Victor Hugo: A Monumental French Writer

An exhibition created by the Centre des monuments nationaux to celebrate the anniversary of when the final volume of Les Misérables was published

Victor Hugo statue, Paris (1902) by Barrias, Louis-Ernest (1841-1905)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A monumental French writer

Victor Hugo was born on February 26th 1802 and died May 22nd 1885. He was not only a renowned French writer, but also a committed intellectual and an outspoken politician.

Join us in discovering this great man through seven French monuments that influenced his writing and work.

The mask seller (1883) by Astruc, Zacharie (1833-1907)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A Remarkable Writer

Victor Hugo is considered to be one of the most prominent French writers. While it was his novels Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) that brought him his reputation, he also produced an abundance of engaging and lyrical poetic works. The theatre was no exception; Hugo was the playwright who developed the theory of romantic drama. His plays Cromwell (1827), Hernani (1830) and Ruy Blas (1838) had a great impact on the Parisian scene, and he was elected to the Académie française in 1841.

Astronomical clock of Besancon CathedralCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

It All Began at Besançon...

Let's go back in time to where it all began. On February 26th 1802, Victor Hugo was born in Besançon. He was the third son of Sophie Trebuchet and Leopold Hugo, a French general who was stationed in the city at the time.

This magnificent astronomical clock found in the Cathedral Saint-Jean de Besançon was designed by watchmaker Auguste-Lucien Vérité, a contemporary of Victor Hugo.

Victor Hugo, portrait (1840) by Delpech, François-Séraphin (1778-1825)/Delpech (éditeur)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A Precocious Genius

As a child, Victor Hugo traveled around Europe following his father's postings. In 1812, his parents separated and he moved to Paris with his mother. He devoted himself to writing from adolescence.

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, Chimera gallery (1998) by Philippe BerthéCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Follow in Victor Hugo's footsteps and discover seven remarkable French monuments that impacted his literary work and his politics: Mont-Saint-Michel, Notre-Dame de Paris, the Conciergerie, the July Column, the Column of the Grande Armée, the Arc de Triomphe and the Panthéon.

Mont-Saint-Michel shape,seen from the North (2016) by Colombe ClierCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Mont-Saint-Michel: a source of wonder

Victor Hugo traveled across the country to discover regional France. In 1836 he toured Normandy and visited the Mont-Saint-Michel, which has been a place of pilgrimage ever since the Middle Ages. The many descriptions of the Mont in his correspondence and his works bear witness to his fascination with its imposing structure.

During this visit he wrote to his wife Adele to say: "Yesterday I was at Mont-Saint-Michel. Here, one should pile up superlatives of admiration, as man has piled buildings onto the rocks and as nature has piled rocks onto the buildings."

Mont Saint Michel abbaye seen from the skyCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

"A Very Strange Place This Mont-Saint-Michel! "

"Around us, everywhere as far as the eye can see, is infinite space, the blue horizon of the sea, the green horizon of the earth, the clouds, the air, freedom, birds of every wing, boats of every sail; and then, suddenly, high above our heads, the sight of the pale figure of a prisoner, through a barred window in an old wall. Never have I felt more keenly than here, the cruel antitheses between man and nature."
Letter to Louise Bertin, June 27th 1836, Correspondence with Victor Hugo.

Mont-Saint-Michel abbey, cloister (2015) by Colombe ClierCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

An Abbey that Attracts Pilgrims

Mont-Saint-Michel became one of the most important places of pilgrimage after the cult of Saint Michael arrived there in 708.

You are in the cloister of the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. Perching at a height of 80m, it was built on the Mont in the 10th century and received monks until 1790.

The Restoration of the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey Cloister

For several years now, rainwater infiltrations from the cloister have damaged the coatings of the vaults of the Knights' Hall, located just below. A call for donations is currently open for repairs to the garden and the cloister gallery; to restore the original beauty of this haven of peace, suspended between sky and sea.

Mont-Saint-Michel and salt marshes (2016) by Colombe ClierCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A Final Mention

In Victor Hugo's last novel, Quatrevingt-treize, published in 1874, he mentions Mont-Saint-Michel: "Behind him stood an enormous black triangle, with its cathedral like a tiara and its fortress like breastplate, with two large towers in the east, one round and the other square, helping the mountain to carry the weight of the church and village. Mont-Saint-Michel, is to the ocean as Cheops is to the desert."
Excerpt from Quatrevingt-treize, Victor Hugo, 1874.

Take a walk around Mont-Saint-Michel and admire its alleys and its bay, which were so dear to Victor Hugo.

