The Paris Heritage Strolls
The Paris Bridge-and-Statue Stroll
From the Pont de la Tournelle to Pont Mirabeau
The capital’s main bridges were either built or rebuilt in the 19th century, a time when decoration was de rigueur on any structure of any importance. Given the extra weight and stress that statues put on bridges, they usually stand on piers and preferably on piers sunk in dry land. However, the Pont Alexandre III an impressive exception.
This bridge was built not only to convey traffic, but to astound visitors and heads of state attending the 1900 Universal Exposition. The 160-meter imperial promenade over the Seine features elegant statues glorifying the nation’s wealth and resources at either end and exquisitely wrought streetlamps.
The Bonaparte-era Pont d’Iéna, however, and Pont de l’Alma (part of Napoleon III's public works) commemorate battle victories. Whatever the message in their statuary, bridges and their works of art connect city districts at the same time as they span the gap between citizens and the political programme of the day.
In the late 1800s, popular taste appreciated an expressive synthesis between ornamentation and engineering, exemplified by Pont Bir-Hakeim. After 1900, though, bridge statuary was thought of as detracting from the sheer beauty of the technical feat, and it fell out of favour.
Pont de la Tournelle
As you stroll about Paris, you may notice markers indicating how high flood waters rose in 1910. The badly damaged Pont de la Tournelle stayed partially underwater until it was rebuilt in the 1920s by architects Pierre and Louis Guidetti.
The statue towering over the Left Bank end of the bridge represents Paris's patroness Saint Geneviève, protecting a little girl (the city), armed only with faith. The sculptor was Paul Landowski and, as is usual in Paris, the art aroused a furore.
Landowski wanted the statue looking eastward because, in St. Geneviève’s time, the Huns invaded by boat from the east. City councillors, however, couldn’t bear the idea of their patron saint turning her back to Notre-Dame. They prevailed, and 1928 was the last time a statue was placed atop a Paris bridge.
Which king was first to return to a pedestal in Paris after the Revolution and the Empire? The 16th-century monarch Henri of Navarre, who promised a chicken in every pot, has always enjoyed the affection of Parisians. A temporary plaster statue by Roguier was placed on the Pont Neuf in May 1814 to welcome King Louis XVIII back to Paris. It was replaced in 1818 by the equestrian bronze by François-Frédéric Lemot, cast from the statue of Napoleon Bonaparte removed from the Colonne Vendôme. An Arc of Triumph was set up behind the piece for its inauguration day, with a joyous crowd cheering.
Two bas-reliefs were added to the pedestal in 1820. The first depicts a generous Henri IV handing out bread to Parisians, and the second his triumphant 1594 entrance into the city. These illustrations from the legend of the good 16th-century king promoted détente with the restored 19th-century monarchy after two and a half decades of upheaval.
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Clever Toll-Booth Statues on Pont du Carrousel
Today’s bridge dates from the late 1930s. It replaced a structure built upstream on plans by Polonceau during the July Monarchy (1830-1848). Despite initial hesitations, Louis Petitot’s four marble statues gracing either end of the old bridge were included in the new structure. The Right Bank groups are allegories of Industry and Abundance, confident symbols of commerce and wealth. Industry was given Mercury’s caduceus and wings while Abundance has a jewellery box.
They refer to the economic impact of the bridge. The figures on the Left Bank represent the public nature of the work, with the Seine and the City of Paris as characters. By fosterings exchanges between the Left and Right Banks, the bridge contributes to Paris's industrial and commercial development - as King Louis-Philippe noted in his inaugural speech. The statues originally stood on cast-iron pedestals large enough to house tollbooths.
The Allegorical Pont Alexandre III
For the Paris 1900 Universal Exposition, the city erected a new and richly decorated bridge, the Pont Alexandre III, to celebrate the new Franco-Russian alliance.
In the centre of the high arch, on the upstream side, a group of Seine River nymphs bearing the arms of the city of Paris mirrors the nymphs of the Neva River carrying the arms of Russia on the downstream side. Sculptor Georges Récipon, who also created the Grand Palais quadrigae, designed these lovely hammered copper compositions.
Plans for sculpted allegories of the reigns of King Louis XIV and Russia’s Peter the Great were dropped in favour of a less controversial subject: Highlights from French History. Left Bank figures feature France and the Renaissance and France under Louis XIV sculpted by Coutan and Marqueste. On the Right Bank, we find France under Charlemagne and Contemporary France by Lenoir and Michel. The gilded allegories high atop the pedestals on the Right Bank are the Arts and Sciences, turned toward the Grand and the Petit Palais. Their companion pieces on the Left Bank pedestals are the allegories of industry and commerce by Steiner and Granet.
Matching carved stone groups also grace the bridge’s parapets. The lions and children are the work of Dalou and Gardet. The geniuses with seashells on the Right Bank were sculpted by Morice, known for his monument on Place de la République. Massoule carved those on the Left Bank side.
Pont des Invalides
Here is yet another Universal Exposition bridge. This one dates back to 1855, when the fair was held on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It spanned the Seine between those grounds and the old soldiers’ home known as Les Invalides.
