Colonne de Juillet or the July Column, a steel and bronze column standing 52 meters high and weighing 170 tons, is located in the centre of Place de la Bastille, in Paris. The site was once occupied by the infamous Bastille Prison, until it was stormed and subsequently demolished between 14 July 1789 and 14 July 1790 during the French Revolution. Originally, it was proposed to construct a commemorative column on the site to celebrate liberty and accordingly the first stone was also laid. However, the column was never constructed, instead a fountain was built in 1793. In 1808, Napoleon planned to replace the fountain with a new one, in the shape of a 78 feet (24 m) high colossal elephant, the elephant of Bastille. A full-scale plaster model of the elephant was built, which was immortalized by Victor Hugo in his immortal novel, ‘Les Miserables’ as a shelter of Gavroche. Napoleon had the intention to replace this elephant with one of bronze, made from the melting of guns and cannons seized from the Spanish army, and transforming it to a fountain with water spurting from the trunk of the elephant. However, the permanent bronze sculpture was never commissioned due to shortage of fund in the latter days of the Empire and the monumental elephant was demolished in 1846.
The Place de la Bastille was officially selected as the site of the July Column on 9 March 1831, and the Citizen-King placed a first stone of it on 28 July 1831, the day of the anniversary of July revolution that brought him to power. A hymn with words by Victor Hugo and music by Ferinand Herold was sung at the Pantheon on the occasion.
Inaugurated on 28 July, 1840, Colonne de Juillet commemorate the storming of the Bastille and the July Revolution of 1830, ‘Trois Glorieuses’ or the ‘three glorious’ days of battle during 27–29 July 1830, which resulted the overthrow of Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch and the commencement of the ‘July Monarchy’ of Louis Phillipe. Since everything relates to the month of July, the name chosen was the Colonne de Juillet or the July Column. On the inaugural day a musical performance called, ‘Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale’, was arranged in the open air at the Place de la Bastille square. It was especially composed for the occasion by the reputed composer and orchestra conductor Hector Berlioz, who himself conducted the show.
Colonne de Juillet, an elaboration of a Corinthian column, was erected on the Place de la Bastille between 1835 and 1840. It replaced various monuments commemorating the 1789 revolution, including the Fountain of Regeneration, which commemorated the day of August 10, 1792, the second main important day of the French Revolution and was built on the ruins of la Bastille in 1793, depicting a female statue of Nature in the form of the Egyptian goddess Isis, representing the regeneration of the French people.
Funeral vaults (columbarium) were built into the foundation of the July Column and the remains of the 504 victims of the July revolution and about 200 remains of the Revolution of 1848 were interred there. The names of men buried are engraved around the monument. Along with the martyrs, a couple of Egyptian mummies, which were brought by Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign and were decomposing in the Louvre, were also placed in the crypt. Later, those remains were moved and interred in the Garden of the National Library.
The Colonne de Juillet consists of 21 cast bronze cylindrical barrels and rests on a base of white marble, ornamented with bronze bas-reliefs consisting of 24 heads of lions whose open mouth discharges rain water, 24 circular medallions representing the Cross of July, a head of Medusa, the Charter of 1839 and the scale of justice. The bronzed base of the column is surmounted by four Gallic cocks, placed at the corners, and includes a lion sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye. The northern and southern sides of the base bear the dates of the July Revolution ‘27 28 29 Juillet 1830’.
Engraved with the names of the 504 victims of the revolutionary days of July, the barrel is divided into three parts by four necklaces, symbolizing the ‘Three Glorious’. Near the top of the Corinthian capital is a 16 feet (4.9 m) wide gallery, surmounted with a gilded globe, on which stands a colossal gilded figure of ‘Génie de la Liberté’, Spirit of Freedom. Created by Auguste Durmont, the star-crowned winged nude carries the torch of civilization in his raised right hand and a broken chain in the other.
Inside the Colonne de Juillet are 238 steps leading to the top of the column. Unfortunately, the spiral stairway is no longer available to the public.