Detail from "Lamartine in front of the Town Hall" during the 1848 Revolution.
An Unexpected Treasure
In Paris, more than most places, landscapes of architectural splendour, atmospheric cobbled squares or calm and pleasant gardens, have had more than their share of bloody battles played out throughout the history of the city. Parisians have a way of reinventing and re-landscaping places of conflict which is perhaps why there are so many charming places wherever you go. Be that as it may, for anyone who has taken the trouble to walk the length of the parterre of trees and emerge from the dense shade and cool air at the southern end of the Luxembourg (now called Le Jardin Marco Polo) into the square surrounding the Port Royal Metro, there is a little gem to be found. Bathed in sunshine, the fountain which is sometimes called the Fontaine de l'Observatoire and sometimes called the Fontaine des Quatre-Parties-du-Monde (fountain of the four parts of the globe) is a stunning counterpoint to the parallel line of trees which form a perfect backdrop. Reminiscent of the fountains of Versailles, the fountain was supposed to relate to the nearby Observatory in some way but never really does so to any great degree, with the only real astronomical object being a supposed zodiac which was placed incorrectly anyway. The fountain consists of a metal sphere held up to the skies by four female figures representing Africa, America, Asia and Europe; teams of rampant horses reach up out of the water surrounded by turtles at the outer edge of the basin. Begun in 1867 the fountain is sometimes called the Carpeaux Fountain after the lead sculptor, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827 - 1875) of the four sculptors who worked on the fountain - the work was interrupted in 1870 by the Franco - Prussian War and the Commune and was not completed until 1874. Whichever name you choose to call it the Fontaine de l'Observatoire is quite simply one of the finest in the city with part of its charm is that it is quite remote from the bustling tourist sites.
Emerging from the serenity of Luxembourg, the contrast between the gardens and the triangle created as the rue D'Assas bisects the Avenue De L'Observatoire comes as something of a shock. A constant stream of traffic prevents any but the more foolhardy from crossing over to the island in the centre of the road where the statue of Francis Garnier (1839 - 1873) recalls the life of the French explorer and naval officer; sadly, the commemorative statue which was placed in situe in 1898 when the site was quite tranquil, has been overtaken by the exigencies of modernity and the ancien naval officer is as far from civilization as he ever was at sea.
The postcard on the left circa 1900 is a world away from the same area
over 100 years later.
The Bravest of the Brave
The statue near to the fountain, easily accessible on the pavement, can also easily be missed, standing high in the air and half-covered by overhanging branches from the trees at the rear. The statue is of Marshal Michel Ney (1769 - 1815) triumphantly brandishing a sword aloft, and the reason why the bronze figure stands so high is the unusually large size of the ornate plinth; which is also large in order to fit in the inscription of Ney's extraordinary number of battles. The statue stands near to the site where Ney was executed by firing squad on the 7th December, 1815, following a protracted court case in which Ney virtually signed his own death warrant; his lawyer was pleading that Ney could not be tried for treason as being born in Sarrelouis he was in reality Prussian but Ney ruined that defence by exclaiming to the court "I am French and will remain French."
It is ironic that Ney was accused of treason by a Bourbon monarchy when he began his army career aged 18 fighting for the ill-fated Louis XVI. At that time entry into the officer corps was restricted to aristocrats but promotion was awarded on merit following the French Revolution and Ney was in action many times for the Revolutionary armies where he quickly rose through the ranks. Always at the forefront in every battle he fought, Ney was wounded at the siege of Mainz and in 1797 was captured by Austrian lancers after falling from his horse - he was later exchanged for an Austrian General.
As great in number and ferocity as they were, Ney's exploits on behalf of the Revolutionary armies seemed to have been little more than an apprenticeship for the battles that followed when Napoleon came to power and Ney received his Marshal's baton in 1804, the same year that Napoleon was crowned himself Emperor. The list of campaigns that Ney was involved in during the Napoleonic Wars is quite incredible and includes all the famous Napoleonic battles which have entered into legend - Elchingen, Jena, Magdeburg, Eylau, Friedland, Cuidad Rodrigo, Busaco and Torres Vedras among others. However, Ney is best remembered for his adventures during the Russian Campaign of 1812, fighting at the battles of Borodino, Smolensk and Krasnoy as the Grande Armee advanced into Russia. It was however, during the retreat that Ney earned the soubriquet the "bravest of the brave " from Napoleon for his rearguard battles which allowed a great part of the French army to retreat successfully. The bridge at the Beresina River was the focal point for thousands of exhausted French troops as bedraggled and freezing they struggled to cross while under fire from Russian troops; it was Ney whose masterful rearguard defence from exultant Cossacks and Russians prevented a massacre and allowed the remnants of the Franch invading force to exit Russia. Ney remained until the last of the French troops had crossed the bridge and as he rode across at the rear he earned another name - " The last man out of Russia."
