In the early years of the French Revolution, the Girondins were an important political group in the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention. Many of the Girondins came from Bordeaux, in the department of Gironde. When the Revolution turned nasty in 1793, most of the prominent Girondins were guillotined by their political rivals.
In the center of Bordeaux there is a magnificent monument and fountain dedicated to the memory of these political martyrs. The monument consists of a 43-meter column and two basins with numerous fountains and statues. It was made between 1894 and 1902.
The statue at the top of the column shows “Liberty breaking her chains” (la liberté is a feminine noun in French).
On the south side of the column there is a complex of fountains and statues called “The Triumph of the Republic”. In the center, a crowned woman represents the Republic. She is holding a scepter in her left hand, symbolizing royalty.
The sphere in her right hand symbolizes Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In front of her is a blacksmith, representing Work, a woman representing Justice and a lion representing the forces of order, i.e. the police. Four spirited horses are charging away from her in different directions, snorting water out of their nostrils.
On the north side of the column, opposite “The Triumph of the Republic”, is a parallel complex of fountains and statues called Le Triomphe de la Concorde.
This of course has nothing to do with the ill-fated supersonic Concorde aircraft, (a surviving example of which you can visit in Le Bourget if you like that sort of thing), but rather with the original meaning of the word Concorde, which is peacefulness, brotherhood and harmony.
In Le Triomphe de la Concorde there is again a woman in the center, but this time she is holding an olive branch. Again there are four spirited horses charging away from her in different directions, snorting water out of their nostrils, and again there are some allegorical figures at her feet.
These two men do not symbolize gay rights, which were not on the agenda in 1900, but rather égalité (equality) and fraternité (brotherhood). They are supposed to represent a worker and a bourgeois who are talking with each other. This was no doubt wishful thinking on the part of the bourgeoisie, because the workers in the Gilded Age were under no illusion that they had equal rights, and they were certainly not equal economically.
(When I was in Bordeaux I had just started reading the book Le capital au XXIe siècle by Thomas Piketty, which I had bought in Toulouse a few days before, so I was learning all about the unequal distribution of wealth that peaked in the decades before the First World War.)
This group of statues is supposed to represent The Family. It shows a father, mother and child in the water, playing with a dolphin.
At the base of the column there are three white marble statues of women, made by the sculptor Achille Dumilâtre (1844-1923). The one in the middle, underneath the plaque reading “To the Memory of the Girondins”, symbolizes the city of Bordeaux. She is sitting on a cornucopia.
At a lower level, on the left and right sides of the column, are the statues of two lovely young ladies representing the two rivers that come together near Bordeaux before flowing into the sea, the Garonne (which also flows through the city of Toulouse, some 260 kilometers upstream) and the Dordogne. The two ladies seem to be peaking around the corner of the column and smiling at each other. The Garonne has a swan by her side and the Dordogne has a duck, and they each are pouring water out of a jug.
My theory is that the sculptor used the same model for both of these statues. What do you think?
These three men floundering in the water represent le Mensonge (deceit or lying, the one with the mask), vice (with the ears of a pig) and ignorance (with his hand over his eyes).
Because of these horses, the monument is sometimes called “The Horses of the Girondins”. During the Second World War, when France was occupied by the German army, the horses and all the other statues were sold as scrap metal for thirty francs per kilo, to be melted down for the German war effort. But after the war they were amazingly found intact in Angers and returned to Bordeaux, where they were finally reinstalled in the fountain in 1982.
Since the inauguration of the Bordeaux tramway system in 2003, the Esplanade des Quinconces has become a busy transportation hub, because two of the city’s three tram lines (B and C) meet here, along with 21 bus lines.
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.
See also: Allegorical statues in Versailles, France.