Louis XIV initiated the building of the Hôtel des Invalides in 1670, to serve as a nursing and retirement home for army veterans, a function that it fulfilled until the early 20th century. The central courtyard, where there’s now a display of artillery, provides a real sense of this Paris landmark’s original military purpose – it’s utilitarian and sober. In glinting contrast, is the baroque opulence of the golden Dôme des Invalides, which houses Napoléon’s final resting place. Soldiers went to worship in the Dôme via the courtyard, while the more ornate side sported the elite’s entrance.
Life at ‘Les Invalides’ was strictly regimented. It housed around 4,500 select soldiers, those who had typically completed over 20 years of loyal service. Entering what’s now the armour and weapons gallery, our guide Mickaël Blaselle helps bring it to life, pointing out that this huge room used to be the mess hall. Along its seemingly endless walls are life-size paintings of battle scenes. The men in the room would have enjoyed their food and wine looking at some of the very conflicts in which they’d fought. On the other hand, those who had misbehaved, known as the ‘buveurs d’eau’ (water drinkers), were placed in a long central table so that everyone could see them being handed their grim rations of bread and water.
The time span of the exhibits runs from the Middle Ages, through Louis XIV and Napoléon III, to the two World Wars. Multimedia panels recreate the most notable battles, and the Historial Charles de Gaulle, a fully interactive multimedia space, highlights his role with the Free French Forces.
In fact, the Musée de l’Armée’s collections are so rich and varied that, during our visit, we were only able to cover the armour room and the American War of Independence exhibit, so leave yourself plenty of time to explore. The latter featured fascinating memorabilia from the time of the Marquis de Lafayette, which revealed much about the tricky nature of his mission to establish trust between the French and American leaders.
One after another, the layers of France’s glory and strife unfold like the pages of an illuminated manuscript, revealing the nation at war with its neighbours, other world powers and, sometimes, even with itself. The museum is brimming with anecdotes and secrets waiting to be uncovered. As Mickaël pointed out some of his favourite pieces, we learnt that he specialised in Napoléon during his studies at the Sorbonne.
“I discover something new all the time,” he says. “I feel as if it’s my second home. I’ve been fascinated by Napoléon all my life, and now I work right next to him, every day.”
TIP: Start with Napoléon’s Tomb so that you’re then free to lose yourself in the museum.
Musée de l’Armée, Invalides, 129 rue de Grenelle, Paris 7th. Métro: Invalides, La Tour Maubourg. Open daily 10am-6pm. Historial Charles de Gaulle closed Mondays. Entry €9.50 (€12 including temporary exhibitions). Tel: +33 1 44 42 38 77
From France Today magazine