After again fighting a losing battle at the defining battle of Leipzig, Ney was present at Fontainebleau when Napoleon was forced to abdicate on April, 1814, and while Napoleon went to Elba, Ney travelled to Paris where he was made a peer by the newly installed Bourbon king, Louis XVIII. However, it was not long before Ney and Napoleon, met again when Napoleon escaped from Elba and Ney was charged with the unenviable task of bringing "the tyrant" to justice.
The famous pledge by Ney to "bring Napoleon back alive in an iron cage " came to nothing when the two men met once again and the erstwhile Emperor's charisma won over Marshal Ney to his side once again.
On 15 June 1815, Napoleon appointed Ney commander of the left wing of the Army of the North and on the following day, after a night of torrential rain Ney found himself facing the allied armies of Europe on the glutinous fields of Waterloo. After fighting throughout the day, Ney is best remembered for the cavalry charges against the British squares, in which wave after wave of French lancers launched attack after attack on the squares bristling with bayonets. To Ney's frustration, the few British artillery pieces that were captured were never spiked and after having three horses shot from beneath him, Ney's prodigious efforts finally came to nothing when the Imperial Guard were routed in Napoleon's last throw of the dice. It was for Ney the beginning of the end.
The retreat from Russia 1812 by Yvon
When the French monarchy was restored after Napoleon's downfall it was inevitable that there would be reprisals, and arrested on August 3rd, 1815, Marshal Ney was first incarcerated in the Conciergerie and later taken to the Palace of the Luxembourg under guard. While awaiting trial for treason, the letters which passed back and forth between Ney and his wife Aglaé became increasingly anguished as it became more and more inevitable that he would be found guilty. Even though Ney's pride in declaring himself French had frustrated his defence lawyer, it is doubtful whether he would have ever been acquitted - the Bourbon restoration wanted an example set "pour encourager les autres" and as the highest profile officer Ney had been chosen as the scapegoat. When the fateful day of Ney's execution finally dawned Ney refused a blindfold and with typical élan he took charge of the firing-squad with the words:
"Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. It will be my last order to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought over 100 battles for France and never against her --soldiers fire !"
In the silence which followed the fateful volley, there was a disgraceful incident when an English aristocrat leaped exultantly over the body on horseback; when the crowd became incensed at his gauche behaviour, the horseman did something Ney never did and retreated ignominiously. As the body lay prostrate there were others, old soldiers who fought with Ney, who dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood before the body was taken to the Curé hospital where hundreds paid their respects throughout the night as the body lay in state.
The execution of Marshal Ney by Jean-Léon Gerome (1824 - 1904) at the Carrefour d'L'Observatoire. The dome of the Observatory can be seen in the background.
Marshal Ney was later buried in the cemetery of Pére La Chaise but he was never forgotten, especially by Bonapartists and more especially by his family. Ney's eldest son was the most prominent of those who agitated for the restoration of his name and when the provisional government came into power in 1848 Ney was finally exonerated - the trial was declared "irregular", Ney was restored to the Legion of Honour and a statue was promised in his honour.
The promise was fulfilled when the bronze statue by Francois Rude was unveiled on the 7th December, 1853, the 38th anniversary of the execution. Marshal St Arnaud presided over a ceremony which included Ney's sons, the Imperial Guard, artillery pieces, a deputation from Saarlouis, generals, admirals and clergy, inluding the Archbishop of Paris.
When the unveiling took place, the cannon roared out a salute, the bands began to play and the assembled troops paraded the Imperial Eagles while passing the statue with lowered colours and waving swords.
A contemporary sketch of the unveiling from the front page of the London Illustrated News, December,1853.
To the rear of Ney's statue is one of the most renowned cafés in Paris. Built in 1847, six years before the statue was put in place, the Closerie de Lilas (roughly translates as; the Lilac Arbour) has served such illustrious visitors as Lenin, Trotsky, Scott Fitzgerald, Claude Monet, Frederic Bazille, Auguste Renoir, Matisse, Braque, Derain, Picasso, all artists who were leaving the increasingly touristy Montmartre. Baudelaire and Verlaine were customers and no respectable bar could be without the ubiquitous Ernest Hemingway ; Heminway wrote the whole of The Sun Also Rises while sitting on the terrace which makes it more than distinctive than most other bars where he merely drank and challenged other cutsomers to fight. Strictly speaking, situated in the boulevard du Montparnasse La Closerie is within the boundaries of Montparnasse proper --which is where we are going next.