The Vendôme column is not only a monument to the glory of Napoleon – over the centuries it has become inseparable from the world of French jewelry. Hence my interest in this book and the work of photographer David Bordes, who has chronicled the entire frieze winding up to the top, without missing a single detail along the way!
By Sandrine Merle.
Sandrine Merle. This book, published by Norma, focuses on the frieze of the Vendôme column, whereas we usually only notice the vertical aspect and the statue of Napoleon at the top!
David Bordes. When Christophe Bottineau, the architect in charge of the restoration, asked me to photograph the work of the bronze patinas, I had a sudden conviction: the time was now or never to capture this gigantic body of work, which at the time existed only in the form of engravings (also featured in the book). I photographed the frieze as if I was reading the story backwards. Between October and November 2015, strapped into a harness, I climbed to the highest point of the scaffolding every day. At first I was able to touch the statue of Napoleon, but then moved ever further away as the workers dismantled the floors.
S.-M. You didn’t overlook a single square centimeter of the frieze, how did you go about it?
David Bordes. The photos were taken head-on with a medium format Hasselblad, as digital photography would not have allowed me to feel the material or render the volumes. A simple piece of wood was used as a gauge to maintain the same distance from the bronze plate. To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I took the photos so that they all overlapped by a quarter – a character placed on the left became the center of the following image. And I was lucky with the weather in November of 2015 – it wasn’t too changeable.
S.-M. Was the column, considered to be one of the world’s most beautifully sculpted works, in poor condition?
David Bordes. The structure was good, but the bronze plates were dirty: we had to clean the black spots while preserving the color in shades of green. There was of coure no question of removing the natural patina – it’s inseparable from the column and all these nuances help make the frieze more readable! Studies have shown that they were caused by the differences in the nature of the bronzes used: they come from the cannons seized from the Austrian enemy, but they were made at different times in different foundries and therefore the alloys vary.
S.-M. The frieze is like a kind of comic strip, with a beginning and an end, and a list of characters…
David Bordes. It’s a tribute to the Grande Armée. At the bottom of the column, the army sets out from the camp of Boulogne-sur-Mer to defeat the 3rd coalition in the East. A few weeks later, it wins the battle of Austerlitz, one of the greatest victories in military history. At the top, the frieze ends with the peace treaty of Tilsit, in 1807, bringing an end to hostilities after Napoleon had defeated the Emperors of Austria and Russia. This was only part of the Napoleonic epic, which ended in 1815.
S.-M. And between those two dates?
David Bordes. 250 linear meters chart the departure from Utrecht, the crossing of the Rhine, etc. Horses trample the dead. Napoleon receives the keys to Vienna. Marshals such as Lannes, Augereau (on the cover of the book), Murat and Bernadotte are recognizable. The details of the uniforms and weapons are incredibly precise. There are thousands of simple grenadiers, veteran soldiers and even musicians. In the scenes of the troops’ daily life, we can also make out women carrying victuals and even more surprisingly, children, including a newborn baby in the arms of a cleric. Despite the homogeneity of the frieze, a trained eye can see differences between the sculptors: not all of the 32 employed by Vivant Denon were equally talented!
S.-M. The book, which is highly readable and full of anecdotes, does not only deal with the restoration of the Vendôme column.
David Bordes. That’s true. The various authors, Jean-Paul Nerrière, Claire Maingon, Antoine de Meaux or Laurent Baridon look back on its history, its demolition during the Commune and its reconstruction, the sculptors who created this frieze and especially Napoleon’s Grande Armée – the way it operated, the lives of its great characters and even the weapons they used. It’s like an open-air history book…