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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Porte Charretière – The entrance in 1794
Porte Chapelle – The original chapel door in 1794
Family members of the victims are buried here
Memorial to the 16 Carmelites de Compiègne who sang their way to the guillotine
Tombe de La Fayette
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
I found this incredibly moving Des. Thank you- for leading us here, for your sensitive treatment of this space and of its tragic events, and for allowing us to share in your private thoughts. There couldn’t have been a kinder tribute to the souls who died here. May they rest in peace.
Thank you so much Susanna, your comments mean a lot to me. This is indeed a remarkable place and, although it’s fairly well hidden, it’s well worth a visit. I was especially lucky to be there when the memorial service was taking place, it really added to the atmosphere.
A very intense journalistic entry, Des. It’s in sharp contrast to the other more joyful celebrations of Paris you have introduced us to. Looking forward to more sound diary entries in the future.
Thanks JD. My visit to this cemetery wasn’t planned, I had some time on my hands before the street demonstration close by got under way so I just called in. Consequently, my recording wasn’t planned either, as is the case with most of my audio diary entries. I simply record them ‘on the hoof’ and I found this place so captivating that I felt it was worth saying something about it for my diary. I’m pleased you found it interesting.
This is an especially beautiful and heartfelt post, Des. It’s one thing to read the commemorative plaques in a place like this. But hearing you recite the statistics — and recount the stories of the people behind them — was very moving. You’ve helped ensure that these innocent, courageous people will not be forgotten. Thank you for one of the most wonderful things I’ve read/heard all week.
Thanks Heather. For anyone with a sense of history this really is a special place. And the whole place is so well tended. I found it very moving.
As a representative from a Franco-American association, I attend the ceremonies in Picpus on the 4th of July each year – this is a familiar place and I’m really moved by the piece you’ve posted. As it happens, I went to hear Le dialogue des Carmélites in the théâtre des Champs-Elysées last week – you have certainly managed to capture that particular emotion which surrounds those terrible moments in French history and is so much alive in Poulenc/ Bernanos’ work as well. Those sixteen Carmélites are mentioned in one of your pictures.
I’ve noticed that you do not object to sharing the content of this blog for non-commercial purposes provided credits are correctly referred to. I would wish to use your excellent picture of Lafayette’s tomb for our association in a strictly non commercial context. If you would find it possible to make available somehow a file with higher resolution, it would be most appreciated.
In any case, many thanks for your work and for sharing it with us.
Thank you so much for your comment. I know what you mean, the final tableau in Le dialogue des Carmélites is a chilling reminder of this place and of man’s inhumanity to man. The Cimetière de Picpus is one of my favourite places in Paris, although ‘favourite’ is perhaps the wrong word – it is though one of the places that I return to time and time again.
Yes, of course you may use the picture of Lafayette’s tomb for your Association. I will contact you by email.
thank for the picture,
il y a un de mes ancètres dans une des fosses communes. il fut guillotiné le 17 Juin 1794 avec 53 autres condamnés, pour avoir fait partie des chemises rouges.
Mémoire à Jean Baptiste PORTEBOEUF.
Merci beaucoup pour votre commentaire.
Je trouve le cimetière de Picpus un endroit très émouvant. Il doit l’être encore plus pour vous en raison de votre lien de parenté. Il est bon que les fosses communes sont si bien soignés, un signe de respect pour ceux qui y reposent.