon. So, while they cannot offer you an actual stroll around the gardens of Versailles, they can certainly offer a parallel experience.