Standing in the very heart of the Latin Quarter, on slightly raised ground known as the Montagne Saint Genevieve, is France’s famous hall of fame, known as the Pantheon. It stands among rather scholarly surroundings, for the Sorbonne, the famous University of Paris, is only a short distance away, and practically everyone of the buildings which surround it is either a school, a library or a college.
The best way to reach the Pantheon if you are on a walking tour will be to walk up the Boulevard St. Michel, starting at the Place St. Michel. The next best will be to take a taxi directly to it. However, as the “Boul Mich” is the boulevard which goes right through the heart of the Latin Quarter and you might wish to make at least a brief acquaintance with this quarter before you leave Paris, I would suggest that you make this trip on foot. By doing so, you will not only pass the Cluny museum, which you may want to visit some other day, but a little past this museum you will also pass the domed church of the Sorbonne. Only, if this is your first visit to Paris, you will have to be careful not to mistake the dome of this church for the dome of the Pantheon. This church was started in 1635 at the order of Richelieu in the then prevalent Jesuit style. It also contains his tomb and, hanging above it, his hat. Unfortunately, this church can be visited only by applying to the office of the concierge at number 17 Rue de la Sorbonne, which is the very narrow street which runs off to your left directly in front of it. From this church, a short walk farther down the boulevard will bring you to the beginning of the Luxembourg Gardens on your right and the Rue Soufflot directly ahead of you. From this point on you will require no further directions, for when you look up this street-and it is up -the Pantheon will be standing right there in front of you. Same of the conducted city tours will take you past this building, but the time alotted to these tours is much too short to take you inside. But that you can always do, on your own, and I think everyone should.
Like many another famous landmark in Paris the Panth6on has had its ups and downs, and some of them even sound a little silly. Before the Panth6on was built, the Hill of St. Genevieve was the site of an abbey, known as the Abbey of St. Genevieve, of which Clovis was the founder, and both Clovis and his wife Clotilde, as well as Saint Genevieve were buried in this abbey. However, the abbey did not become known by the Saint’s name until about the ninth century, by which time the abbey had already become known as a center of learning. Thus, from a very early period, the Left Bank of the Seine has, always been the scholastic center of Paris. Both the church and the abbey have, of course, been many times rebuilt since, and about the only thing that is left of the former abbey is the twelfth-century tower, known as the Tower of Clovis, you see rising out of the group of buildings known as the LycC Henry IV. This is the large group of buildings you will see at the rear of the Pantheon to your right. But about that, as well as of the nearby Church of Saint Etienne-du-Mont I will tell you something later.
We first hear of the Pantheon-though it wasn’t a Pantheon yet-in the year 1744 when Louis XV lay dangerously ill at Metz and all France expected him to die. In his Siecle de Louis XV, Voltaire tells us that all Paris was “beside itself” with grief at this news, just as they were beside themselves with joy when the King returned and the people even went and kissed his horse. But then we must not forget that this was the King who was known as “Louis the Well-Beloved”-at least until he fell into disgrace. In Metz, in the meantime, Louis also went beside himself, but not so much out of grief as out of the fear of dying. In other words it was during this illness that he made a solemn vow that if he would recover, he would not only repair the church of the Abbey of Saint Genevi~ve, which had fallen into dire disrepair, as old buildings in Paris sometimes did, but also give up his mistress, Av1lo at the time happened to be Duchess of Chateauroux. In any case, Saint Genevieve, to whom, presumably, the vow had been made, took pity on him and decided to give him another chance. The King recovered and lived exactly thirty years longer. This was long enough to permit him to fulfill the first part of the vow and to make at least a token motion toward fulfilling the second. The Duchess was dismissed, but only to be replaced a year later by Madame de Pompadour, and she in turn, but many years later, by Madame Du Barry. For after all, what sense would there have been to be King of France if one couldn’t even keep one little mistress?
But if Louis went back on the second part of his vow, he was at least prompt in fulfilling the first. The Church of Saint Genevieve-ivhich is now the Panth6on-was started in 1758 and would have been started much sooner if the King’s late war with Austria had not sorely depleted his treasury. Louis XV entrusted the building of his church to the Marquis de Marigny, who happened to be Madame de Pompadour’s brother, and he, in turn, gave it to his friend Soufllot, who had already made himself a name as an architect. As it turned out, the Pantheon was to be his most important work and took thirty-one years to complete. It was not finished until 1789, the ominous year in which the mob stormed the Bastille, and fifteen years after Louis XV’s death. However, the architect Soufflot, having, in the meantime, also died, the plans of it were changed considerably by his pupil and successor Rondelet. Well, so far so good. We are still talking about a church and a church generally has windows, and this one did too. But when the Revolution decided to make a mausoleum out of it, the windows were ultimately blocked up. Thus, unlike the Madeleine Church, which started out as a temple of glory and became a church without windows, the Pantheon started out as a church and became a temple of glory.
