The intersection between the Tuileries Garden and the Gardens of Champs Elysee is a very curious place. For a start it is the largest public square in Paris but that is just the start of the unusual back stories of this ‘Place’ beside the Seine River. It started life in 1755 as your standard plaza decorated with statues, one of which was of the King at the time, Louis XV (1710-74), astride his horse. It sat in the centre of a series of opulent buildings that still stand today. The original name of this square was ‘Place Louis XV’.
A little over 30 years later, the King’s statue was torn down and the square was given a new name, ‘Place de la Revolution’. Louis XV’s 59 year reign left France in great need of reform but it was his grandson who inherited the mess and the revolution took off Louis XVI’s head in this public square in 1793. In the image on the left below, the large pedestal further down from the guillotine was where Louis’s grandfather’s impressive equestrian statue had stood for 30 years; Louis XVI’s last thoughts about his ancestor must have been fairly negative as he waited for his doom. The revolution was an even-handed master so the leader of the ‘Reign of Terror’, Maximilien de Robespierre, also lost his head here in 1794 (below right). Perhaps the most bewildered of the French monarchy who met her end here in 1795 was Marie Antoinette, Henry’s 38 year old Austrian wife who had little idea of what life had in store for her when she was sent by her mother to marry the King of France at the age of 14.
For some reason, the revolutionary government decided that the name of the square needed an upgrade so it was changed to Place de la Concorde, perhaps hoping for happier times in Paris and at this particular spot. The rulers of Paris changed their mind again in the 1820s and 1830s when it became Place Louis XV again and later, Place Louis XVI. The supporters of the Bourbon restoration lost out eventually in naming rights and it returned to ‘Place de la Concorde’ in 1830 and has remained so ever since.
This square will always be linked with the blood-leting of the Revolution but times changed for Place de la Concorde in 1836 when an amazing diplomatic gift from Egypt was set up in the very centre of the square. It was the Obelisk of Luxor and was approximately 3000 years old by the time it found its way to Paris from the desert sands of Egypt. Obelisks were an ancient monument of Egypt that once the glory of the Egyptians faded, conquering nations decided that accepting gifts of these obelisks was a sign of significant world leadership. The Romans were the first to design ships for bringing these huge objects across the Mediterranean and one of the delights of visiting Rome today is to check out the Egyptian obelisks there. Of course the British later secured one in 1877, the famous Cleopatra’s needle that stands on the banks of the Thames.
The image on the left above shows the obelisk some time mid 19th century when the Place de la Concorde is being used as a venue for a military parade. Not long after the obelisk was installed, two fountains were built on either side of the obelisk of Luxor and became recognised as the finest fountains of Paris. The designer had spent time in Rome and so it is unsurprising that piazzas there that had both fabulous fountains and obelisks (Piazza Navona and Vatican Square) were part of the inspiration for the Place de la Concorde fountains. The theme of the fountains is rivers and seas and they are beautiful examples of neo-classical design.