Musée des Plans-Reliefs

Jan 9, 2024 0 comments

In the Hôtel des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, France, is a museum dedicated to detailed military models of important towns and fortified cities across Europe. These models were created over the course of one hundred years during the 17th and 18th centuries so that French emperors could make strategic decisions on how to proceed with an attack on foreign land, or how to defend their own cities against foreign attack. These scale models are known as plans-relief and they were an important tool for military strategists of the Renaissance era, especially in France and Italy. Today, they stand as irreplaceable documentation of the represented sites and serve as valuable educational tools.

Mont-Saint-Michel in Musée des Plans-Reliefs. Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

The collection at Musée des Plans-Reliefs was begun in 1668 by Louis XIV, at the suggestion of his minister of war, Marquis de Louvois. Some of the earlier models were crafted during the construction or reconstruction of the fortifications they represent, serving both as working models and portraits. Others were created after the completion of works, likely intended for convenient analysis and instruction. The king developed a strong enthusiasm for these models, resulting in the construction of fifty during his reign. Out of these, thirty-seven have survived, including the model of Ath, which dates from 1668 and was the first completed. Louis XIV kept the models locked in the Great Gallery of the Louvre, and few visitors were allowed to see them because fortifications were state secret and the king couldn’t have allowed examination by a potential enemy.

King Louis XV continued what his predecessor had started, and during his reign many new models were added. In 1774, the collection was nearly destroyed when the royal architects confiscated the Great Gallery of the Louvre for the display of paintings, and had nearly thrown out the plans-relief at the nearest trash heap. But the King intervened and transferred the models to the Hôtel des Invalides where it remains to this day. However, during the transfer, many models were damaged.

The military focus of the Revolutionary years brought a renewed appreciation of the value of the plans-reliefs, and even Napoleon displayed enthusiasm for the collection, contributing additional models. After the defeat of France in the Napoleonic wars in 1815, approximately 17 models, predominantly those depicting German cities, were taken to Berlin as loot of war. Regrettably, only two of them have survived, as the majority were destroyed during the bombings of 1944-45.

Photo credit: Tom Hilton/Flickr

As the 19th century dawned and the nature of war changed, the plans-reliefs gradually lost their contemporary military significance. And although much was destroyed during the tumultuous period of the Second World War, what remains hold enormous historical value.

All the models, starting from the earliest ones were built at a scale of 1:600 with only a few exception. Aside from the actual fortified area, the surrounding terrain was also included and to a large extent. As a result, many of these models were enormous. For instance, the model of Grenoble measures about 23 by 27 feet, that of Strasbourg about 21 by 36 feet, and that of Metz about 24 by 30 feet.

The base of the models were made of wood, and so were the houses and buildings. Trees were made of iron wire and silk, and cardboard and sand were used to create natural features.

All in all, some 260 plans-reliefs were created between 1668 and 1870, representing about 150 fortified sites. A little more than hundred survive of which only 28 plans-reliefs are displayed at Musée des Plans-Reliefs.

Photo credit: Tom Hilton/Flickr

Photo credit: Tom Hilton/Flickr

Fort Saint-Nicolas de Marseille. Photo credit: Tom Hilton/Flickr

# George A. Rothrock, The Musee des Plans-Reliefs, JSTOR


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