Towers of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral (2011) by Jean-Pierre DelagardeCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Notre-Dame de Paris: the novel rescues the monument

Hugo's novel Notre-Dame de Paris was first published in 1831 and then as the definitive version in 1832. It cleverly intertwines the lives of many characters such as Quasimodo the hunchback and bell ringer of Notre-Dame, Frollo the archdeacon, Esmeralda the gypsy and the poet Gringoire. However their surroundings, the 15th century Parisian cathedral, is also a principle character. Hugo writes about it poetically, with a language sometimes refined and sometimes truculent.

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, Northern tower, bells (1949) by Séeberger FrèresCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The character of Quasimodo is inseparable from Notre-Dame. A deformed being, he was abandoned at birth and adopted by Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral. He grows up in Notre-Dame, far from people and frightened by his deformity, and goes on to become the bell-ringer. After the gypsy Esmeralda has been unfairly condemned to death, he hides her inside Notre-Dame.

"One would have called him a broken giant who had been badly reassembled [...] That's Quasimodo, the bell ringer! That's Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre-Dame."
Extract fromNotre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo, 1832.

Frollo pushed by Quasimodo (1844)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A Masterpiece of Literary Heritage

The immediate and enduring success of the work means it is still one of the landmarks of French literature today. It has been translated many times and adapted for the stage, as well as in the cinema.

This engraving illustrates an edition of Notre-Dame de Paris from 1844. It shows Quasimodo lunging at Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral, who is threatening Esmeralda.

Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, the Chimera gallery (1999) by Pascal LemaîtreCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Notre-Dame: The Main character in Victor Hugo's Novel?

"Every face, every stone of this venerable edifice is a page not only of the history of the country but also of the history of science and art ...All is blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre-Dame. This central mother church is, among the ancient churches of Paris, a sort of chimera; it has the head of one, the limbs of another, the haunches of another, something from everywhere. »
Extract from Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo, 1832.

Presentation of Notre-Dame Towers (2015)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

"There are surely few such wonderful pages in the book of Architecture as the façades of the cathedral. Here unfolding before the eye, successively and at one glance, the three deep Gothic doorways, the richly traced and sculptured band of twenty-eight royal niches. The immense central rose-window, flanked by its two lateral windows, like a priest next to the deacon and subdeacon. The lofty and fragile gallery of trifoliated arches supporting a heavy platform on its slender columns, and finally, the two dark and massive towers with their projecting slate roofs, harmonious parts of one magnificent whole, rising one above another in five gigantic stories, massed yet unconfused, in their innumerable details of statuary, sculpture, and carvings boldly allied to the impassive grandeur of the whole. A vast symphony in stone, as it were; the colossal achievement of a man and a nation one and yet the Illiad and the Romances to which it is a sister..."
Extract from Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo, 1832.

Can you hear the novel Notre-Dame de Paris still resonating at the feet of the incredible cathedral?

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, seen from the Seine river (1850/1860) by Bisson, Auguste-Rosalie (1826-1900)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Victor Hugo, Heritage Defender

Victor Hugo's fascination for French heritage can not only be seen in the monuments present in his literary works — he also safeguarded them in real life. At the dawn of the nineteenth century there was a growing awareness in France of the revolutionary "vandalism" of ancient monuments, to which, in particular, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris had fallen victim. Several writers considered themselves to be witnesses to such history, such as Châteaubriant.

At the dawn of the monarchy de Juillet (1830-1848) the first heritage protection institutions were created. The art of the Middle Ages became, when viewed through history, the symbol of the genius and grandeur of France, and of the construction of national unity.

The enormous success of Victor Hugo's novel, Notre Dame de Paris, had a decisive influence on public opinion and provoked the first measures to save the monument. Hugo introduced the notion that a monument was a "Book of Stone".

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, West Facade, Towers and King gallery (2011)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

The novel Notre-Dame de Paris favored the architecture of the "grave and powerful cathedral" adorned with the "dark color of centuries which gives the monuments the age of their beauty". It was therefore an accompaniment to the development of the early heritage protection institutions.

As early as 1830, an Inspector of Historic Monuments, Ludovic Vitet, was appointed to make an inventory of the ancient and medieval monuments. Four years later, Prosper Mérimée succeeded him. Both of them sat on the new "Commission des Monuments Historiques" in 1837, which allocated the designations allotted by the State.

Three years later, the "classification" of ancient monuments began, and culminated in a first "liste de 1840". In 1844, the project to restore Notre-Dame was adopted, introduced by the architects Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, and in the following year a financing law was voted through by the assembly.

