The Ceiling of the Opéra National de Paris
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
As I stood in one of the grand halls at the National Opera House of Paris, I stared up at the opulence of the Le Palais Garnier ceiling. Almost everything in Paris is called a “palace”-a word that doesn’t seem to have the same meaning in English as it does in French. Le Palais Garnier was named after the 35 year old French architect Charles Garnier. Completed in 1875 after 15 years of construction, which was interrupted by war, the fall of Napoleon III and the Paris Commune. I was quite frankly stunned by the ornate gilding, the quantity of gold and crystal chandeliers, the fresco paintings and everything else down to the parquet floors. I can’t even imagine what it cost at the time it was built.
To say that it is astoundingly opulent is an understatement-even for the period in which it was constructed. It was, however, conceived of during the period of the great reconstruction of Paris when Napoleon III engaged Baron Haussmann to redesign the city. If you have been or even looked at pictures of the “grands boulevards” of Paris with all of its confusing traffic circles and iconic architecture at these intersections that are stylistically identical.Blame Haussmann. He gets all the credit.
This did make me think both about great power and the impact of empire on the civic landscape. Napoleon III didn’t last in power long enough to see the completion of the Paris Opera House. However, from its design, it is clear that Napoleon III understood that people rising up against great power are to be feared-hence the grand boulevards that were built both for grandeur and as well as quick access for great armies to quell political uprisings. The narrow streets of old Paris were perfect for insurrection, which the Parisians seemed to think was their birthright. The boulevards did not arrive in time to save the emperor.
Unlike France, we here in the “land of the free” have not had more than one official revolution. We have, however, spilt enough blood of our own in our history, which includes the Civil War, various tax rebellions and riots, bloody labor uprisings, and the domestic conflicts during the Civil Rights and anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. All of them were political rebellions.
What a tourist to Paris can take away from all of the great culture there is manifold. First is that great power so often makes great mistakes, which the French did repeatedly with great arrogance. Their monument to their Vietnam War is their own silent denial of this mistake of colonial rule. Another is that the cultural arts-the treasure troves of misappropriated antiquities from Egypt, Athens and Rome alongside their own vast collections of paintings from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Those collections continue to reap a financial reward far beyond the original purchase price, even with the loss of their colonies in Africa, Asia and India. Anyone who tells you that art or culture doesn’t make money hasn’t been to Paris.
These are lessons that should not be lost on the American tourist as we too overreach with our own concept of freedom and liberty. Particularly when we pretend we are making the world “safe for democracy,” just as the French once believed that liberté, egalité, fraternité was their mission and gift to the uncivilized world. You see these words on every government building in France.
What can be seen through the lens of the French empire is that dominance as a world power can be fragile, if not fleeting, on the world stage. Nothing lasts forever. The 20th Century witnessed the fall from grace of all the great European colonial powers and the subsequent rise of the American empire. One not based on old-fashioned colonial rule, but of commerce, capital and military preeminence. We will see over the course of the 21st Century just how long this lasts and just what kind of opulence and arrogance we are capable of achieving.
Whatever one thinks about the fall of French dominance, politically or culturally, France now competes with California for fifth or sixth place in gross domestic product rankings. I can’t help but think of the iconic Eiffel Tower as a giant exclamation point and apex of French Empire in architecture, engineering and art. Perhaps, it was at this summit of their cultural expression that arrogantly led them to lose their next generation of best and most talented in the trenches of World War I, and subsequently the loss of their national sovereignty during the Nazi occupation of World War II.
It was only a matter of time and the consequences of World War II that France and the rest of the European powers lost their third \world colonies to the “uncivilized” peoples who lived there. Somehow they had gotten the idea that “liberty, equality and independence” wasn’t just for Frenchmen.
I was thinking about all of this while staring at the ceiling of the Paris Opera House and wondering what kind of aria should be sung in a palais like this?