The central pier serves as a pedestal for twin victory figures representing battles won at sea (on the bridge's downstream side) and on land (on the upstream side). Sculptors Victor Vilain and Georges Diebolt celebrated Napoleon III’s victories in Crimea. The bridge’s decoration was completed in 1862 with the installation over the side piers of a high-relief carving by Bosio entitled Les Trophées. The bridge suffered structural damage from the raging ice flood of January 1880 (cf. Claude Monet’s painting La Débâcle de la Seine). In the restoration, a Medusa head crowned with laurel leaves replaced the imperial crown that had previously decorated the shield in the centre of Les Trophées.
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Pont de l’Alma
After this bridge was completed to commemorate the Franco-British victory over the Russian army in Crimea, Napoleon III commissioned artists Georges Diebolt and Auguste Arnaud to glorify four types of military combatants on the bridge piers. The upstream side sported Diebolt’s Grenadier and Zouave. Arnaud’s artilleryman and infantryman faced downstream. The four were inaugurated on 15 August 1858, precisely 89 years after the birth of Bonaparte, whom Napoleon III wished to emulate.
The Zouave was the only statue to regain its place when the bridge was rebuilt in the 1970s to accommodate the new riverside expressway. It survived thanks in part to Parisians’ affection for it as water level gauge. This particular monument is the subject of at least three well-known French songs.
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Your next stop is the Pont d’Iéna, where more military statues await you. Napoleon Bonaparte had planned to honour four Grande Armée generals killed in the 1806 Prussian campaign with equestrian statues. Waterloo intervened. Nevertheless, the decoration, commissioned in 1850, reflects the original plan to a certain degree.
The four groups of sculpture installed on the bridge depict horses led by warriors of different nationalities. The Arab by Feuchère and the Greek by Delvaux stand on the Left Bank. The Gallic warrior by Préault and the Roman by Daumas stand on the Right Bank. Commissioned in 1850, these works, completed under the Second Empire, evoke the traditional representation of Castor and Pollux. The choice of subject may also have been related to the fact that the Champ de Mars, to which the bridge leads, was then being used as a horse racing track. The eagles on the piles sculpted by Barye in 1850 replaced the numeral of King Louis XVIII, which in turn had replaced Napoleon’s imperial eagle. History flows like the river beneath the span of this bridge.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim
This steel bridge’s originality is that it is double-tiered. The bottom span carries motorized and pedestrian traffic while the top one accommodates métro trains. Designed in 1900, it the bridge was the epitome of modernity. The four massive statues standing in the middle are Science and Labour by Coutan, and Electricity and Commerce by Injalbert. Where the arches taper down to meet the piers, Gustave Michel shows figures of ironworkers and mariners in action, plying their trades.
The powerful ironworkers are hammering the cartouche onto the piling. The boat in the mariners’ cartouche is central in the city’s coat of arms.
In 1930, a group entitled La France Renaissante was placed on the upstream belvedere of the bridge. This controversial depiction of Joan of Arc by Wederkinch was a gift of the Paris Danish community.
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Pont de Grenelle
The Statue of Liberty looking downstream from Pont de Grenelle is a smaller scale replica of the one in New York’s harbour. Purchased for the City of Paris by the American community, this Liberty was originally supposed to the 16th arrondissement square, Place des États-Unis, where another piece by Bartholdi glorifies Washington and Lafayette, heroes of America’s War of Independence.
However, for the 1889 Universal Exposition, the bronze replica of Lady Liberty was installed atop a piling on the upstream side of Pont de la Grenelle. When the bridge was rebuilt in the 1960s, the statue was moved to where it now stands, on an isolated pedestal on the tip of Île des Cygnes, looking downstream. Sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's wish that his work would face its sister across the Atlantic was finally fulfilled.
Our tenth leg on this excursion sweeps us downstream to a sleek, modern span celebrated by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. In stark contrast to Pont Alexandre III, this bridge hides nothing of its engineering. The statuary is all beneath the bridge, on the piers, which represent vessels. They are bearing pairs of female figures symbolizing commerce and abundance, on one side, and on the other navigation and the City of Paris. What is particularly interesting here is how the bronzes are positioned on the pilings, and the dynamism of the sculptural rendering. The ladies seem to have been caught in action piloting their craft upstream or down, in fanciful contrast to the sternly streamlined architecture of the bridge
|Pont Alexandre III||Pont de Grenelle||Pont de l'Alma||Pont Mirabeau|
Background Information on the Bridge-and-Statue Strolls :
The Direction des Affaires Culturelles de la Ville de Paris supervises the maintenance of over 600 statues and commemorative monuments. Most of these works of art date from the late 19th century, the early years of the Third Republic of France. They are the product of an active municipal policy to decorate the capital’s squares and streets. Some are masterpieces of French sculpture, like Carpeaux’s La Fontaine des quatre parties du monde and Dalou’s Le Triomphe de la République.
The 20th century has been less productive in this domain. But over the past twenty years, the City of Paris has revived the policy of ordering sculpture for public spaces. In 2004, the Comité de l’Art dans la Ville was set up. This committee is composed of art experts and elected officials who, between the years 2004 and 2008, coordinated 35 orders commissioned by the city for permanent and temporary works for public display. Here are a few examples you may wish to scout out in Paris: Wang Du’s Tour d’exercice displayed in the 17th arrondissement, Chen Zhen’s Danse de la fontaine émergente in the 13th, and the Berlin artist group Inges Idee’s Forêt de candélabres in the 19th.