Notre-Dame de Paris was saved.

Daguerréotype of Notre Dame West facadeCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

"Assuredly the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is, to this day, a majestic and sublime edifice... One cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable monument, both by the action of time and the hand of man."
Extract from Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo, 1832.

Conciergerie facade, seen from quai de Gesvres (2012)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

La Conciergerie: an insight into the last day of a condemned man

The Conciergerie, the prison of the Palais de la Cité, serves as the setting for a militant piece published by a young Hugo in 1829: The Last Day of a Condemned Man. The text appeared at the end of the First Restoration during the reign of Charles X, who would then be dethroned by the July freedom revolution in the following year. Hugo was just 27 years old, but had already been published for a decade.

Beyond being just a literary work, it was a political commentary against the death penalty. This tied Victor Hugo to the Conciergerie — the dungeons of which he would later revisit as a deputy.

Prisoners corridor, Conciergerie (1793)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A Painful Testimony

The Conciergerie, once the medieval residence of the kings of France, served during the Reign of Terror as the place where people were incarcerated by the famous "Revolutionary Tribunal" (1792-1795). Its name has since been closely associated with capital punishment.

In Hugo's The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) a man tells his own story, from the verdict at his trial and the time spent in a prison cell at the Conciergerie, to the final preparations for his public execution.

Hugo then takes us with the man, who remains anonymous, step by step towards the scaffold, participating in all his emotions: anger, fear, hope, despair and indignation. This magnificent plea against the violence of the death penalty, sober and effective, is delivered to us by a poet and brother in humanity, who makes the reader a confidant.

The prisoners' corridor, the main axis of the Conciergerie prison, still seems to echo with the cries of the guards, the rattling of their keys, the noise of the chains and the grinding of the grates.

Conciergerie, prisoners corridorCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

"On the damp and reeking dungeon-walls, in the pale rays of my night-lamp, in the rough material of my prison-garb, in the sombre visage of the sentry whose cap gleams through the grating of the door — it seems to me that already a voice has murmured in my ear: Condemned to death!"
Excerpt from the Last Day of a Condemned Man, Victor Hugo, 1829.

Conciergerie, a prison during the revolutionCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

La Conciergerie and Victor Hugo's Fight Against the Death Penalty

"Now I am a captive... I have only one thought, one conviction, one certitude: condemned to death. Whatever I do, that frightful thought is always here, like a spectre, beside me. "
Excerpt from the Last Day of a Condemned Man, Victor Hugo, 1829.

This room in the Conciergerie, "la salle des noms", holds the list of the 4200 persons who appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Conciergerie (Paris), kitchens (2016)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

The fight against the death penalty goes further than Victor Hugo's writing. Beyond this novel, he also assumed one of his many political roles.

Elected deputy in 1848, Hugo returned to the Conciergerie to visit the cells of those condemned. The narrative was published posthumously in the collection Choses vues, a compilation of works about the great events that marked his life.

In November 1851, Hugo opposed Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Napoleon III, and was imprisoned in the Conciergerie himself, before going into exile in Belgium. He did not return to France until the fall of the Second Empire.

A visit to the Conciergerie to better immerse yourself in Victor Hugo's novel?

Colonne de Juillet, Bastille (1835/1840)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

The July Column: the Paris of Les Misérables and the barricades

Today, the Place de la Bastille cannot be appreciated without its definitive commemorative column, topped by the Génie de la Liberté (the Spirit of Freedom). However this was not the case when Victor Hugo began writing Les Misérables.

Elephant statue, Bastille place, Paris (1865) by BrionCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Before the Column: L'éléphant de la Bastille

In 1808, Napoleon ordered the construction of a fountain, mounted with a sculpture of a gigantic elephant, to adorn the Place de la Bastille. But the work was delayed due to lack of funding and then the fall of Napoleon, so the pachyderm remained at the model stage — made of wood and plaster.

Victor Hugo, fascinated by the animal, alludes to it in his novel Les Misérables. Gavroche, a street child, finds refuge in the ruined model of the elephant.

"In this deserted and unprotected corner he found a place in the broad brow of the colossus, his trunk, his defenses, his tower, his enormous rump, his four feet constructed like columns, the night, under the starry sky, a surprising and terrible form. We did not know what that meant. It was a sort of symbol of popular force. It was sombre, mysterious and immense. It was some mighty visible phantom, standing erect beside the invisible spectre of the Bastille."
Excerpt from Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862.

