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Jun

Le Cimetière de Picpus – A Personal View

PLACE DE LA NATION is both a place of celebration and a place of protest. Every summer, the Carnaval Tropicales de Paris takes place here and most of the big street protests in Paris either start or finish here.

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In the centre of Place de la Nation is the monument, “The Triumph of the Republic”, a bronze sculpture created by Aimé-Jules Dalou erected in 1899 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution.

Under the Ancien Regime, Place de la Nation was called Place du Trône because a throne was erected in this space on 26 July 1660 for the arrival of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain following their marriage in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. During the French Revolution the name, Place du Trône, was changed to Place du Trône-Renversé (Square of the Overturned Throne) and, in 1794, it changed from being a place of celebration to a killing field.

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Barrière du Trône – Picture from Wikipedia

On 11th June  1794, the guillotine was moved from Place de la Bastille where it had been for a short time to the Barrière du Trône at the southern end of the Place du Trône.

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From 14th June to 27th July 1794, Charles-Henri Sanson, Royal executioner of France and his assistants worked the guillotine on an industrial scale. During these six weeks they beheaded some 1,306 people in batches of 40 to 50 at a time.

Today, the Barrière du Trône still stands but, apart from a plaque on a wall marking the site of l’Échafaud (the scaffold on which the guillotine was placed), nothing remains to remind us of these bloody events. That is unless one walks along the neighbouring rue de Picpus. There, behind the heavy wooden doors of N° 35, the reminders are vivid.

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This is the Cimetière de Picpus, the largest private cemetery in Paris created from land seized from the convent of the Chanoinesses de St-Augustin during the Revolution. It was to here that the mutilated bodies were brought after Sanson had done his work and after being stripped of their clothing, they were unceremoniously dumped into two freshly dug pits under cover of darkness. These mass graves are still here and today they are tended with much care.

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Yesterday, on my way to Place de la Nation to record yet another street demonstration for my Paris Soundscapes Archive, I stopped off at the Cimetière de Picpus. My timing was fortuitous. Yesterday was 15th June; one day after Madame Guillotine set to work in Place du Trône in 1794. In the chapel in the grounds of the cemetery I discovered a memorial service taking place to commemorate the victims buried here.

I recorded some of the sounds inside the chapel and then went to look at the cemetery. Whilst there, I recorded a piece for my audio diary which I’ve been keeping for many years. I’ve never shared any of my audio diary on this blog before, it’s not what I usually do,  but I would like to share this piece with you. I’ve added some of the sounds from inside the chapel to my words and I hope that this piece, together with the pictures I took, will give you a flavour of the Cimetière de Picpus – a very special place.

Cimetière de Picpus – A Personal View:

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The Chapel

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The Gardens

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Porte Charretière – The entrance in 1794

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Porte Chapelle – The original chapel door in 1794

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Family members of the victims are buried here

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Memorial to the 16 Carmelites de Compiègne who sang their way to the guillotine

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Tombe de La Fayette

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The ‘fosses communes’ or mass graves are under the gravel.  304 victims are buried in the smaller grave at the front and 1,002 in the larger grave at the rear in front of the wall