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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Place de la Concorde in Paris

What is the Place de la Concorde?

Place de la Concorde is Paris’s largest public square, which features an imposing ancient Egyptian obelisk and acted as the site of executions by guillotine during the French Revolution.

Place de la Concorde and obelisk of luxor

Place de la Concorde History

Place de la Concorde is Paris’s largest public square and a breathtaking feat of urban planning. The enormous open space, uninterrupted by buildings on three sides, links several of the capital’s major sites and connects its arteries.

As if this doesn’t create sufficient drama alone, the centre of the square is dominated by a shimmering 23-metre-high ancient Egyptian monolith of pink syenite topped with a gold-leafed pyramid cap (added in 1998). The Luxor Obelisk, a 13th-century BC monument that commemorates in inscribed hieroglyphs the reign of Ramesses II, originally stood outside the Luxor Temple in ancient Thebes before it was gifted by Muhammad Ali Pasha, known as the founder of modern Egypt, and erected here in 1836. In exchange for the 3,000-year-old obelisk, King Louis-Philippe gifted the viceroy a brass clock tower (that now overlooks the courtyard of the Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo).

The square, however, was created about a century earlier than the erection of the obelisk, when a competition was held to design a suitable site to showcase an equestrian statue of King Louis XV sculpted by Edmé Bouchardon and finished by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, two of the leading artists in 18th-century France. The new square, designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, was named Place Louis XV [Quinze] and the placement of the statue underlined the king’s position as the symbolic centre of the state. Stone pavilions adorned by personifications of France’s eight provincial capitals radiated around the square (though, between 1871 and 1918, Strasbourg was covered with a black mourning crêpe and wreaths when Alsace was ceded to Germany).

Place de la Concorde fountain

In 1770, the new square was used to celebrate the marriage of the future king, Louis XVI, and his Austrian wife, Marie-Antoinette. The firework display went awry, and, in a grim portent of the carnage which would later engulf France and its rulers, 133 spectators perished. To complete the square, Gabriel designed the two beautiful colonnaded mansions on the north side, Hôtel de Crillon on the left and Hôtel de la Marine on the right. During the French Revolution, the statue of Louis XV was torn down and replaced with a monumental figure of Liberty whilst the square was renamed Place de la Révolution. On 21st January 1793, King Louis XVI was led out and executed by guillotine where the fountain closest to the Seine now flows. Nine months later, on the very same spot, his wife Marie-Antoinette was decapitated.

During the Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the Place de la Révolution witnessed the mechanical severing of 1,119 heads. After killing many from the aristocracy, the revolutionaries soon turned on their own. Georges Danton, the revolutionary leader and first president of the Committee of Public Safety, was executed here in April 1794. Maximilien Robespierre, the bloodiest of the radicals who played a key role in the Reign of Terror, was himself ultimately guillotined in July. When the Directory took power in 1795, the square was renamed the Place de la Concorde (or the ‘Square of Harmony’) in an attempt to relegate the bloodbath firmly to the past. The name would only last until 1815 when, during the Restoration of the monarchy, it reverted to Place Louis XV [Quinze]. The following decade it was once again renamed, this time as Place Louis XVI [Seize]. Only after the July Revolution of 1830 did its name finally settle on the one we use today. Walk to the northwest corner of the square and peer at the wall of the Hôtel de Crillon near the Rue Boissy d’Anglas. Above the modern place name, faded but protected by a transparent guard, is an old plaque: ‘Place Louis XVI [Seize]’, it reads, in a stubborn material reminder of the square’s tumultuous past.

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