The Elephant of the Bastille

"Mr. Worthing. I must confess that I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to..." Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Elephant of the Bastille

"Mr. Worthing. I must confess that I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to..." Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Elephant of the Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon, the colossal statue was intended to be created out of bronze and placed in the Place de la Bastille, but only a plaster full-scale model was built. At 24 m (78 ft) in height the model itself became a recognisable construction and was immortalised by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables (1862) in which it is used as a shelter by the street urchin Gavroche. It was built at the site of the Bastille and although part of the original construction remains, the elephant itself was replaced a few years after the construction of the July Column (1835-40) on the same spot.

 Elephant of the Bastille When the Bastille fell in July 1789, there was some debate as to what should replace it, or indeed if it should remain as a monument to the past. Pierre-François Palloy secured the contract to demolish the building, with the dimension stones being reused for the construction of the Pont de la Concorde and other parts sold by Palloy as souvenirs. Most of the building was removed over the subsequent months by up to 1,000 workers. In 1792 the area was turned into the Place de la Bastille with only traces of the fortress that had once dominated the area remaining.  Elephant of the Bastille In 1793, a fountain was built in the square. Known as the "Fountain of Regeneration", it had a very Egyptian-inspired design and depicted a woman with water flowing from her breasts. Napoleon planned many urban regeneration projects for Paris and was particularly fond of monuments to his victories. He wanted to create a significant triumphal structure to demonstrate his military prowess and began the process of designing a 24 m (78 ft) bronze elephant. He planned to use the bronze from cannon captured in battle melted down and recast to create an imposing structure. A stairway would allow visitors to ascend one of the elephant's legs to an observation platform on its back.  Elephant of the Bastille Dominique Vivant was given the task of overseeing the project. Initially Jacques Cellerier was chosen as the architect and work began in 1810 on the ground works, with the vaults and underground pipes completed by 1812.  At this point Jean-Antoine Alavoine was chosen to replace him and the main pool was soon completed. Alavoine, realising the need to show how the finished work would look, recruited Pierre-Charles Bridan to create a full-size model using plaster over a wooden frame.Completed in 1814, the model was protected by a guard named Levasseur who lived in one of the elephant's legs.  Elephant of the Bastille The construction work stopped in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. However, Alavoine was still seeking support to complete the project in 1833 and others also showed interest in finishing Napoleon's ambitious plans. In 1841 and 1843 the city council discussed options to complete the work using bronze, iron, or copper but none of the proposals was accepted. Nearby residents began to complain that rats were inhabiting the elephant and searching for food in their homes, petitioning for demolition from the late 1820s. The model elephant was not removed until 1846 by which time it showed considerable wear.  Elephant of the Bastille The elephant itself was described negatively by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables; little other account of contemporary public perception is available.
It was an elephant forty feet high, constructed of timber and masonry, bearing on its back a tower which resembled a house, formerly painted green by some dauber, and now painted black by heaven, the wind, and time. In this deserted and unprotected corner of the place, the broad brow of the colossus, his trunk, his tusks, his tower, his enormous crupper, his four feet, like columns produced, at night, under the starry heavens, a surprising and terrible form. It was a sort of symbol of popular force. It was sombre, mysterious, and immense. It was some mighty, visible phantom, one knew not what, standing erect beside the invisible spectre of the Bastille.
Few strangers visited this edifice, no passer-by looked at it. It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it … There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker. There was something about it of the dirt which is on the point of being swept out, and something of the majesty which is on the point of being decapitated. —Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862
The circular basin on which the elephant stood remains to this day and now supports the socle of the July Column.  

From Wikipedia.com
 

Leave a comment