As I mentioned to you yesterday, the Place Vendome is only a very short distance from the Place de I’Opera, so that, if you happened to have located in the Opera section, you will probably walk into it on your very first day. But even if you have located elsewhere, you will come into this square before you have been many days in Paris, for all conducted bus tours through the city will take you through it sooner or later.
Unlike the Place de l’Opera, the Place Vendome is ‘quite large, for I would judge it to be at least four hundred feet square. It is also octagonal in shape, and all the houses around it are built in identical style. There is, of course, nothing unusual about that, but there are a good many unusual features about this square just the same, including the one-hundred forty four foot high column which stands in the middle of it. But to me, the most unusual thing about this square has always been the fact that it is located in the very heart of modern Paris. For this square and the buildings that surround it, believe it or not, have been here, exactly as they are today, for more than two hundred fifty years.
Your guide book will tell you that the houses which surround this square were built between the years 1702 and 1720; that the square is built on or near the site formerly occupied by the palace of the First Duke of Vendome, who happened to be the son Henry IV had by Gabrielle d’Estrees; that the architect was Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and that will be all there will be to, it, outside, of course, of a brief history of the column that stands in the middle of it. But what most guide books will not tell you is that when this square was first projected, the Paris which surrounded it in those days was still very far from what it is today, and to me that has always been a miracle.
To begin with, when Hardouin-Mansart started to build the Place Vendome, the old city walls which formerly ran along the entire length of the Grand Boule vards, whence we just came, had just recently been torn down and sections of them were probably still in process of being demolished. There was, as yet, no Place de l’Opera, no Madeleine Church, no Place de la Concorde,. naturally, no Rue de la Paix, and only the faintest beginning of a Champs-Elysées. To the north of it there was, a rambling Capucine Convent, and to the west of it, all the way to where the Rue Royale now is, there was still much vacant ground. And yet, these buildings have been standing here, exactly the way they were built, ever since When you consider that not even the Palais-Royal or the Louvre are still what they were in those days, that is,, no doubt, surprising.
Strange to say, the Place Vendome started out as what we would call a real estate project today, but the way it turned out in the end is another story again. In 167a Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the great French architect who built Versailles for Louis XIV, purchased the palace of the Duke of Vendome and the land adjacent to it with the object of selling the land in lots. However, nothing: much seems to have come of this project and the land ultimately passed into the hands of Louvois, Minister to the King, who planned to convert the area into a square. In those days powerful princes and ministers very often built their own squares in Paris, on which they generally set up a statue of the king to whom they, no doubt, owed many favors. Louvois’s idea was to do just that. The square was to be known as the Place de Louis-le-Grand and a huge statue of Louis XIV on horseback was to be placed in the center of it, and actually was placed there later. Unfortunately, Louvois ran into financial difficulties, which is always an easy thing to do, and when he died, shortly afterwards, the project was abandoned. And now, Hardouin-Mansart enters the picture again.
In 1698, Louis XIV purchased the land from his Minister, presented it to the city, and asked HardouinMamsart to draw up the plans for the buildings you see there now. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, whom you must not confuse with the Francois Mansard who gave us the Mansard roof, was one of the most versatile architects that ever lived. He was the son of a painter to Louis XIV and by that I don’t mean a house painter and was distantly related to Francois Mansard. He very early attracted the attention of the King, who, being somewhat of an architect himself, commissioned him with many important works. Next to Versailles, his most important work is probably the dome of the Invalides, but he also built many splendid residences, including his own. The buildings which surround the Place de Vendome are not, therefore, a palace, but were intended as private residences.
As I already mentioned, all the buildings on this square are of absolutely identical design, for Hardouin Mansart was much too brilliant an architect to surround his squares with what I once saw described as “architectural vegetable soup.” (T. E. Sanford The Story of Architecture in Mexico; and he wasn’t describing Mexican architecture either.) The ground floors are faced with arches, though there is no archway underneath the buildings. The tall windows on the second floor are in line with these arches and are straight. The considerably smaller windows on the third floor are slightly arched. The roof is a low, straight roof-not a Mansard roofand the dormer windows in it are fully arched this time. In order lot to create a monotonous effect in the long facade, Mansart placed ornamental, exterior pillars between each set of windows, and these go all the way from the second to the third floors. In order to vary still further the appearance of the facade, a frieze, supported by four columns, is placed in the center of the two side buildings, and a similar frieze is placed diagonally across each of the corner buildings, so that the corners of the square are cut off. The entire appearance of these buildings is, therefore, most pleasing and harmonious.
After the buildin;s were erected, the lots behind the square were sold to individuals, and anyone could build anything there he wanted to, with the only provision that nothing was to be built that would spoil the appearance of the square. Although none of the buildings behind the square extend above the buildings on the square, all you will have to do to see that that is exactly what happened is to take a look at an aerial view of the densely packed areas behind it. In the early days of the square the Place Vendome was used for the annual fair of SainteOvide, even though, in those days, the only street that ran into it was a narrow alley which ran to the of the Tuileries. This is now the Rue Castiglione and was cut through by Napoleon in 1811, or a few years after he ordered the Rue de la Paix cut through.
