The “Invalides”, a witness of French history since 1670 – Meanderings through France n° 211
ByAnnick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
We all know the “Invalides” museum for being the place where Napoléon’s tomb is, but this huge place has much more to tell us about French history. Today the ‘Invalides” celebrate their 350th anniversary and invite us to celebrate this important year through special events and festivities.
The “Invalides” through history
Literally the “Invalides” means the “disabled war veterans” and this “residence” was indeed created and built especially for them by King Louis XIV. In 1670 Louis XIV had already waged several wars and he had the biggest armed forces in Europe. Many war veterans were disabled, homeless and jobless and Louis’ plan was to provide them a retirement home as a gesture of thanks for their contribution.
As can be expected from Louis XIV, he thought big! He bought a large field area on the River Seine banks, on what was then the outskirts of Paris and built a new city in the city. From the beginning the “Invalides” were much more than a retirement house and included a hospital, a military compound, a cathedral, a convent and a manufacturing centre where veterans made shoes, tapestries and illuminated books.
As you can imagine the “Invalides” were an immediate success and soon were filled with 4,000 men. In his twilight years Louis XIV saw in the “Invalides” the most useful work of his reign, even before Versailles! The “Invalides” welcome disabled veterans ever since and still today injured soldiers from overseas serving as well as victims of Parisian terrorist attacks are being taken care of in their hospital.
During the First Empire Napoleon created a “military necropolis” to honour great French soldiers such as Turenne or Vauban. It’s only natural that when the Emperor’s ashes were able to go back to France in 1840, its tomb should be built in the heart of the Invalides. It took more than 20 years to build the impressive tomb under the Dome of the Invalides that was open to the public in 1861. Today 1,2 millions people go every year to visit this tomb. The ashes of the Emperor’s son the Eaglet who died at 21 in 1832 in Vienna were also set under the dome next to his father’s tomb in 1940. Famous French warriors of the 20th century such as “Marechals” Lyautey, Leclerc and Juin also rest in peace in the “Invalides”.
The “Invalides” today
A huge square, the Invalides Esplanade, stretches between the Seine and the monumental gates and it’s quite impressive to walk down the alley lined with ancient bronze cannons. You slowly discover the long facade embellished with military bas-reliefs and a statue of Louis XIV. If you have enough time don’t just go to Napoleon’s tomb and visit the St Louis cathedral (yes! there are two cathedrals in Paris) where captured flags are hung under the vault and one or more of the three museums set in the former refectories and dormitories of the veterans. The “Musée de l’Armée (the Army museum) has the most important war objects collection in the world with over 500,000 artefacts. Most of them are ancient uniforms, weapons and armours as well as paintings from prehistory to our time, from the whole world.
The “Musées des Plans Relief” set there in 1777 also is one of Louis XIV works. This unique collection is made of 3D maps of France fortified cities. These huge scale models (some of them are 10 sq meters large) are true masterpieces and through the centuries the collection has grown to 250 models of which 91 have survived. Made of wood, paper, cardboard and silk they are quite unique and spectacular.
The third and last museum is dedicated to France Liberation in 1944 – 45. It was created in 1970 to pay tribute to all the people who resisted the German occupation during WWII.
Celebrating the 350th anniversary
Many events, concerts, exhibitions and celebrations will take place at the Invalides all through 2020. For a detailed programme please go to www.musee-armee.fr/en/english-version.html
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny