March 30, 2011

A Visit to Les Invalides

I have long been fascinated with the period around the French Revolution and its cast of characters and have visited many of the historic sites associated with the era. Yet one has always been difficult to make time for despite its being very centrally located in the VIIième Arrondissement of Paris. But this trip, thanks to a special exhibition that has received very good reviews, I finally made the pilgrimage to the Hôtel National des Invalides and the Musée de l'Armée.

The Hôtel des Invalides began in 1674 as a town governed by its own military and religious rules and featuring a barracks, convent, hospital, veterans' home and workshops for tapestries, shoe repair and the illumination (decoration) of manuscripts. During the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the municipality was converted into a totally military institution with the final act being the installation of Napoleon's tomb (see right) in the chapel under the Dome in 1861.

Today visitors can wander the former compound from the imposing Dome Chapel to the Main Courtyard with its impressive collection of French classical cannons. History buffs will revel in the special museums within including the Charles de Gaulle Historial, The Two World Wars, Ancient Armour and Arms XIIIth-XVIIth Century, From Louis XIV to Napoleon III and the Saint-Louis des Invalides Chapel. But right now there is a very special reason to visit this monument - The Princes of Europe's Armour - a fabulous survey of French armour for both royals and their horses.

By the 16th Century gunpowder and firearms began to replace the use of spears and cross bows in European warfare. This change in weaponry meant that chain mail and traditional suits of armour were no longer effective in protecting soldiers in battle and they became more ceremonial than functional. What developed was a sort of "fashion statement" conveying the wealth and importance of the wearer. Royal arms and armour became elaborate symbols of the Crown and were often enhanced with precious metals, and sometimes jewels, to ensure that their status was not overlooked.

Each country had its own distinctive style of armorial decoration and the French workshops were known for ornate, embossed suits with embellishments in gold and silver. Intricate designs featuring mythological creatures, animals, nymphs, foliage and historical events, were created by French designers but often executed by master craftsmen in Antwerp, Belgium. French armour enjoyed a brief "Golden Age" from 1550-1600 when it reigned as the most desirable for crowned heads from Stockholm to Dresden.

Which brings me to the exhibition now on view at the Musée de l'Armée. Thanks to a major international effort, the museum has assembled a substantial collection of armour of the period including suits, helmets, shields, swords, breastplates and even horse armour. What makes this even more interesting is a set of life-size patterns on paper borrowed from a Munich museum and displayed alongside the pieces themselves. It is fascinating to compare the detailed drawings with the finished products and to consider the painstaking craftsmanship that went into their construction. The medieval objects of protection have been transformed into works of art. Arms and armour may seem like a pretty dry subject these days, but a visit to Les Invalides will bring the worlds of jousting and parade in the Middle Ages right back into the 21st Century!

P.S. Tonight is my last night in Paris before returning to New York. As a special send-off I saw for the first time in ages the group known as "Pari-Roller" who get together every Friday night since 1994 to roller blade through the streets of Paris. It was a marvelous sight, and one I took as a very good omen, to see the thousand or so participants roller blading along the Boulevard Saint Germain. A perfect farewell to a wonderful trip!

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