Thursday, October 31, 2013

Paris: Invalide

The first time that we were in Paris in 2004, we only had a short amount of time to visit Les Invalide (the French Army Museum) because it was closed earlier in the day for some official event.  So on this trip, we decided to dedicate an entire day to this museum so that we could do it right.

The building itself is both beautiful and historic. It was commissioned by Louis XIV as a home for aged or unwell soldiers. By 1676 the first elderly soldiers had moved in, and parts of the complex continue to be operated as a rest home home and medical centre to this day. During the French Revolution Les Invalides was stormed, and the weapons seized were used to capture the Bastille. Later, Napoleon I was interred in the central chapel, with several illustrious French military commanders entombed nearby, making it a pantheon of French military heroes. By the end of the 19th century, the bulk of the Invalides had been turned into a museum for the French army.

We started out in the section called Arms and Armoury and ended up spending hours in there, as the fascinating displays went on for room after room.  With suits of armour dating back to the 13th century, they had a selection from every era.  They even had some foreign armour, including Turkish, Japanese and the armour of the Emperor of China that was seized after the sacking of the Summer Palace in Beijing. Armour was more than just a military necessity, as the enormous cost of a suit of armour turned it into a symbol of prestige, power, and wealth. Suits of armor were often given as diplomatic gifts from one sovereign to another, and several of these were on display. One of the more interesting cabinets contained several suits of armour for a French king as a young boy, an adolescent, and finally as an adult, with the suits getting progressively larger as he aged.

Armour was also used for the sport of jousting.  The suits specifically designed for this purpose were significantly heavier than those that were designed for battle.  A small metal holder for the lance was melded to the breastplate.  For the truly wealthy, armour could be highly decorated, which would further inflate the prestige of the owner. I could not help think that while the wealthy no longer acquire armour, they do acquire expensive sports cars and yachts for their conspicuous consumption, so it seems that things have not changed that much.

 The weapons section was interesting and sometimes elaborately decorative. In some cases, the adornments seemed like they would hinder the effectiveness or ease of use of the weapon.  There were a pair of ornately carved ivory pistols, a three-barreled gun that might have been an early attempt at a multi-shot pistol,  a dagger in a scabbard that was shaped like a crucifix (talk about mixed messages), and another dagger which seems to have some sort of rodent carved on its handle.

The section on Napoleon included his coronation robe, as well as his favourite horse and pet dog, which have been stuffed for posterity.  Napoleon's massive tomb is found under the Golden Dome of the building.  From the Battle of Waterloo there was the body armour of a French cavalryman who apparently had a very bad day - there is a large hole in both the front and back of his body armour where a cannon ball passed completely through him.

The artillery section includes some very old cannons, as well as a wooden cannon from Vietnam.  There was a cannon with multiple barrels which was intriguing.  I guess it did not work that well since the design never caught on.

There was a special exhibit on the French involvement in Indo-China (current Vietnam and Cambodia) that featured objects such as a liquor bottle that had a French sailor pulling the pigtail of an unfortunate native.  Many of the illustrations alluded to the French occupation which occurred between 1887-1954.  One poster had an overt propaganda message implying that the French and the Indochinese were coexisting together in the occupied territories, like one big happy family.

The section on World War I had some large items such as the Renault FT tank from 1917, and one of the famous Paris Taxis that saved France at the Battle of the Marne in 1914. There were also some small items such as a stuffed animal that a French pilot had used as a good luck charm.  It did not do him much good, as it was retrieved from his aircraft after he was shot down and killed.  From the World War II section was a mini motorcycle that was designed for paratroopers and resistance fighters. It was designed to be folded up into a bomb shaped canister and dropped by parachute.

After spending an entire day wandering around Les Invalide, we still barely scratched the surface.  There were entire sections that we never got to and we started to skim the ones that we did visit.  We had rented an audio guide which gave very interesting information about various numbered exhibits.  But it also had several self-guided walking tour themes that you could select from.  For example, you could go from section to section in the museum learning about war paintings through the centuries, or Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle.  While this would be a great way to get in-depth information on a given topic, it would not be an efficient use of time, since it involved too much traversing between the wings of the huge museum

There was too much to see and still not enough time to do it justice.  Towards the end of the day, with time running out and aching feet, I gave up trying to see the actual exhibits and just sat on a bench listening to the "audio" guide which also included images and videos.  It was the next best thing to being there.  We fought a good battle but in the end, the museum defeated us.

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