Like the Eiffel Tower, the dome of the Invalides is visible from every part of Paris. When you look down from the top of the Montmartre Hill, you will, of course, see a good many other domes scattered about, but the two most conspicuous ones will be the dome of the Invalides on your right and the dome of the Pantheon on your left.
On a conducted city tour of Modern Paris, the Invalides is generally the second stop, the first one being at the Madeleine Church. Then comes the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s Arch of Triumph, and after that the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. However, if you wish to walk it, you can approach it either by way of the Avenue de Tourville, as I suggested when we left the Champ-de-Mars, or you can approach it by way of the Pont Alexander III and the Esplanade, the beautifully terraced promenade which extends from the Invalides all the way to the Seine. However as we came from the Eiffel Tower, let us approach it from that direction. By doing so, we can visit Napoleon’s Tomb first and after that we can walk through the Military Museum or, if we are not interested in the instruments of war, we can walk around the right-hand side of the building and visit the Rodin Museum, which is only a few steps from the Invalides, at number 77 Rue de Varenne. And after that, we can walk down the length of the Espl
The Hotel des Invalides was built at the order of Louis XIV in 1670 to provide a home for disabled soldiers. The buildings-all except the dome-were designed by the famous French architect Liberal Bruant and erected during the years 1671-1676. This soldiers’ home was designed to accommodate and feed seven thousand invalids and also included a special soldiers’ church. Although this may seem like a pretty big building to put up in the middle of a city, you must not forget that at that time this entire area was still open country. However, the great dome under which Napoloeon’s remains are entombed was not started until 1679, and then by Mansart, who took twenty-seven years to build it.
Today, the Invalides is, of course, no longer a home for old soldiers, though it still retains every bit of its military character. In addition to the military museums, it is now also the residence of the Military Governor of Paris and also houses the various offices connected with National Defence, and perhaps, also arsenals. It was to these arsenals that the Paris mob marched on the early morning of July 14, 1789, in order to obtain the cannons and the rifles for the storming of the Bastille. However, in order to keep things in their chronologoical order I shall try to describe the beginning of this immense group of buildings first. The facade on the Esplanade end is six hundred ninety feet long, but as another wing was added on each side of these buildings later, the overall width at the dome end is just a little short of being a thousand feet. In acreage, this roughly means an area of close to sixteen acres, and that is some area to be covered by one continuous building.
When you enter these buildings from the Esplanade end, you will first come into a huge court which is known as the Cozir d’Honneur. This court is open to the public, but besides this there are sixteen other courts within this huge group of buildings. At the end of the Cour d’Honneur is the Statue of Napoleon, dressed .as a corporal, which stood on top of the Vendome column before Napoleon III had it removed as not being in keeping with his reign. It is at this end, also, that you will find the entrance to the original soldiers’ church, which is known as the Church of Saint Louis and. is also open to the public. Supported from flagpoles, along both sides of the church, are what remains of the flags Napoleon captured during his numerous campaigns. However, very few ,of them are anything but tatters now and of some of them nothing remains but the gold tassels. It is, nevertheles, .an impressive sight, even though one cannot help the feeling that in another hundred years nothing of all this fragile material will still be intact, though the fame of the soldiers who captured them will. At the end of this ,church, on the right-hand side, is the chapel of Napoleon, in which you will find the death mask taken off him at :St. Helena and also the unmarked slab of stone which covered his grave there. If you plan to visit any of the military museums-and they are considered to be the foremost in the world-you may do so after you leave this church. All of these are located on the two floors facing the Cour d’Honneur. However, guide books will generally tell you that in order to see everything in these museums, you will have to figure on at least a three- or four-hour visit, and not many tourists are willing to do that.
After you leave this church you can reach the great ,dome under which Napoleon is buried by going along the ,corridor to the left of the church. This will bring you out into the open again and thence to the front of the main church, where you purchase an admission ticket at a little booth at your right. If you come from the direction of the Avenue de “Tourville, you can enter the dome first. The best view of the dome of the Invalides is, of course, to be had from some distance away, and if you follow the Avenue de Tourville, as I originally suggested, you will be walking right up to it. And now, something about the great dome. It seems that only a few years after the Invalides had been completed, its church was already found to be too small. In order to rectify this, Louis XIV ordered his architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart-the same Mansart who built the Place Vendome-to add another church at the end of it. However, this was not just to be another church but a church of such splendor as would do justice to the “Sun King.” And that is exactly what Mansart did for today the dome of the Invalides-it is actually known as the Eglise du Dome though it is of course no longer a church-is considered to be one of the foremost monuments in Paris. However splendid as it is it could not have added very much to the seating capacity of the old church onto which it opens so that the suggestion that Louis XIV had secretly intended this splendid monument as a burial site for himself may not be entirely unfounded. The crypt in which Napoleon’s sarcophagus rests was not, of course, added until almost a century and a half later. But what are centuries in Paris?
