1st October, 1803: Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul, decided that a commemorative column was to be erected in the Place Vendôme, modelled on the famous Trajan’s column in Rome.
A column for the Grande Armée
The Roman emperor Trajan (53 -117 AD) had his column constructed in 113 AD. It was built in the centre of the forum in Rome to celebrate his armies’ victories over Dacia. The column was decorated with bas-reliefs carved out of stone and arranged in a spiral round up to the top of the column, on which was mounted a bronze statue of the emperor. In January 1798, when the French armies vanquished the Austrians who ruled northern Italy, the French government of the time (called the Directory) wanted to transport this column to Paris. However they abandoned this idea.
Napoleon I was crowned emperor over the French people on the 4th December 1804. He returned victorious from his 1805 campaigns in Germany, having beaten the combined armies of Austria and Russia, led by Francis I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I, on the 2nd December 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz. Then, in January 1806, he decided to dedicate the column in the Place Vendôme to his Grande Armée, and it was to be built with the bronze melted down from captured enemy cannons.
A 220m-long comic strip in 3D relief!
Napoleon put the head of the Musée Napoléon (today’s Louvre), Vivant Denon, in charge of carrying out the project. The architects Jean-Baptiste Lepère and Jacques Gondouin dreamed up a column 44m high, comprised of stone cylinder onto which bronze plaques would be fixed. These 425 plaques would unwind in a spiral all the way up to the top of the statue; for us today this seems an odd idea since it is impossible to see all the reliefs together at the same time. Vivant Denon commissioned the painter Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret to depict scenes from the Emperor’s campaigns: the Boulogne Camp set up for the invasion of Britain, the departure of the army, and battle-scenes, up to the Emperor’s return to Paris at the head of his guard on the 26th January 1806. These bronze panels were created by a team of about a dozen sculptors.
Three statues for a historic symbol
The sculptor Antoine Chaudet chose to represent Napoleon as a Roman emperor, his forehead crowned with a laurel wreath, holding a winged Victory (i.e., a statue of a female figure symbolising military victory) in his left hand and a lowered shortsword (or glave) in his right. The column was inaugurated on the 15th August 1810, Napoleon I’s birthday. Napoleon did not attend the ceremony however; sveral months earlier he had married Marie Louise, archduchess of Austria…daughter of the same Emperor whose defeat on the 2nd December 1805 the column commemorated!
On the 31st March 1814, the forces allied against Napoleon entered Paris victorious. Napoleon abdicated at Fontainebleau a few days later, and then left for exile on the island of Elba. The victors removed Chaudet’s statue from the top of the column and replaced it with a flag decorated with the fleur de lys. This was the symbol of King Louis XVIII and the new regime, the Restoration (1814-1830).
With the passing years, the popularity of the emperor (who had died in exile on the island of St Helena on the 5th May 1821) grew and grew during the July Monarchy (1830-1848). Anxious to link himself with the Bonapartists, in 1831 the new king Louis-Philippe decided to install a new statue of Napoleon. The sculptor Charles-Emile Seurre chose a popular image of the emperor for the statue: dressed in his famous ‘redingote’ coat (the French word ‘redingote’ is a corruption of the English ‘riding coat’) and his trademark hat, his right hand tucked into his waistcoat and with the star of the Légion d’honneur on his chest, this is Napoleon represented as the ‘little corporal’; the sort of leader who would pull the ears of his soldiers as a compliment to their bravery.
In 1852, the new leader of France was the Emperor Napoleon III, having recently come to power following in his uncle’s footsteps. The new emperor replaced Seurre’s ‘little corporal’ statue with a new version depicting Napoleon I once again as a Roman emperor, the work of sculptor Auguste Dumont. The statue of Napoleon as the ‘little corporal’ was not put in storage but rather placed at the centre of the rond-point Courbevoie, just on the other side of the Place de l’Etoile, the site of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
And the column came tumbling down…
In 1870, Napoleon III’s army was defeated by the Prussians. In the following year, a part of the Parisian population rose up against the new French government. The new city authorities was called the Commune. It was a revolutionary regime which lasted from March – May 1871. On the 12th April 1871, the Commune decided to destroy the Vendôme Column, because it was to them the ‘symbol of brutal force and false glory’. On the 16th May, before a great crowd of people, a saw was taken to the base of the column, and this huge symbol of Napoleonic greatness (or despotism) crashed to the ground. After the fall of the Commune, the new government decided that the column should be repaired and re-erected; this was completed on the 28th December 1875.
The Vendôme Column was classified as a Historic Monument on the 31st March 1992.
Three more things you (probably) didn’t know about the Vendôme Column…
One of the best views in Paris
The Vendôme Column rests on a pedestal decorated with bas-reliefs of war motifs. A staircase of 176 steps winds up the hollow interior of the column, taking you right to the top of the monument. Standing at Napoleon’s feet you get one of the best views in Paris.
The Gustave Courbet affair
The painter, Gustave Courbet, a zealous member of the Commune authorities, had been first to launch the idea of destroying the Vendôme Column. After the fall of the Commune in 1873, he was sentenced to pay for the restoration of the column. However, he died on the 31st December 1877 without yet having paid a single penny.
How did the ‘little corporal’ statue of Napoleon end up at the Invalides?
When Napoleon III capitulated in 1870, some Parisians decided to take the statue and hide it. Transported by boat along the Seine, it fell into the river, but was fished out and kept in a warehouse in Paris for several years. On the 11th March 1911 it was installed in L’Hôtel des Invalides, which had been a hospital and a hospice for wounded soldiers since the time of Louis XIV. Napoleon was very interested in this institution, and in the fate of his soldiers. The Invalides today houses the Musée de l’Armée, the largest French military museum, and the dome constructed nearby looms over Napoleon’s tomb.