In addition to living quarters, the buildings on the Place Vendome are now mostly occupied by luxury stores, although numbers eleven and thirteen now also house the Ministry of Justice. On the left, as you enter the square are the two famous jewelers, Boucheron and Van Cleef. Cartiers you will have already passed as you came down the Rue de la Paix. Other buildings are occupied by famous dress designers. Schiaparelli is located right around the corner on your right, and Elizabeth Arden on the same side at the other end. The luxury Hotel Ritz is at number fifteen and the only slightly less expensive Hotel Vendome at number one. However, in keeping with the style of the square, the entrances to – these two hotels are so inconspicuous that you will probably pass both of them without realizing that they are hotels. But then, I guess, anybody who can afford to put tip at these places doesn’t have to be told where they are.
And now, I suppose, you will want me to tell you something about the column that stands in the middle of it, and so I will. However, before I come to that, let me first tell you something about a number of other monuments which formerly stood here. The first of these, as I already hinted, was the statue of Louis XIV erected here by Louvois in 1698. That was the first monument. It remained there for nearly a hundred years, when it was pulled down by the Paris mob during the early part of the French Revoluti.on. In place of it a column was hastily erected with what was supposed to represent a statue of Liberty. This probably was not a very artistic column, for after Napoleon’s victories at Austerlitz he ordered the column replaced by the column you see there now with the statue of himself in the garb of a Roman Emperor at the top of it. Actually, this column was to be known as the “Colonne de la Grande Armeee,” for it was to be strictly a mark of the Emperor’s gratitude to his armies. However, it is never known as anything but the Colonne Vendome today.
The Colonne Vendome was fashioned after the column of Trajan in Rome, but like so many other things in Paris that were fashioned after something else, it is just about one third higher than the column it was fashioned after, or one hundred forty-four feet as against the latter’s one hundred. It is built out of stone, but has a continuous ribbon of bronze plates with bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the Austrian campaign, all the way to the top of it. My guide book tells me that the bronze for these bas-reliefs was obtained from the twelve hundred cannons Napoleon captured at Austerlitz. However, Napoleon seems to have been a little more modest, for in the proclamation he issued to his soldiers the day after this battle (December 3, 1805) he tells them that they had captured thirty thousand prisoners, twenty generals, forty standards and one hundred twenty cannons. So somebody just added another cipher to the one hundred twenty, something which very often happens in history. Actually, the number of cannons captured by the French at this battle amounted to one hundred thirtythree. In any case, we cannot say that Napoleon was given to boasting.
Like its predecessors, the column Napoleon put up had to undergo a few changes also. During the turbulent years which followed the restoration his statue was replaced twice, and once he even came down head first. When the statue of Louis XIV was pulled down from its pedestal, the statue of Henry IV, which had been standing on the Pont-Neuf ever since this bridge was built, was pulled down and melted into cannons also. But when Louis XVIII came to the throne, he wanted to put Henry back on the bridge. In order to get the bronze, or more likely because he didn’t think too much of his predecessor, Louis had the statue of Napoleon removed from the column and cast into the Henry IN’ you see on the Pont-Neuf now. However, that is not the reason for the amused expression you see on Henry’s face there now. He has exactly the same expression on the French fifty-franc notes, for he was a very good king, and if I had the time, I could tell you many amusing stories about him. Anyway, that was the first humiliating experience. About the final one I will tell you in a little while.
In order to have something on top of the column, Louis XVIII had placed a huge fleur-de-lis there, but when Louis-Philippe came to power he had Napoleon placed back on the column, this time dressed in his usual soldier’s garb. But that is not all yet. When France became an empire for the second time, Napoleon III replaced Louis-Philippe’s Napoleon by still another Napoleon, and this time dressed as a Roman Emperor again and that is the Napoleon you see there now-or almost. The final and most humiliating experience came during the Insurrection of 1871 when the Commune succeeded once more in bringing the statue down, and this time column and all. This act of vandalism is said to have been organized by the well-known but misguided painter Gustave Courbet, some of whose paintings you will find in the Louvre.
Fortunately, the wreckers had planned their work in such a manner that the Column fell right smack into the- Rue de la Paix. This column was not again set tip until 1875 after France had once more become a Republic,and as its weight is estimated at two hundred fifty-one tons it is likely to remain there for some time.
Well, I guess, before we leave this square you will also want me to tell you something about some of the people who formerly lived here. The first name that will come to our mind will, naturally, be that of the architect, who had his Paris residence at number nine. Next will be that of Chopin, who died at number twelve on October 17, 1849, from the pulmonary ailment from which he suffered most of his life. He was only thirty-nine when he died. As you may remember, it was George Sand, whose real name was Amandine Lucile Aurore Dudevant, who took him to Majorca to regain his health. At number twenty-three John Law of the “Mississippi Bubble” fame lived until the bubble burst in 1720. His “bank,” if you want to call it that, was on the Rue Quincampoix, a little ways of what is now the Boulevard de Sebastopol, where I will also take you some day. Like other swindlers, he liked to live some distance from his place of business. At the corner building on your left walking down the Rue Castiglione, Napoleon III is said to have fallen in love with the beautiful Eugenie Montijo, who later became his Empress. And this will be all I shall have to tell you about the Place Vendome and its history.
In the next chapter I propose to tell you something about another famous landmark in the Opera sectionthe Madeleine Church; and if you wish, you can meet me again at one of the sidewalk tables of the Cafe de la Paix, tomorrow morning, let us say, somewhere around ten.