However, before I go on with the history of this temple, let me first give you a few details on the size of this tremendous edifice. The Panth6on is built in the form of a Greek cross and its architecture is in the classical style. It is three hundred sixty-one feet long, two hundred sixty-nine feet wide and the great dome is two hundred seventy-two feet high and seventy-four feet in diameter. There are twenty-two Corinthian columns at its base,. which support the really impressive pediment, and thirtytwo additional Corinthian columns around the base of the dome, which support an exterior gallery. The bas-reliefs on the huge pediment have of course, been changed a number of times too, to fit the intended uses of the building. But the present, and let us hope, the last one, is by David d’Angers and shows France, assisted by Liberty, distributing wreaths to civilians, including Voltaire and Mirabeau, on the left, and military men, of whom Napoleon is the first, on the right. Engraved on the architrave in letters of gold are the words “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATTRIE RECONNAISSANTE.” To the left and to the right of the huge bronze doors are two marble groups, one of which shows the baptism of Clovis, and the other Saint Genevieve confronting Attila. These are probably the only two pieces of scuplture from the time when the Pantheon was still a church.
For almost a hundred years after its completion the church which Louis XV had promised to Saint Genevieve was alternately a church, then a temple, then a church again, then a temple once more, then a church again and then-and that’s the last of it-a temple again. Before the church was definitely turned into a temple of glory, the building had been lighted by forty-two windows, but when it was finally decided to turn the building into a mausoleum, these were blocked up. This happened in 1885, the year in Nivhich Victor Hugo’s body was brought here for interment, and if you will look closely at the two bare walls which extend from each side of the main entrance, you can still see where these windows were.
For the purpose of a consecutive account, the history of the Panth6on may, thus, briefly be summarized as follows: During the French Revolution, which started just about the time the Pantheon was completed, all church property was expropriated so that the Church of Saint Genevieve never had a chance to become a church. Then, when Mirabeau died in 1791, the National Assembly decided to use this building as a burial site for the great men of France, with Mirabeau as the first candidate. At that time the building was to be known as the “Temple of Fame,” but a few months after Mirabeau’s death it was ,decided to bring the body of Voltaire, who had been secretly buried in Romily-sur-Seine, near Troyes, to Paris too, and have him interred in the Pantheon also, and it was then that the building became known as the Pantheon. Three years later, Rousseau’s body was brought from Ermenonville and interred in the Pantheon also. Well, the Pantheon remained a Pantheon until 1806 when Napoleon ordered it to be converted into a church again. But that is not all yet. In 1830, our Louis-Philippe, who, .as the son of the pleasure-loving Philippe-Egalite, does not seem to have had much use for religion, had it converted into a temple again. As you may remember, it was during his reign that the Madeleine Church came very close to being turned into a railway station. But when Napoleon III came to power in 1852, he made it into a -church again. The Pantheon became “pantheized” for the last time when the body of Victor Hugo was brought here in 1885. And if you think that that is a somewhat ridiculous history, just listen to what became of some of the first candidates to be interred here.
When Mirabeau died on April 2, 1791, the great orator was only forty-one years of age. His death was mourned, not only in Paris, but throughout France. There was no honor which his countrymen were not willing to bestow on him, and so he was buried in the Panth6on as candidate number one of the great men of France. But, alasl only for a little while. Three years after his body had been interred here it was discovered that he had had some secret dealings with Louis XVI, and that so infuriated the National Assembly that they had his body removed and dumped into an unmarked grave in the cemetery where the bodies of the September massacre had been thrown. Had he been alive, he would, no doubt, have been guillotined. Three months after Mirabeau’s death, the body of Voltaire was brought to the Pantheon also, and his funeral was made the occasion of a great public spectacle of which the artist David was the principle organizer. The funeral carriage was drawn by twelve white horses and surrounded by fifty young girls dressed in classical costumes. Other girls were dressed in the costumes of the stage characters he had created, while walking ahead of the horses were groups of children scattering roses. This was on July 11, 1791. During the previous night his body lay in state on the site of the former Bastille, where he had twice been a prisoner. The next day a brief stop was, made at the Porte Saint-Martin where the old opera house stood, and, I suppose, after that since there were as yet no Boulevards de Sebastopol and St. Michel, the funeral procession wound its way down the narrow streets_ to his intended last resting place. Unfortunately, before this procession reached the Pantheon the whole elaborate show got washed out by a pouring rain, so that by the time the procession reached its destination most of the goddesses and fairies, on the costumes of which David had worked so hard, had disappeared into doorways.
