Inside Les Invalides and the Army Museum: A "Dudes" Museum in Paris
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
If you’re a lover of French history or antique weapons, then Les Invalides and Paris’ Musée de l’Armée is a must see site in Paris. Or if you're a dude.
Apparently, dudes love the place. As I walked in, I overheard a group of friends chatting about the museum. One woman remarked, "it's a dude's dude museum." This sentiment seemed to be echoed by TripAdvisor reviews.
Not being a dude, I looked right and looked left, trying to assess whether anyone other than Big Lebowskis were allowed to enter. I saw there were women present, and carried on.
Plus, I adore history and always try to immerse myself in it on my geographical cures. Who doesn't?
Located in the 7th arrondissement, Les Invalides is a cluster of monuments and museums celebrating France’s tumultuous military history. The Emperor Napoleon's tomb is onsite, and you may want to begin there. Check out the royal chapel and then head to the Army Museum.
Dome and Chapel of Les Invalides
Les Invalides' fabled glittering dome is an unmissable landmark in Paris. The dome is spectacular, both inside and out, with an otherworldly opulence. You cannot help but feel awed. To ensure continuing adoration, Paris re-gilded the dome in 1989. 12 kilograms of gold were required for the new coat of gold.
But back to history. In 1677, Louis XIV commissioned the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart to build the dome and the royal chapel, known as the Cathedral of St. Louis des Invalides. It was built between 1679-1708. The cathedral was Paris' tallest building until the Eiffel Tower was erected in1887.
You enter the royal chapel through monumental bronze doors decorated with fleurs-de-lys and, naturally for a dude, Louis XIV's initials. Inside, the decoration is sumptuous: painted cupolas, pilasters. columns, low-relief sculptures, and stained-glass windows.
The cupola of the dome is decorated with a circular painting by Charles de la Fosse. It depicts the Glory of Paradise, with St. Louis offering his sword to Christ. A pair of binoculars would come in handy to take in all the detail.
Napoleon's tomb lies under the magnificent dome and shares space with the chapel. Naturally, it's magnificent, fashioned from red Finnish porphyry and purple quartzite, (representing imperial power), set on a green granite pedestal. There is an inlaid green laurel wreath and marble surrounding the tomb. The casket basically lies in the centre of a giant sun. Oh, the symbolism.
The high altar of the royal chapel is a bit of a garish affair, to my mind. It was moved during the installation of Napoleon's crypt to its current spot. It is considered a fine specimen of French Baroque architecture, and was modeled after Bernini's Baldachin in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It appears as though the altar and chapel are bathed in gold. This look is achieved by the yellow stained glass windows on each side.
Personally, I am more of a Gothic girl; the altar was too ostentatious for my taste. And it's basically a knockoff.
The Army Museum: Paris' Largest Museum of Military History
But on to the main event, a visit to the Musée de l’Armée. Paris' Army Museum first opened its doors in 1905. It's Europe's greatest military museum with a top notch presentation. Both women and dudes are welcome.
The impressive site encompasses seven main areas and some 500,000 pieces, including artillery, weapons, armor, uniforms, and paintings from antiquity up until the 20th century.
Military buffs and history geeks will be in heaven. The collection is so extensive, it's impossible to do justice to it in one day. To be on the safe side, budget 3-4 hours. If you're a dude, perhaps more.
I liked the "contemporary department," which focuses on WWI and WWII, the best. The department uses photos, maps, videos, and a few artifacts to trace the Blitzkrieg that overran France, D-Day battles, the concentration camps, the atomic bomb, and the eventual Allied victory. It also comes with a handy documentary film telling war stories.
Among the more important artifacts at the Army Museum are: Napoleon's pistols, a notebook of Hitler's, a Nazi flag, the swords of Francoise I and the Marquis de Lafayette, the helmet of Henry II, Napoleon's stuffed horse Le Vizir, Napoleon's bicorn hat, General Patton's goggles, the microphone that General De Gaulle used to send wartime broadcasts to the French people, small scale models of French fortifications, and Louis XIV era uniforms.
Whew, that's a lot! And I haven't even really scratched the surface.
Of note, is Napoleon's stuffed horse, the Arabian stallion Le Vizir. The horse is shockingly tiny. But very beloved.
Le Vizir was spared the indignity of carrying Napoleon to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. By then, the aging stallion had been put out to pasture. He was stuffed for posterity in 1826. In 2016, the mighty stallion was re-stuffed and restored by two expert taxidermists. If you weren't already sufficiently convinced of his importance, Le Vizir sports a tattoo brand on his dude butt: an N topped by a crown.
I also ran across this little sword. I don't know, it reminded me quite a bit of House Martell's sigil in Game of Thrones with a spear driven through a sun. George R.R. Martin is know for basing his book series on medieval events. Perhaps he paid a visit to the Army Museum at some point.
The Army museum is a sweeping, extensive collection and a bit overwhelming. If need be, take a break at the Angelina's in the courtyard to reboot.
After armor fatigue from the 1000th sword, I had an espresso and decided to hunt down the Turing decoder. (I am fancy in my nerddom.) I had recently watched The Imitation Game, a movie about the life of WWII decoder and mathematician Alan Turing. I wanted to see the famous device. And, behold, I found it in a display case.
Working in the top secret Beltchley Park, Turing's goal was to crack the "Enigma’"code. The Enigma was a type of enciphering machine used by the German armed forces to send messages securely. Turing invented a machine (shown above) known as the Bombe to speed decryption efforts. It may even have helped shorten the war by several years.
Museum visitors might also be surprised to discover some high quality artwork in the museum, such as Ingres' 1806 Napoleon on his Imperial Throne and Paul Delaroche's Napoleon I at Fontainbleau. I love Delaroche, a rather melodramatic Salon painter, particularly his underrated Young Martyr painting at the Louvre.
I really enjoyed Les Invalides and the Army Museum. I hadn't expected much, to be fair. I had put it at the end of my one week Paris itinerary. But I was pleasantly surprised, and was glad to have ventured into the dude's dudes world.
If you are not too exhausted from the veritable smorgasbord of military history or need a cultural change of pace, you can head to the nearby Musée d'Orsay. With its pretty pastel Impressionist paintings, it is decidedly not just for dudes.
Practical Information and Tips for Les Invalides & the Army Museum:
Address: 129 rue de Grenelle, 7th arrondissement
Hours: Open daily from April 1 to Oct 31 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and from Nov 1 to March 31, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. From April 1 to Sept 30, on Tuesday evenings it is open until 9:00 pm.
Entry fee: Full price: €12, audio guide €6 (you need ID for the audioguide), €10 after 4:00 pm, Paris Museum Pass is accepted
Metro: Varennes La Tour Maubourg or Invalides
Tel: + 33 (0) 810 11 33 99
Buy tickets online