Panthéon, etc.

I finally managed to get a few photos of Orsay with the sun shining.

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Today the plan, such as it was, was to wander around the Latin Quarter. We begin with the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace. The grass is still flawless, but the trees have lost their leaves, the flowerbeds are bare and most of the fountains have been drained for the winter.

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Still not bad, though presumably the spring or summer would be a better time to visit. The palace itself is the meeting place of the French Senate.

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A few blocks away from the palace, the Panthéon. The dome is being repaired. Begun in 1758 by Louis XV as l’Église Ste. Geneviève, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, it wasn’t completed until 1790 after the revolution had already started.

The building was converted by one of the revolutionary governments into a mausoleum for great Frenchmen, though the 19th century saw it twice reconsecrated as a church, before reverting finally to the cult of the nation with the interment of Victor Hugo in 1885.

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The contention is reflected in the interior. The neoclassical architecture echos that of St. Peter’s in Rome. The walls are decorated in murals recounting the life of Ste. Geneviève, the coronation of Charlemagne by the pope on Christmas day, 800, and the baptism of Clovis.

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The sculptures on the other hand, are militantly secular: most notably the largest representing La Convention Nationale  where the high altar would otherwise be. Around the pillars supporting the dome are smaller works devoted to the Revolution. Normally, a massive Foucault pendulum would be suspended from the dome, though right now it’s been removed for the renovations.

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Below, the crypt holds the remains of dozens of eminent Frenchmen, and one Polish woman. The standards for eminence have fallen and risen over the years. Following Voltaire (above) and Rousseau, whose influence, for better or for worse, is difficult to dispute, come a long list of politicians and military leaders interred there at the behest of Napoleon.

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Between Waterloo in 1815 and the death of Hugo in 1885, only the architect of the building itself was interred in the crypt. Most of those buried thereafter are at least somewhat familiar.

At the moment, back upstairs, the north transept is entirely devoted to Jean Jaurès on the centennial of his assassination in 1914. Dozens of panels and a table of books by and about him recount the life, the writings, the reception, and influence of the French socialist.

The French commitment to socialism is however, as elsewhere, outside of a small cult of true believers, more sentimental than real. They may not name streets after Bastiat, nor gush over his memory, but a stroll through the Galeries Lafayette should be enough to convince anyone that the nation from which the English borrowed the terms laissez faire and entrepreneur, doesn’t really believe in socialism. Like the rest of the western world, France is a free market nation with a massive welfare state.

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It’s like The Bay, but larger and more opulent. Much, much more opulent. And instead of being divided into menswear, women’s clothing, home furnishing, etc, it’s organised by brand. Chanel, Prada, BVLGARI, Armani…You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s hard to move in there with the crowds. Don’t know yet if it’s always like this or this is a Saturday-before-Christmas thing. Will go again in the new year and find out.

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