Sites and Sounds of Revolutionary Paris

Elephant of Oblivion
Revolutionary Tradition and Les Mis
Revolution 1789
--The Monarchy
--Tennis Court Oath
--Fall of the Bastille
--October Days
--Declaration of War
--Palace Invaded
--Louis XVI
--Reign of Terror
-- Fall of Robespierre
--At war
1789 in Les Miserables
--The Terror
--The People
--The Students
--The Monarchy
--Place de Concord
--Notre Dame
Daily Sites
--Street Names
--Children's Names and Games
Works Consulted

The Elephant of Revolutionary Oblivion

  Napoleon Bonaparte was at the head of the French army and government from 1799-1815. During this time France experienced tremendous success in war-Napoleon's campaigns were masterful. To commemorate his conquests at home and abroad, and to obliterate lingering ideas about the superiority of the Republic, Napoleon decided to build a great elephant on the site of the Bastille.

(Spielvogel, 697)

This image is a water-color drawing by Jean-Antoine Alavoine, anticipating what the completed elephant would look like.

Jean-Antoine Alavoine, 1813 Watercolor, (Schama, 2)


Napoleon intended the elephant to be cast in bronze and be big enough for visitors to ascend on an interior staircase to a tower on its back (Schama, 3). Unfortunately, when the time came for the monument to actually be erected, France was engaged in an unsuccessful military campaign in Spain. So the elephant was cast in plaster instead of bronze, and two years later when Napoleon's Empire collapsed the "Elephant of Revolutionary Oblivion" was left to rot. It became overgrown and infested with rats. Locals petitioned for it to be removed, but it remained even when a column memorializing the dead of July 1830 was erected on the other side of the place de la Bastille. In 1846, the great unwieldy mass was finally removed.

The elephant was not an enduring monument in Paris, but it was loaded with meaning. Intended to be a symbol of Napoleon's might, its creation in plaster indicated the dire situation of the Empire. It was meant to be a marvel, but it became a home for vagrants and vermin. Most of all, the deterioration of the elephant and all it stood for countered the perseverance of revolutionary ideology in France.