Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Place Vendome Column

Building Collector reader and guest writer Scott D. penned this exploration of the history and souvenir variety of the column in Paris which goes by many names. It's listed in the Monument Miniatures book as Colonne d' Austerlitz (#705).

"Napoleon had this column erected to celebrate the French victory of Austerlitz in 1805. The column at times has been referred to at the Column of Austerlitz as well as Napoleon’s column. Modeled after Trajan's Column in Rome, the bronze veneer of 425 spiraling bas-reliefs were made out of cannon taken from the combined armies of Europe. According to some account as many 1250 cannons were used, but the figure was hugely exaggerated as only 133 cannon were actually captured at Austerlitz. These plates were designed by the sculptor Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret and executed by a team of sculptors including Jean Joseph Foucou, Louis-Simon Boizot, François Joseph Bosio, Lorenzo Bartolini, Claude Ramey, Francois Rude, Corbet, Clodion and Henri-Joseph Ruxthiel. The Column itself was designed by Denon, Gondouin and Lepere and the monument was constructed from 1806 – 1810. Originally a statue of Napoleon as Caesar, bare-headed, crowned with laurels and holding a sword in this right hand and a globe surmounted with a statue of Victory in this left hand, was atop the column. In 1814, taking advantage of the Allied occupying force, a mob of men and horses had attached a cable to the neck of the statue of Napoleon atop the column, but it had refused to budge - one woman quipped "If the Emperor is as solid on his throne as this statue is on its column, he's nowhere near descending the throne." After the Bourbon Restoration, the statue was pulled down and melted to provide the bronze for the recast equestrian statue of Henry IV on the Pont Neuf (as was bronze from sculptures on the Column of the Grande Armée at Boulogne-sur-Mer. This statue was removed and replaced with a huge French flag during the 100 day (1815) when Napoleon returned from Elba and attempted to regain power. Afterwards, Louis XVIII installed an enormous fleur-de-lys. Later a replacement statue of Napoleon was erected by Louis-Philippe in military dress (a tricorn hat, boots and a redingote), and a better, more augustly classicizing one by Louis-Napoleon (later Napoleon III). During the Paris Commune in 1871 the Vendome Column was under attack. Painter Gustave Courbet proposed the column to be disassembled and re-erected in the Hôtel des Invalides. Courbet argued that: "Inasmuch as the Vendome column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation's sentiment, Citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column." The column was taken and later re-erected. Rather than pay for its re-erection, as he was ordered, Courbet died (1877) in exile in Switzerland. During 1873 - 1874, the column was reestablished three years later in the center of Place Vendôme with a copy of the original Napoleon Cesar statue on top. It is interesting to note that the Salon Napoleon of the Hôtel des Monnaies contains a model of the column and a bronze mask of Napoleon copied from his plaster death mask. The miniature versions of the Column are Grand Tour pieces. They come in many different sizes and many are made out of bronze mounted on marble bases. Some have thermometers to make them more useful than just a paperweight. I’ve noticed over the years that some of these thermometers have been replaced by alcohol red thermometers and not the original silver mercury type. With the history of the column, we can figure out the time the miniature versions were made. Souvenir column miniatures with the “Cesar” Napoleon were from 1810-1815 and then from 1852 to present. The giant fleur-de-lys was on top of the souvenir monument from 1815 to about 1848. Then from 1848-1852 Napoleons in Military dress. I find that most miniature column replicas are of this variety. Some other interesting grand tour versions of this monument are ones that the column is done in granite and very large. One bronze piece has a version of Napoleons Tomb in the inside. Recently, I’ve had Anthony Tremblay restore the broken Vendome Column in my collection and in the process of the restoration he came across an inscription on the back of the thermometer plate. We are trying to see if we can find out any additional information from the inscription. It could be the maker’s signature letting us know his pride in making such a detailed and wonderful piece. If you’re lucky enough to have one in your collection you know what a nice piece this souvenir replica columns is." - Scott.

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