Sunday 13 February 2011

The inglorious destiny of the Gambetta monument

You can learn a lot of things from old postcards. A few months ago I discovered the picture above on the Daily Postcard blog, which gives a panorama of the Louvre museum that I hadn't even imagined. In approximately the same position as Ieoh Ming Pei's controversial pyramid today stood this no less controversial monument to the politician and republican Leon Gambetta.

At 27 metres high and positioned in front of what seems to be a small garden it offers a curious contrast to the tourist-filled esplanade today. I had though forgotten about this photograph until I walked into the Square Edouard Vaillant in the 20th arrondissement and saw the remnants of something that looked vaguely familiar.

Written on a plaque in front of the statue is the following text; "Detail du monument elevé par Aubé en 1888 au Palais du Louvre Cour Napoléon remonté en cet emplacement à l'occasion du centenaire de la mort de Leon Gambetta Novembre 1982". Roughly translated, a part of the original Gambetta statue built in 1888 was placed in this spot (incidently just off the Avenue Gambetta) for the centenary of Gambetta's death in November 1982.

How did such a grandiose monument end up in a quiet and hidden corner of the city? In reality, it is perhaps fortunate that anything managed to survive at all.

Designed by the sculpter Jean-Paul Aubé and the architect Louis-Charles Boileau, the statue was never a popular one. Léon Gambetta had been a well-regarded politician, but the monument was too grand. This was a period in which the "statuomanie" was prevalent, a phenomenon which saw the widespread installation of statues in questionable taste celebrating minor personalities, and many did not last the test of time.

The Gambetta monument would eventually become one of these, but it did survive untouched until 1941. This year was a terrible one for statues in the city as the Vichy government stripped the metal from all monuments not celebrating saints and royalty for the purposes of agricultural and industrial production (weapons!). Without the bronze figure at the top of the plinth, the statue could not survive, and it was removed altogether in 1954.

Chopped into smaller pieces, it disappeared from public view until 1982. Most parts would have been destroyed altogether, but near thirty years after it was removed, the chunk featuring Léon Gambetta was brought back into the public eye in the quiet Square Edouard Vaillant opposite the Hopital Tenon.
Postcards commemorate a vision of the city at a particular time, not just its physical aspect but also the tastes and attitudes of that particular era. Staues may seem deep rooted and permanent, but they do not guarantee eternal life for those celebrated in stone and metal after death. Feted one year, these personalities can be completely forgotten the next.

Gambetta lives on in Paris in this small stone block, and as a Place and an Avenue - as well as in this postcard! However, for those curious to see exactly what the complete monument looked like, an original scale model still exists in the Musée d'Orsay. It perhaps lacks the extravagant dimensions of the true monument, but it is still two and a half metres high!


Owen said...

Truly incredible story ! Who would have guessed, if ever seeing the Gambetta statue in the 20th, that it had once stood in the Louvre courtyard (without reading the plaque on the ground)...

That is a really fascinating bit of Paris trivia ! And that a model of it is in the Gare d'Orsay... further thickening the plot.

cocopuff1212 said...

Where and how was it stored for 28 years, that would be my question -- because now I think there must be many more like this statue.

Thank you for sharing.

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