The square of Gavroche’s elephant

There is a persistent urban legend about American tourists going to the Place de la Bastille in Paris and feeling cheated when they discover that the Bastille Fortress isn’t even there any more.

Perhaps this has really happened at one time or another, but I think most tourists from all over the world are aware that the Bastille was destroyed during the French Revolution after being stormed by the people of Paris on July 14, 1789, for which reason July 14 is still celebrated every year as the French National Holiday.

From 1812 to 1846, the Place de la Bastille was dominated by a bizarre monument, a huge elephant, twenty-four meters high, made of wood and plaster. This elephant was Napoleon’s idea. He wanted it to be made of bronze melted down from cannons captured in battles by his victorious armies. But just to show what it would look like, he first ordered a full-scale mock-up made of wood and plaster to be made and set up in the center of the square.

The bronze version was never made, but the wood-and-plaster mock-up stood in the center of the Place de la Bastille for thirty-four years. With each passing year it got more and more bedraggled. The plaster started to crumble and the hollow spaces inside were infested with rats.

At one point it was discovered that a young boy was sleeping inside the elephant at night. This discovery was worth a few lines in the Paris newspapers, under the heading faits divers for miscellaneous curiosities, and these reports gave Victor Hugo the idea of using the elephant as the secret home of the street urchin Gavroche in his novel Les Misérables. 

Place de la Bastille

Today the Place de la Bastille is a huge open square — not in the shape of a square but more of a sloppy circle — in which motor vehicles careen around wildly at high speeds with no semblance of order. This will be changed starting in 2018, when the Place de la Bastille is scheduled to be thoroughly rearranged so as to reduce car traffic, make more room for cyclists and pedestrians and greatly increase the space devoted to grass and trees.

July Column from Arsenal Harbor

Until then, the July Column, in the middle of the square, is generally not accessible because of all the motor traffic. This column commemorates the events of July 1830, which resulted in the fall of King Charles X of France and the beginning of the reign of King Louis-Philippe. 

Opéra Bastille from Arsenal Harbor

The magnificent new Paris opera house, the Opéra Bastille, was inaugurated on July 14, 1989, on the two hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.

See more posts on the Place de la Bastille

4 thoughts on “The square of Gavroche’s elephant”

I appreciate your feedback! Your first comment won't appear until I approve, but after that there should be no delay. (Your e-mail address will not be published.)