Musée des Plans-Reliefs
February 9, 2019 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Say you're the Sun King of France, and say you want to invade things (but I repeat myself). What you need, sire, is a collection of elaborate scale models, some as large as an apartment, of cities you might want to invade or defend, to better plan your strategy. Might I interest you in the maquettes at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs?

With these fine models, you can:

Invade* such fine locations as:
San Marino
The Suez Canal
The Panama Canal

Defend your favorite places, including:
The Château-Trompette

Wow, this sounds great -- how can I make my own collection? Glad you asked.
Could I use these to understand the history of war, city planning, and the range of artillery? Of course you could!
Could I see some videos? Sure!

Plans-reliefs! For all your military planning needs from 1668 to 1870! Commission yours today!

*Results not guaranteed for Corsican upstarts
posted by Eyebrows McGee (12 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
I visited this museum about 20 years ago and have been recommending it ever since! I did not realize that it existed as its own museum, all these years I thought it was just another set of rooms of the Army Museum. I had gone to see Napoleon's Tomb and poke around the Army Museum by myself. It was a very slow day at the museum, and one of the guards got my attention and indicated that I should go upstairs and see the maps. I was not expecting the large-scale relief maps, and when I entered the dim room and realized what I was looking at, I let out an "oh! oh my goodness!" The guard in that room was visibly pleased by my reaction and I remember him smiling at me while I quietly made my way around the maps. I spent quite a while in there.
posted by stowaway at 1:23 PM on February 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

It really is jaw-dropping. We were the only ones there when we visited, and I get the sense that's the norm. Thanks for shining a little more light on this dusty and ill-lit corner of Les Invalides! (Seriously, it's really dark in there. I understand they want to preserve the pigments or whatever, but my pupils were the size of saucers by the time we left.)
posted by phooky at 1:54 PM on February 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by cortex at 3:23 PM on February 9, 2019

Even if I never get around to looking through all these links I have to thank you for the excellently written fpp. The links look great, too, but I don't want to fall too far down a rabbit hole right now. Good job, Eyebrows McGee!
posted by irisclara at 3:29 PM on February 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

The practice goes back further. When Suleiman the Magnificent decided to invade the island of Malta in 1565, he had spies take sitings and craftsmen make a scale model of Grand Harbor, key to the operation.

The model, alas, is lost, just as they lost the battle.

(Fast forward and Napoleon invaded in 1799. No models in that case, just naval charts.)
posted by BWA at 3:51 PM on February 9, 2019

Magnifique! If I were king I think this would be one of the best perks.

For those whose French is rusty: these things are made mostly of wood. "Small details" of terrain are made with carton mâché, which is like papier mâché but made from cardboard not paper. Fields are made with sand over a bed of glue. Meadows and crops were indicated with chopped-up silk; trees were made with silk wrapped around brass wires. The houses were made of wood, but the roofs and I think the surface details were all made of paper and then painted.

All this was done to plan or study the fortifications-- in some cases the same city was modeled before, during, and after the walls were built. This was the era of cannon warfare; the old medieval walls were replaced by thicker fortifications, with sloped walls (to absorb cannonballs harmlessly), and bastions for resisting siege engines. This technology in turn was obsolete by 1870, so the models were no longer made.

All of which doesn't explain why individual chimneys had to be modeled, but it certainly made the models more beautiful and impressive.
posted by zompist at 4:44 PM on February 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

All of which doesn't explain why individual chimneys had to be modeled, but it certainly made the models more beautiful and impressive.

Entitling oneself 'the Sun King' bespeaks at least a nascent belief in sympathetic magic, and given that Louis XIV's court was absolutely rife with occultism, perhaps much more than that.

I don't think ritual uses of the early models are out of the question, and in that case fidelity might have been considered essential.
posted by jamjam at 5:03 PM on February 9, 2019

Maybe all those “chimneys” weren’t chimneys. Who knows what nefarious engines of war could be concealed.

I can’t believe I did not know this existed. Excellent post.
posted by skyscraper at 5:48 PM on February 9, 2019

Also, they probably got paid by the hour.
posted by skyscraper at 5:49 PM on February 9, 2019

And they were never retrofitted with model trains?!?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:09 PM on February 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

god i need so much more information. who actually made the originals? the collection history mentions of course louvois was responsible for overseeing the project but who did the surveying? who crept around drawing enemy cities? what tremendous nerdy artisans handcrafted each building for assembly?

oh ok on preview it's actually all explained on this page
posted by poffin boffin at 7:33 PM on February 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is great ! Adding it to my list of museums I have yet to visit in Paris
posted by motdiem2 at 6:28 AM on February 10, 2019

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