The dome of the Invalides is ninety-two feet in diameter and rises to a height of three hundred forty-five feet. This makes it the largest dome in Paris, the dome of the Pantheon being only seventy-four feet in diameter and two hundred seventy-two feet high although from a distance it appears to be higher, but that is only because it stands on a hill. The dome itself consists of two stories, which, in turn, rise out of a two-story base. The twelve gabled windows in the dome are in the shape of helmets and the Roman trophies above and below them are forty feet high, and both the trophies and the exterior ribs of the dome are gilded.
The style of the Invalides is what is known as the Jesuit style and is based mostly on the style of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Louis on the Rue St. Antoine, which, in turn, was an attempt to copy the style of the Church of Gesu in Rome. The chief characteristics of this style are a double or a triple tier of columns along the facade. In the Invalides there are forty-four columns in three tiers, but of these twenty-four are around the first floor of the dome. With the exception of the brief period during the French Revolution, during which religion was outlawed, the Eglise du Dome remained a church until 1840 when Napoleon’s body was brought back from St. Helena and it was decided to bury his remains in a special crypt which was to be prepared for him under the great dome. However, before I go on to describe this tomb, I think I should tell you something about the man for whom it was prepared.
After Napoleon’s second abdication, he voluntarily surrendered himself to the British man-of-war “Bellerophon” on July 15, 1815, and was taken to England. The period between March 20, 1815, the date of his arrival in Paris after his escape from Elba, and the return of Louis XVIII on June 28, 1815, is generally known in history as the “Hundred Days.” However, he did not find the English to be the “most constant and the most generous of enemies” he expected them to be when he wrote his letter of surrender to the commander of the “Bellerophon,” and perhaps it is understandable that there should have been some members of the English Government who wanted to execute him forthwith. It is also understandable that feelings in England against the usurper, only thirty-six days after Waterloo, should have run high. After all the British left fifteen thousand dead ,on that battlefield; Bliicher lost seven thousand, but the French lost forty thousand. Under these circumstances it was no doubt highly to the credit of both Wellington and Tsar Alexander I that they both set their faces resolutely against any sort of death penalty. But what was to follow was, perhaps, even worse.
The “Bellerophon” reached Plymouth Harbor on July 22. After three weeks of uneasy deliberations, the Allies finally decided to banish, him once more, and this time to the remote Island of St. Helena in the Indian Ocean, off the western coast of Africa. He and the three attendants he was allowed to take along with him, plus a doctor, were then transferred to another ship, the “Northumberland” and conveyed to his last place of exile, where they arrived after a voyage of more than two months on October 15. He died there six years later, on May 5, 1821, and at the age of only fifty-two. He was buried in an unmarked grave, the stone slab of which is now in the Soldiers’ Church, as I already mentioned.
In his last testament, Napoleon had expressed the wish that he be buried on the banks of the Seine. It was, after all, a modest request for a man who had done so much for France, and especially for Paris. Nevertheless, his body remained on this desolate island for twenty years, unattended except by a weeping willow. But about ten years after he died, a movement got under way in France to bring his body back to Paris. In this movement, Victor Hugo was one of the leading spirits. Anyhow, after seven years of negotiations with the English, whose permission had to be obtained, permission to remove his body was finally granted. Louis-Philippe’s son, the Prince of Joinville, was then dispatched on the Frigate “La Belle Poule” to bring his body back to France. “La Belle Poule” landed at Cherbourg on December 2, 1840, and on December 15 the cask containing his body was conveyed to the Invalides in the presence of an immense crowd. However, as no final decision had been made on a suitable tomb, or even where it was to be, his body was temporarily placed in the Soldiers Church, where it was to remain for twenty years. After it had been decided to bury him under the dome, the floor of the Eglise du Dome was then excavated and made into the crypt you see there now. This audacious undertaking-audacious when you consider the weight of the building above-was entrusted to the architect Visconti and took eighteen years to complete. It was not until April 3, 1861 that the sarcophagus containing his remains was finally placed in the crypt.
