Les Invalides

Les Invalides was originally built as a hospital for the veterans of Louis XIV's wars. The complex of buildings has since been used as an exhibition space, from the 1889 and 1900 Exposition Universelles to the Musée de l'Armée and other permanent exhibitions today.

Les Invalides, or the Hôtel National des Invalides, stood on the edge of the Seine long before it was used for the Exposition Universelles of Paris (Lewis). Les Invalides was originally built for the housing and care for disabled veterans (Lewis). The grounds that lie in front of Les Invalides were used in the 1889 and 1900 Exposition Universelles as a place for exhibition halls. Now, the Invalides complex houses a variety of museums and tombs, including that of Napoleon I (Lewis). Les Invalides shows how the Exposition Universelles occupied existing areas of Paris in new ways.
The history of Les Invalides is firmly based in the legacy of the French military, but this connection to violence and war remains overshadowed by the refined structures and exhibits within. King Louis XIV ordered the construction of Les Invalides for the housing and care of soldiers that had fought in his wars (Lewis). The complex was designed by architect Libéral Bruant and constructed from 1671 to 1676 (Lewis). Bruant’s greatest challenge when designing Les Invalides was the creation of a place of worship in the grounds. Bruant created a soldier’s chapel that was draped with banners that had been taken from enemies in battle (Lewis). This juxtaposition of violence and religion is a prominent thread throughout Les Invalides’ museums today. While Les Invalides was created by a monarch, the masses would involve it in rebellion over a century later. On July 14, 1789, a mob took weapons and other supplies from Les Invalides to storm the Bastille during the Revolution (Lewis). Later regimes began to meld Les Invalides to suit their own ideas of military glory. In 1861, over 40 years after Napoleon I’s death, the floor of the Dome Church was removed and the crypt was converted into a tomb for Napoleon (Lewis). His brother, Napoleon II, generals, and other military men are interred around Napoleon (Lewis). Napoleon's tomb evokes near religious reverence for Napoleon and his military career. The museums inside host a variety of military exhibitions, including the Musée de l’Armée. Much like Napoleon's tomb and other areas of Les Invalides, this museum glorifies French army history. The stately aura, the gilded dome and the tomb beneath, and the exhibits inside all portray traditional and glorified forms of warfare that does not represent France’s full military history.
The Esplanades des Invalides, the greens in front of the buildings, were used as exposition space in several of the Exposition Universelles to showcase French culture and history. On a map of the 1889 Exposition, the buildings of Les Invalides itself are marked as the “Musée d’Artilleries” (“Plan Général de l’Exposition Universelle de 1889”). Les Invalides still holds exhibits full of armory, weapons, and other artifacts of war, so description from 1889 is still accurate. The Esplanade des Invalides was lined with various exhibit halls, from the “Ministère de la Guerre” to buildings from different countries like Algeria (“Plan Général”). A “Coloniale” exhibit stood across from the Ministère de la Guerre hall, a relic of the practice of displaying people during this time (“Plan Général”). The exhibits were less condensed in the 1889 plan than they were in 1900, when the Esplanades were tightly packed with rows of large exhibit halls. On the right of the Esplanades were rows of halls from various countries, spanning from the United States to Japan (Bineteau). On the other side of the Esplanades stood exhibit halls dedicated to exhibits like “Manufactures Nationales” and “Industries” (Bineteau). These exhibits were included to show off France’s technological achievements and successful industries. The Esplanades held exhibits that showed how many countries participated in the Exposition Universelles and how France used the Exposition spaces to showcase their prowess in arts and industry.
Today, military history still dominates Les Invalides, with little hint of its past as an Exposition Universelle space. The Musée de l’Armée has been in the Invalides since 1905 (Lewis). The museum is dedicated to artifacts of war, especially from the times of Louis XIV and Napoleon, but they avoid displaying the dark realities of warfare. Instead, military instruments, miniature cannons, and sharp uniforms are just some of the artifacts displayed in the Musée de l’Armée. These artifacts offer a fanciful angle of military history, focusing on the traditions and proprieties of war instead of the horrors. Reflecting the strange cult of military personality surrounding Napoleon in Les Invalides, the Musée de l'Armée includes his taxidermy horse, in surprisingly good condition, amid rows of gilded swords and guns. Preserving Napoleon's horse is an odd commemoration and shows how the museum presents Napoleon and other leaders as near deities of war. The Musée de l’Armée does not represent the common men who fought in the wars waged by French regimes and their leaders, even though Les Invalides is still connected to them. A military hospital still exists at Les Invalides, though there is little sign of it in the grounds, and the soldier’s chapel is still a Roman Catholic worship site (Lewis). Les Invalides is still actively connected to soldiers and its military past, but it presents a warped, romanticized view of past wars and the men who waged them.

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