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For many visitors, one of the most intriguing and inviting activities in Paris involves viewing the Seine from any of the city’s several spectacular bridges. All of them span the river with a requisite combination of French panache and charm, but one of the best is the Pont Alexander III, which joins the Champs Elysées and the Grand Palais on the Right Bank with Napoleon’s resting place, Les Invalides, on the Left. A bridge so highly visible would seem to harbor no secrets, but, as with the rest of Paris, there are indeed a certain number of surprises connected with the edifice.
In the first place, this is of course a bridge in Paris named after a Czar of Russia instead of a Frenchman, which brings up one of the secrets: the bridge was constructed because of diplomatic considerations rather than concerns about transportation. This part of the story involves diplomatic maneuvering, the renewal of a friendship, and the rise of a great power, and it has a few startling parallels with recent events. None of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
It seems that by the third quarter of the nineteenth century, France was getting a bit anxious about what she saw as a growing menace to her security and assumed supremacy in European affairs. The perceived danger in the 19th century came not from the New World but from the Old–when France looked eastward, the star of the recently-united Germany appeared to be on the rise. Further east, Russia had also begun to take similar notice of this same potential rival, but for much of the rest of the century, Russia would be willing to play a flexible role in what was shaping up as the European power struggle which ultimately culminated in World War I.
France came to understand that it would be in her best interest to cultivate the friendship of Russia, in spite of the fact that relations had been rocky between the two countries for a good part of the century. President Carnot’s government suggested that a bridge be constructed across the Seine which would bear the name of Czar Alexander III, seeing the gesture as encouraging the development of Franco-Russian friendship as a sort of counterweight to the growing might of Germany. Russia, which was still doing a dance between Bismarck’s skillful alliance-building strategy in Germany and the offers of a stronger relationship with France, decided that, well, a bridge couldn’t hurt, could it?
And so, plans were made. The architects Cassien-Bernard and Gaston Cousin saw the structure rise in the amazing time of just a little more than two years. The construction is, in fact, one of the secrets about the bridge. It seems that this edifice was one of the first “pre-fab” jobs of the modern age. The various parts were constructed by the Schneider Iron and Steelworks in Le Creusot, and then barged to the construction site, where the structure was actually assembled.
If you visit the bridge and stand at one end looking to the opposite end, you might be able to discover another “secret” about the edifice: it was built on a slight bias instead of marching straight across the Seine, which allowed the ends to nestle more comfortably into the streets and structures on both sides. In typical French fashion, much care was given to assuring that perspectives of the Invalides and of the Champs-Elysées would not be adversely affected by the new structure. You might notice also that this bridge was designed with only a few arches so that river traffic would be minimally impacted by the new span.
If, when you visit, you think that the bridge decorations do not look as if they all fit in well together, you will be echoing the feelings of many who criticized it when it first opened. In fact, the decorative aspect of the pont was not designed to look tidy—it was instead designed as a visible demonstration of Franco-Russian amity combined with an exuberant expression of French decorative art. Look, for example, at the downstream side, where the nymphs carry the arms of France (they are the nymphs of the Seine) and then at the upstream side, where those nymphs carry the arms of Russia (they are the nymphs of the Neva). Then there are the equestrian statues, the crouching lions, the art deco pillars, and several other sculptures, all contributed by different prominent artists of the day, including Emmanuel Fremiet, Jules Dalou, and Jules Coutan. Though at the time of its dedication, many critics detested this “jumble” of decoration, today the bridge is regarded as one of the finest examples of the decorative style of the Third Republic.
The first stone was laid by Czar Nicholas II in October 1896, who followed Alexander III to the throne in 1894. The bridge was officially opened to mark the occasion of the Universal Exposition in 1900, although construction had been completed some time before. Today, this symbol of Franco-Russian friendship has been declared an historical monument. It offers us a reminder that, although international relations between friends may become strained, we can all ultimately hope for the endurance of bridges between us.
To get to the Pont Alexander III:
Left Bank: exit Métro Les Invalides, head north toward the Seine
Right Bank: exit Métro Champs-Elysées Clemenceau; go south toward the Seine on avenue Winston Churchill.
Jean England Freeland is a retired Associate Professor of History at the University of Louisiana in Monroe. She holds a B.A. from Rollins College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.