When you, too, finally come to look down over the marble balustrade into this magnificent crypt, you will probably think that this surely is a far cry from the unmarked stone slab that marked his grave on St. Helena, but it is, after all, no more than he deserved. There is nothing at the Invalides either that would tell you the identity of the man who is buried there. But then, who would have to be told, except me, on my first visit to Paris, more than thirty years ago, when, on leaving the Pantheon, I asked the one-armed old veteran at the entrance why I wasn’t shown the tomb of Napoleon. “Ah, Monsieur,” he said, “Napoleon is not buried here, but at les Invalides.” But I skipped the Emperor’s tomb that year just the same because we must always save something for our next visit. But what an awful lot of water has flown over the dam of history since!
The massive catafalque is of red porphyry, the rough stones of which were a gift of the Tsar of Russia, and rests on a base of green granite. It took more than a year to transport these blocks to Paris and another two years to cut and polish them. Just in case you didn’t bring your guide book with you, I may also mention that the Emperor’s body, garbed in the uniform of a Chasseur de la CUarde, was placed in six coffins, one inside the other. The first one is of tinned sheet iron, the second one of mahogany, then came two layers of lead sheathing, then another coffin of ebony, and finally one of oak. Extending from the floor of the crypt almost to the top of it are twelve colossal figures representing Napoleon’s principal campaigns. At the end of the building are two stairways that lead down into the crypt, and one may go as far as the two large bronze doors that lead into the crypt proper. Carved above these doors in gold letters are the words from his last testament: “Je desire que m.es cendres reposent sur les bords de la Seine, an milieu de ce people Franpis que j’ai tant, aime.”
Besides the Tomb of the Emperor, there are a number of other tombs in the side chapels of the main floor. Two of these are of Napoleon’s brothers, Joseph, whom he had made King of Naples, and Jerome, whom he had made King of Westphalia. In the latter’s chapel you will also find the bronze casket of 1’Aiglon, Napoleon’s only son, whom he had made King of Rome. In 1940 the Nazis returned his body from Vienna, where he had been buried, as a gesture of “good will.” Then there is the Tomb of Turenne, famous military Commander of the Thirty Years’ War, as well as that of Vauban, the famous military engineer of the seventeenth century. The remains of both of these men were brought to the Invalides at the order of Napoleon, long before he ever dreamed that his tomb might be there some day, too. In another of the corner chapels is the Tomb of La Tour d’Auvergne, one of the most famous soldiers of the Wars of the Revolution; and opposite to him, also in a chapel of his own, is the Tomb of Marshal Foch, with an impressive bronze group of six life-sized poilus carrying his body to its last resting place. This group is by Paul Landowski, and to my mind a very impressive work. Behind the high altar, through the open grille-work of which you can look into the Soldiers’ Church, are the Tombs of Duroc, Marshal of Napoleon’s household who was killed in battle in 1813, and Bertrand, who was Marshal of his household on St. Helena and stuck it out with him to the bitter end.
Well, some months ago a friend of mine who had just returned from Paris-she is no historian-said to me that all she heard in Paris was Napoleon, Napoleon, Napoleon. But how could it be otherwise? Even if he had not been one of the greatest military geniuses that ever lived, how could one ever forget the things he did for France, and especially for Paris. It is to him that we owe the Madeleine Church, the facade on the Palais-Bour,bon, the two Arches of Triumph, a large part of the north wing of the Louvre, and the Rue de Rivoli. Like his successor, Napoleon III, he ruthlessly demolished slum areas and built new housing projects. Besides the Rue de Rivoli, Paris owes him no less than sixty other streets. He also built the Pont d’Jena and the Pont d’Austerlitz, ordered new sewers to be laid, numbered the houses, and augmented the city’s water supply. He also gave France the Code Napoleon, which is still the law of the land, and during that fearful upheaval, known as the French Revolution, he brought order out of chaos. I don’t know how he did all this during the brief periods he was not in the field with his armies, but he did it. And all this, if we begin with the date on Which he was declared Emperor (May 18, 1804) in the space of only fifteen years. Is it any wonder that he wrote in his journal in St. Helena that it would be centuries before the combination of circumstances that permitted him to do all this would occure again? Maybe never.