A military museum is usually the last place you’d find me in any city, let alone in Paris. I was spending the morning with my Dad, whose passion for history is so infectious that he managed to make a place I’d usually skip interesting. My sister, Georgie, had just returned from her student exchange in Tours, a small town near the Loire Valley, so the three of us were catching up while doing some last minute sight-seeing at the Eiffel Tower and L’hotel des Invalides.
The L’Hotel National des Invalides is a large museum and memorial complex honouring the French military and other war heroes. Inside is the Musee de l’Armee, which I was surprised to learn is the largest military museum in the world.
The luminous Baroque dome of Invalides is covered in 6 kg of gold leaf, making it easily visible, peeking up over the low-set skyline all around Paris. Even on that bitter January day it was beautiful, lighting up the gloomy sky.
The complex is surrounded by gardens, harking back to its days as a home for veterans, in line with the French belief in the healing powers of nature. I didn’t get too much of a look at the gardens in winter, but when I visited in summer the following year I went back and had a closer look.
Update: There is also a statue inside a small garden honouring all of those who have lost their lives to terrorism inside the gardens. This was built long before the Paris terror attacks, but sadly it now has a renewed purpose for those who were recently murdered.
King Louis XIV (14th), AKA “The Sun King” who also built Versailles, commissioned the building of the site in 1670 as a home and hospital for war veterans. It remained a home for veterans until the early 20th century, but then after the end of conscription there weren’t enough veterans who had served the required 20+ years to live at Invalides. The various military museums inside the complex grew and eventually merged.
We walked around the museum, which is full of military artefacts such as weapons and armour, and the occasional statue. I love how the statues in France are so full of human emotion, they look like they’re about to burst out of the marble.
Napoleon’s tomb & those of other French war heroes are under the Dome of Invalides. It was originally built as a place of religious worship, as the Eglise Saint Louis-des Invalides, but after Napoleon died King Louis-Phillipe decided to make it somewhat of a shrine to the little emperor instead. To his credit, Napoleon actually wanted to be buried in the banks of the Seine, despite dying in exile on the island of St Helena.
The dome is 107 metres high, which makes it one of the tallest buildings in Paris. It was inspired by the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which might explain why I didn’t really connect with either the Dome of Invalides or St Peter’s – both the interiors are very intimidating and grandiose, with a very masculine, aggressive energy. Californians might recognise this style of building already, as San Francisco’s city hall was inspired by the Dome des Invalides!
Napoleon’s tomb is below ground level, in a chamber directly underneath the centre of the dome. Napoleon’s sarcophagus is enormous, the outer casing is made of red quartzite, perched on a pillar of green granite. Like a set of Russian Babushka dolls, he is entombed by a series of six coffins, and what we see is only the outer layer. It is imposing, stately and in my opinion, also completely over the top! He is surrounded by dozens of statues representing his various victories and he is immortalised in a larger-than-life statue standing at 2.4 metres high. Fitting for an ego the size of Napoleon’s, I’m sure.