In the meantime, Marat, who had been done away with by Charlotte Corday, had taken the place of Mirabeau, only to be removed again three months later to be dumped into a ditch in the cemetery belonging to the Church of Saint Etienne-du-Mont. But that is not all yet. Three years after Voltaire had been interred here, Rousseau’s body was brought to the Pantheon also, and with almost as much pomp. And both of them were to leave it later in a sack. When the Bourbons returned to power, the remains of both Voltaire and Rousseau, neither of whom had been overly friendly to their reign, were removed from the Pantheon, carried in a sack to the outskirts of the city and dumped into a pit of quicklime. And this, effectively, took care of whatever was left of their mortal remains. But however ill the first few tenants of the Pantheon may have fared, the remains of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Carnot, Berthelot, ,Jean Jaures, and many others still rest there undisturbed. And so does Soufflot, the man who built it. Also, it may surprise you to know, one woman-Madame Berthelot. She had died on the same day as her husband and because it did not seem fair to separate them in death, she now rests there also, by the side of her husband.
And now that we know something about its history, let its just take a brief look at the inside of this magnificent building. I say brief, but I hope that you will spend at least an hour here, for that, after all, is what we came to see. In comparison with the Invalides, the interior of the Pantheon is, needless to say, tremendous; even though its dome is not as high. One may, of course, visit the crypt, but only with an attendant, who will explain things to you in French. But even so, I am sure that you will catch enough of what he will tell you to be duly impressed, for after all, we do not go to a grave to be lectured to. These tours are held at intervals of about half an hour, and a loud bell will announce their departure. If you are young enough, you may also ascend the four hundred twenty-five steps to the top of the dome, but having done that once, you will probably not want to do it again. To most visitors, the splendid murals around the walls of the Panth6on, depicting the spiritual history of France, will, no doubt, be of the greatest interest. These paintings depict scenes from the life of Saint Denis, Saint Genevieve, Charlernagne, Clovis, Saint Louis, and Joan of Arc. They will provide a very good pictorial review of the incidents in the history of Paris and of France I occasionally described to you as we wandered through the city. Your guide book will tell you all about the others. About the only thing that never impressed me in the least in this pictorial history is the huge memorial to the National Assembly at its. east end. I think the Pantheon could have done very well without it. In any case, my guide book tells me that this, group is only plaster of Paris, and that is about all it deserves.
After we leave the Pantheon, there are just two more things we will have to see before we leave this general vicinity. One of these is the Church of Saint Etienne-duMont, which is right behind the Pantheon, and the other is a section of the wall of Phil ippe-Auguste, which is a little ways farther down the street on the Rue Clovis and will require no explanation. The Church of Saint Etiennedu Mont dates from the sixteenth century and replaced another church which stood right next to it. This church now contains the shrine of Saint Genevieve, but like some of the tombs at the Pantheon, this shrine is empty, her remains having been burnt during the Revolution. Since the old church was already dedicated to Saint Genevieve, the new church was dedicated to Saint Etienne, a martyr who died during the first century. Today, of course, the church is dedicated to both saints.
You will find the exterior of this church to look almost like a gingerbread house, part of which is, no doubt, due to the curious external shaft you see clinging to the left side of it. This shaft is an exterior circular stairway that leads to the top of the tower. If it were not for the few windows in it, one might easily mistake it for a chimney. However, you will find exactly the same kind of exterior stairway on the tower of Clovis across the street. One of the chief attractions of this church is the so-called juhe or rood screen. This is a gallery that extends all the way across the church and separates the nave from the choir. Before pulpits came into use, these galleries were used by the preachers to address the congregation. However, as they also cut off the view of the altar they were later removed, and Saint Etienne-du-Mont is the only church in Paris that still has one. It probably escaped destruction because it, and the two spiral stairways that lead up to it are an unbelievably delicate work of pierced marble. There are of course many other interesting features to this church, including a cloister with a gallery of original sixtenth century stained glass windows and a charnel house. Also, near the pillars on each side of the entrance to a little chapel at the end of the church are the tombs of Pascal and Racine.
Incidentally, if you are going to be tempted to explore some of the streets south-east of the Pantheon while you are in this vicinity, you better carry a large map and a compass, for the streets in this section literally run in all directions. However, you will need no compass when I take you through this quarter tomorrow on our way to the Rue Mouffetard and the Botanical Gardens.