Musée des plans-reliefs

On the top floor of one wing of Les Invalides in Paris there is an unusual museum showing twenty-eight large relief-map models that were made starting in the seventeen century, showing fortifications and fortified towns at a scale of 1:600. The earliest of these was made on orders of King Louis XIV (or his war minister Louvois) in 1668. The model in my first photo shows the fortifications of the city of Bordeaux.

These relief models were intended for use in planning military strategy, in case of a siege or battle in one of these areas. They are now of great interest to historians, since some of the fortifications no longer exist or have been considerably modified over the centuries.

Relief-model of Mont-Saint-Michel, on display in the Invalides

The museum has preserved 260 of these elaborate models, which were made between 1668 and 1873, though for reasons of space only twenty-eight are on public display at any one time. The lighting is purposely very subdued (50 lux) in order to protect the exhibits.

Stephane Perréon, Vauban (2017)

From Stéphane Perréon’s book on Vauban, I learned that the military engineers in the 17th century had little use for the relief models, because they were accustomed to working with two dimensional plans and drawings, even though true topographical maps with contour lines (courbes de niveau in French) were not introduced until the beginning of the 19th century.

Vauban himself was critical of the relief models at first, saying they were a waste of money and human resources, but he later recognized their usefulness for explaining his proposals to the king, his ministers and other decision makers. This became especially important after 1693, when King Louis XIV (at age 55) stopped travelling out to the battlefields to have a look for himself.

From the same book, I learned that the relief models were originally made in situ, meaning on location, by “true workers and technicians who did not lack, some of them, an artistic sense.” The models were intended to show not only the fortifications, but also the surroundings within range of an artillery piece. The finished models were then transferred to the Tuileries palace in Paris (a palace which no longer exists today). Starting in 1706, they were gradually moved to the Grand Galerie of the Louvre. Later they were moved again to the top floor of the Invalides, where some of them can still be seen today.

In 1815, the victorious Prussian general Blücher had nineteen of the relief models taken to Berlin, where most of them were destroyed by bombings during the Second World War.

In the 1980s, after a long series of controversies, fifteen of the remaining relief models were transported to Lille, where they are now on display in the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts). These are the models showing fortifications in Lille and other sites in the north of France and in Belgium.

Relief-model of Perpignan, on display in the Invalides

My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban.

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