Museums, monuments, a mausoleum, a retirement home for soldiers, and a hospital for war veterans, Les Invalides in Paris is a rambling collection of buildings and courtyards dedicated to all things military. It's a must-see when you're in the 7th Arrondissement, either before or after a trip to the Eiffel Tower, or whenever you want to learn more about the fascinating military history of France.
The star of the show, so to speak, is Napoleon himself, since it's his tomb that's under the distinctive giant golden dome. Also within the complex is the Musée de l'Armée, the military museum of France. Plus, there's a museum dedicated to maps and a burial site for war heroes. Like many things in Paris, Hôpital des Invalides has a long and complicated history and many stories to tell. Let's delve deeper, starting at the beginning.
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The story began in 1670. Louis XIV ordered the construction of a retirement home for soldiers; its official name was Hôpital des Invalides. It's hard to imagine now, but at the time there was no safe haven for sick, old, or disabled soldiers. By the time Les Invalides was completed, the complex had fifteen courtyards, a gilt-domed chapel, and enough room for 4,000 residents.
A century later, on July 14, 1789, angry rioters stormed Les Invalides and gained control of the ammunition stored in the cellars. They stole the cannons and muskets and took to the streets, storming the Bastille. The rest, as they say, is French history.
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Bring your war-history aficionados to the museum. It's crammed with objects relating to French military history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, including suits of armor, historic uniforms, sabres, swords, paintings, photographs, and sculptures.
The museum is divided into several areas — Ancient Armour and Arms (8th to 17th century), Louis XIV to Napoleon III (1643 to 1870), The Two World Wars (1871 to 1990), French Classical Cannons, and the Charles de Gaulle Historical Center.
Launched in 1905, the museum holds one of the most prestigious collections of military and art history in the world. One of the treasures is Jean-Auguste Ingres' painting, Napoleon on His Imperial Throne (1806). In it, Napoleon wears a splendid purple velvet robe decorated with golden bees. On his head, he wears a golden wreath and he holds Charlemagne's scepter.
Also of interest is the Musée des Plan-Reliefs (relief maps), featuring precise miniature models — made during the reign of Louis XIV and Napoleon III — of 17th- and 18th-century French fortified castles, cities, and towns . At the time, they were made to help with defensive artillery planning. The three-dimensional display is a bit hard to find. Head to the fourth floor of Les Invalides building.
Sixty bronze cannons, the jewels of the French artillery collection, are proudly displayed in the main courtyard. Trace 200 years of history and learn how the equipment was manufactured. The first of these French classical canons were developed in 1666 and were used in sieges during the wars of Louis XIV and were virtually unchanged until 1764.
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The royal chapel and dome, called l'église du dome was built in the late 1600s and completed in 1706 by architect Francois Mansart (considered the most important architect of his time). It's one of the most recognized domes in all of France. From the exterior, admire the Doric and Corinthian columns and statues of Charlemagne. Beneath the dome is the restored fresco of St Louis handing his sword to Christ.
In 1841, twenty years after his death, Napoleon's remains were returned from St Helena to Paris. It would be another twenty years before he was entombed in the crypt in the chapel at Les Invalides. But, he isn't alone. Buried next to him are his brothers Jerome and Joseph, and his son, Napoleon II. "Franz", as his son was called, died in Vienna of influenza in 1832 at the age of twenty-one. In 1940, Adolph Hitler of all people ordered Franz's remains to be returned to Les Invalides in Paris. They returned everything except his heart and intestines, which remain in Austria. But we digress.
Take note of the twelve Victory statues around Napoleon's sarcophagus. They are by Swiss sculptor Jean-Jacques Pradier and symbolize Napoleon's military campaigns. Eight of his victories are inscribed into the marble floor and ten bas-reliefs herald his civilian achievements.
In case your Napoleonic history is rusty, those achievements include a civil code, the Legion of Honor, large-scale works, a commercial code, court of audit, University of France, Council of State, pacification of the nation, administrative centralization, and Concordat (a treaty between the Vatican and secular government). No wonder it's been said the Napoleon was "the most competent human who ever lived."
Immerse yourself in the history of Charles de Gaulle with hundreds of audiovisual displays — news sources, posters, photographs, along with films and interviews. You can trace his achievements from leader of Free France (1940 to 44),to the Provisional Government of the French Republic (1944 to 46), to President of France 1958 to 1969. You'll see why de Gaulle is considered by many the greatest Frenchman of all time — Le Plus Grand Français de Tous les Temps. (But, what about Napoleon?)
This small-group, semi-private tour takes you back in time to experience some of the most exciting events in French military history. For two-and-a-half hours you are immersed in the past from Louis XIV to World War Two.
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