Today, the July Column, stands in the Place de la Bastille. Its construction was ordered by Louis Philippe to pay tribute to the victims of the Revolution of the Trois Glorieuses (Revolution of Three Glorious Days), who brought him to power. It was inaugurated in 1840.

Do you recognize something from the previous monument? The base of the column corresponds to the base of the fountain that accommodated the elephant.

Stroll through the picture to go around the column.

Column of the Grande Armée, statue of Napoleon I (1804/1824) by Stenne, Pierre (1893-1967)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

The Column of the Grande Armée: a poet in the time of conquests

Napoleon Bonaparte established the Boulogne military camp in 1798 in this port facing the English enemy. It was from there that his Grande Armée moved towards Austerlitz in 1804. Before the troops left, Napoleon distributed more than two thousand crosses of the Légion d'honneur. The column was erected in memory of the award. It wasn't inaugurated until 1841, during the reign of Louis-Philippe.

Hymn written by Victor Hugo for Wimille column opening (1841) by Victor HugoCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

A Secret Poem

The National Guard commissioned a hymn from Victor Hugo to celebrate the inauguration of the column of the Grande Armée at Wimille. But, judged to be too offensive to the English, the administration refused to endorse it. In 1959, when the statue of Napoleon on the column was removed, the workers discovered a lead case — containing Victor Hugo's famous lost poem that had been hidden in the column.

Here you are facing the column of the Grande Armée where Napoleon turned his back on England.

Pantheon, seen from the city Hall (5th arrondissement) (1757/1790) by Soufflot, Jacques-Germain (1713-1780)/Rondelet, Jean-Baptiste (1743-1829)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Victor Hugo in the Pantheon: the legend of the centuries

On May 22nd 1885, Victor Hugo died aged 83 at number 50 Avenue Victor Hugo. The writer's prestige was already more than established — his funeral roused a rarely equalled popular enthusiasm.

Arc de Triomphe, sate funeral of Victor Hugo, 1885 (1885) by Fichot, Charles (1823-1904)/Meyer, Henri (dessinateur actif fin 19e siècle)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

Arc de Triomphe in Mourning

Before being buried at the Pantheon, the coffin containing the body of Victor Hugo was on display for one night at the feet of the Arc de Triomphe.

Pantheon, Victor Hugo state funeral (1885) by Sinibaldi, Jean-Paul, dit Paul (1857-1909)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

The Panthéon: The Last Residence

Victor Hugo's entry into the Pantheon was one of the major events of the late nineteenth century in France. Four years earlier on his 80th birthday — by now a veritable living legend — 600,000 people had gathered under his window on Avenue d'Eylau. The avenue was then renamed after him from that day forth.

The news of his death created considerable emotion. This prompted the Third Republic to reconnect with the cult of great men, which had begun during the French Revolution but had experienced many twists and turns since.

Pantheon, Paris (2015)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

On the 1st of June, a huge crowd of several million French citizens accompanied Victor Hugo to his last resting place, the church of Sainte-Genevieve, which would become, with him, the Pantheon. By the force of this great man, who embodies the century he lived in, the function of the monument will never change.

Pantheon, crypt, Victor Hugo grave (1757/1790)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

An Immense Writer of Many Roles

The 700,000 visitors who come to see Victor Hugo's tomb at the Pantheon every year think, above all else, of what an immense writer he had been. But it was also his commitment to the politics of his time that justified, in 1885, the grandiose homage that the Republic paid him.

Victor Hugo was not always a republican. A legitimist during the Restoration and orleanist during the reign of Louis Philippe, the 2nd of December 1851 coup d'etat made him join the detractors of Napoleon III and embrace the cause of the Republic. For this, and his hostility towards the Second Empire, he underwent nineteen years of exile on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which completed the forging of his legend. But the strength of Victor Hugo also lies in his use of the voice of combat that still resonates universally today, as well as in his commitment against the death penalty.

In front of the Pantheon the trail of Victor Hugo and the French monuments comes to an end. Can you find his tomb in this famed building?

Credits: Story

You have just encountered seven national monuments that have influenced the life and work of Victor Hugo. To learn more about the Centre des monuments nationaux and find more information about visiting the monuments, do not hesitate to visit our website.

This virtual exhibition was created by the Centre des monuments nationaux, with the contribution of the Conciergerie and the Pantheon, with the support of the image centre team and the coordination of the digital centre.

Do you want to learn more about Victor Hugo ? Visit his houses in Paris and Guernsey. Images are taken from Regards - Banque d’images des monuments © Centre des monuments nationaux // Youtube

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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