One feature of Paris different from nineteenth century London was the large number of public fountains erected in that city. In fact, in 1825, it was claimed that in Paris the fountains numbered 127. Despite the large number of fountains, Napoleon planned to add one more, and this fountain was to be far grander than all the 127 preceding it.
Napoleon undertook this project, known as the Fountain of the Elephant (now called the Elephant of the Bastille). The fountain was to stand on the spot where the hated Bastille had once stood. Napoleon hoped to embellish the capital and construct a number of grand monument to his victories and military prowess, which in part could be accomplished with the fountain. Thus, on 9 February 1810, he decreed that a fountain was to be erected, which was then ordered to be completed by 2 December 1811.
The fountain was to be placed in the center of the canal, which was an oblong rectangular space that occupied the same site as the Bastille and was located “between the canal of St. Martin and the Arsenal.” In the middle of the space was to be a semicircular arch of burstone over the canal, which would support the colossal elephant cast in bronze. In addition, the fountain was to be constructed from the cannons of the insurgents captured at the Battle of Friedland, and it was designed to be 72 feet tall. The water was to be voided through its trunk, and each of its legs were to measure 6 feet in diameter, with one functioning as a winding staircase leading to the howdah (the bed or baskets on top of the elephant). Additionally, the body was to be “fitted up elegantly as a saloon.”
Dominique Vivant, Baron Denon, a French artist, author, archaeologist, and diplomat, was hired to oversee the project. Jacques Cellerier was to be the architect. Cellerier began construction in 1810 and completed the vaults and underground pipes by 1812. However, in 1812, Jean-Antoine Alavoine replaced Cellerier.
As Alavoine completed the main pool, he realized he needed a full-size model of the elephant if he was to continue. To accomplish this, he hired Pierre-Charles Bridan to create it — which was plaster over a wooden frame — and completed in 1814. Alavoine then hired a guard named Levasseur to protect the model.
Levasseur lived in one of the elephant’s leg. Alavoine also planned on deriving a living by charging one franc for admission once the fountain was completed. However, after Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, construction on the elephant stopped due to a lack of funds.
As early as the 1820s nearby residents began to complain about the elephant attracting rats and invading their homes. In the meantime, Alavoine attempted to find financial backing to finish the project and even tried to get financial help as late as 1833. After Alavoine had given up hope of financial backing, the rats became more prolific and the elephant fell into further ruin.
As the elephant was nothing more than plaster, Victor Hugo maintained that “every season, the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it … There it stood … melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen … cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by the slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns … it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it.”
But it was not just Hugo who had complaints. So did citizens living in the immediate area. Because of their complaints, the city council met to discuss options, first in 1841 and then 1843. But no proposals were accepted and nothing was done. By then it was considered “unclean, … repulsive, [as well as] ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, [and] melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.”
Apparently, the only time the poor elephant regained a smidgen of the elegant status that Napoleon had once bestowed upon it, was when twilight descended. Then it “became transfigured … assumed a tranquil and redoubtable appearance in the formidable serenity of the shadows. Being of the past, [it] belonged to the night; and obscurity was in keeping with [its] grandeur.”
Supposedly, the plaster model of the elephant was not removed until 1846. When at last it was completely destroyed, legend states that thousands of rats pour out and terrorized nearby neighbors for weeks. Today, no trace of the elephant remains, but if you wonder where it was, it once stood where the July Column now stands.
-  The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1833, p. 360.
-  The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, 1830, p. 303.
-  Saint Denis,” Victor Hugo, 1887, p. 126.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.