Napoleon’s Elephant

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Napoleon’s Elephant
Victor Hugo once described it as “melancholy, sick, crumbling…unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.” It was meant to be a triumphant celebration of Napoleon’s military victories but it ended up as a mouldering, crumbling epitaph to the little general’s overweening egotism. A literal not-so-white elephant.  As any visitor to Paris soon realizes, Napoleon Bonaparte was fond of his grand monuments – the Arc de Triomphe being the grandest of them all. But originally, he envisaged not a triumphal arch but a massive bronze elephant. And not at the top of the Champs Elysées but on the site of the demolished fortress that symbolized the Revolution, the Place de la Bastille.  But Napoleon was advised otherwise: eastern Paris was unfashionable and insignificant while the area beyond the Place de la Concorde was ripe for development into a fashionable suburb.     Arc de Triomphe aerial view. Photo credit: Rodrigo Kugnharski / Unsplash In the first decade of the 19th century, only the lower end of the Champs Elysées had been landscaped by Louis XIV’s garden designer André le Nôtre (up to the Rond Point, the section that is still a park). Further up the hill towards Chaillot was still marshy open ground. However, developers were already eyeing it up and it was suggested to Napoleon that this was a district that could be developed into a smart upper class suburb, attracting the kind of people that he wanted to cultivate and influence. Always conscious of associating himself with the great rulers of the Roman Empire, Napoleon envisaged a Grand Axe stretching from the Louvre, through the Tuileries Gardens and beyond the Place de la Concorde, equivalent to the great roads leading out of ancient Rome. A ruler-straight road leading to the summit of the Butte de Chaillot, with a monumental bronze elephant on the top, would convey the power and majesty of a modern-day emperor: Napoleon. Not only that, but the interior of the animal would be a museum glorifying the achievements of the little ex-corporal. Napoleon could well have been inspired by an earlier plan for a colossal elephant: in the middle of the 18th century the architect Charles Ribart had submitted plans for a three-storey statue with an internal spiral staircase, a ventilation system and a ballroom. Water would flow from the trunk which also incorporated a sewage system (!).  Model of the Elephant for the Place de la Bastille. Artists: Augustus Charles Pugin, Fenner Sears, J. Nash, 1831. Image credit: Brown University Library, public domain. Except that it didn’t work out that way. The emperor’s advisors thought that an elephant was too original an idea and also -well- a bit low-rent, not conveying the intended grandeur. They persuaded Napoleon that a triumphal arch would be a much more fitting celebration of the general’s military successes. They were right, of course. Even though today’s Champs-Elysées and Étoile are pounded constantly with traffic, there is a monumentalism to the Arc de Triomphe that an elephant, however large, just wouldn’t match.  But Napoleon couldn’t give up the idea of having an elephant monument. In February 1810 he announced the construction of the bronze elephant in the Place de la Bastille. It would have a viewing tower on its back, in the style of an Indian howdah, a staircase built inside one of the legs, and it would be the centerpiece of a fountain, with water spurting from the trunk. The bronze would be made from melted-down cannons seized during Napoleon’s Spanish campaign. It would bury memories of the Revolution by commemorating Napoleon forever.

Lead photo credit : Elephant of the Bastille, around 1810. Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Barnaby Conrad
    2023-10-13 01:17:24
    Barnaby Conrad
    The story of Napoleon's elephant moonument is wonderful re-examination of the past. Merci!


  •  Marilyn Brouwer
    2023-10-11 04:24:09
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Brilliant! Unimaginably funny that a huge elephant could stand at the Place de la Bastille. Excellent article.