The Hôtel des Invalides (pronounced Oh-tel days-In-vah-leeds) is not only one of the best tourist sites in Paris, but also one of the finest works of architecture in the city of lights. Les Invalides, as is it referred to in short, can be found, appropriately enough, on the Esplanade des Invalides in the 7th arrondisement of Paris. (Paris is divided into 20 such administrative distrcits). Invalides is impressive the minute you set foot on the beautifully manicured front lawn.
So what is this Invalides?
"Okay, so what is this thing?" I hear you asking. It was created at the will of King Louis XIV of France as a convalescence home for injured soldiers of their Army. It was the first of its kind in Europe. Injured Army veterans were a bit of a problem at the time, as (due to various injuries from battle or service) they couldn't get work or make a living. They relied heavily on pan-handling in the streets for handouts and the charity of the Catholic church. The was the French government's way of thanking their wounded veterans and the grandiosity of the structure typical of the reign of Louis XIV. The name obviously comes for the french word meaning an invalid, referring to the soldiers for which it was designed.
Louis XIV decreed that is should be built in 1670. Libéral Bruant was selected as the architect for the structure, which would include rooms for the soldiers and two chapels. Work was finished by 1677 and the design was made in the French Classical style. However, always thinking bigger and grander, Louis XIV had already chosen Jules Hardouin Mansart to design a massive domed chapel as an addition.
Mansart drew up plans for the three-layered dome based on the dome of St. Peter's in Rome, but it differs in a few ways. The dome is lightly pointed and oddly has an "attic" of sorts above the lantern and it is topped by a roman cross, all gilded with 12 kilos of pure gold. It has the effect of immediately drawing attention to itself when seen on the Parisian skyline, rising to 107 meters high and shining in the sun. Unfortunately, Mansart died shortly before the completion of his masterpiece, but a student of his, Robert de Cotte, oversaw its completion in 1708.
The first of the two churches inside, the Church of St-Louis des Invalides, is something of a military chapel. Hung up along the walls on the inside are flags captured from enemy forces on the field of battle over the years, right up to World War II. Capturing the flag of an enemy force is very significant and symbolic of victory. The second chapel is under the dome, named appropriately enough, Église du Dome. They are both very beautiful and if you visit Invalides, I would recommend spending a few moments taking in the work done on the churches.
The architecture so special because...?
Louis XIV was also nicknamed the "Sun King" and he had a special penchant for spending public funds for lavishly grand and ornate structures. Louis XIV was also the creator behind the château at Versailles. The building has elements borrowed from Italian renaissance and baroque styles, but typifies the height of the French Classical style. It is massive, amounting to 13 hectares of building, and its facades are very ornate with their masonry. It is considered one of the masterpieces of the 17th century and is still studied today by students of architecture.
In fact, the architecture is so significant that not only is it studied by architecture students, but it also became the basis for other structures. The first classical architecture structure in the city of Dublin, Ireland was the Royal Hospital. It too followed in the precedent set by Louis XIV and was a rest home for wounded veterans.
So, it's only an old folks home?
Actually, it is far from "just an old folks home." Since the 17th century, it has become many more things. The tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte is located just below the golden dome, it also holds the tombs of some of Bonaparte's more famous relatives, as well as famous French military officers. In addition, it houses four museums, a café, and gift shop. It is for this that it has become a major tourist attraction. If you are passing through Paris in a few days (which is a real shame), at the least visit it, the churches and tombs, and the Museum of the Army. You can accomplish all this in a few hours. However, for those who are fortunate to have some time to spend in Paris, I recommend wandering the courtyards, admiring the facades and bas-relief sculptures, and browsing the museums.
The French have a Napoleonic cult. It's true. They admire him. So, when he passed away in his second exile under British control on the island of St. Helena, they petitioned for the return of his body. He was returned in 1840, given a full state funeral, placed temporarily in St. Jerome's, while a tomb was constructed in Invalides. When the body was handed over by the British, the French opened the casket to ensure that the it was indeed their former Emperor inside and not someone else or just a nasty note. The casket was opened for two minutes and those present were horrified to see that Napoleon laid in perfectly preserved condition (he had died almost 20 years earlier)! Thus, to quell their fears, Napoleon was entomed within six successive coffins! The coffins are made of varying materials including iron, mahogany, two made of lead, ebony, and the outer tomb is crafted from red porphyry. His shocking state of preservation was later attributed to the preserving powers of the arsenic with which he was poisoned.
Within the "Church of the Dome of Invalides" directly below the dome, an opening in the floor reveals below the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte resting on its pedestal of green granite. Surrounding the tomb are twelve bas reliefs outlining Bonaparte's civil accomplishments in France as ruler.
In adjoining rooms of the church are tombs of others, including Bonaparte's youngest and oldest brothers, Jerome and Joseph (respectively) and his son, Napoleon II. Famous French Army officers also are entombed there, such as Duroc who fought alongside Napoleon Bonaparte and Fieldmarshal Foch, French military leader during World War I.
But wait, there's more than tombs! Museums!
Les Invalides is also home to numerous museums. The most famous of the museums is Musée de l'Armée (Museum of the Army). Relics of military history can be found there, from ancient wars up through the Second World War. One of the most spectacular exibits is the medieval armor exibit which contains many shiny, impressive, historical pieces of armor. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the exibit is under renovation and cannot be viewed. Veterans who bring their military ID can receive museum entry discounts. The other museums which it contains are:
- le Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine (Museum of Contemporary History
- le Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération (Museum of the Order of the Liberation)
- le Musée des Plans et Reliefs (Museum of Blueprints and Reliefs)
Assuming you're already in Paris, you can easily hop on the Métro and head for the stop Invalides (on the lavender line 8, light blue line 13, and RER C). If you'd like a relaxing stroll there, I recommend getting off instead at La Tour Maubourg on the Line 8. You will see it immediately upon exiting the Métro, and it is a nicer walk. Plus, there is one of the best crêpe stands on the corner of La Tour Maubourg métro stop (across the street) and is just perfect for catching a tourists lunch or snack on the way there (and not at inflated tourist prices). Lastly, you can take the RATP public buses and use line 63, which rolls right by Les Invalides (just press the button for a stop when you see it). It is also much more scenic and enjoyable than a trip on the Métro. Bus Line 72 also can get you there and involves a scenic ride down the bank of the Seine, but you must cross the river to get to l'Esplanade des Invalides. - There will be a fee for entrance to the tombs and museums, but it is not unreasonable.
So in closing...
Les Invalides is quite an impressive monument, a great tourist attraction, and contains a wealth of important history and architecture. Practically a week would be sufficient to fully take in everything at the massive monument. Its impressive size is multiplied by the fact that it is in downtown Paris right along the river Seine
. L'Hôtel des Invalides is certainly unique and a wonderful place to take the family or the university history department. There is something to be learned by everybody, whether it be by studying the masterful architecture, contemplating the lives and accomplishments of those entombed within its walls, or by exploring the artifacts of the various museums.
-Personal notes from class on Parisian Architecture given at L'Université de Paris, Sorbonne. Spring 2004.
-Personal Experience exploring the museum while living in Paris.