Why So Few Women in the Panthéon?

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: France, culture



Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, is the author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.

HOUSTON — In the politics of national identity, as with the politics of real estate, there are three cardinal rules: location, location, location. Few events better illustrate this truth than the current debate in France over whose earthly remains best belong in the basement of a hulking neo-Classical pile with a fissuring dome and bricked-up windows that looms over Paris — otherwise known as the Panthéon.

The Panthéon was not always what one wit called the “Académie Française of the dead.” Commissioned by King Louis XV to honor the patron saint of Paris, the church of Saint Génèvieve was completed just as the king’s son, Louis XVI, lost his throne and, eventually, his head to the revolution. Committed to the reign of reason and ancient Roman virtues, the republican revolutionaries named the edifice the Panthéon and dedicated it to the cult of the nation.

This was the opening kick in a century-long scrum that followed between Catholics and republicans, during which the Panthéon squirted like a football from one side to the other. Parisians followed the score on the pediment over the entrance: the celebrated phrase “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante” (“To great men, a grateful homeland”) was twice removed, twice returned. Only in 1885 did the Republic score the deciding goal, when it orchestrated the burial of Victor Hugo and laid his massive remains in the building’s crypt....




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