Last Updated on 13th October 2022 by Sophie Nadeau
I’m so shocked: So Voltaire’s remains were maybe stolen AND Voltaire wasn’t even his real name… More on this in a bit! There’s nothing quite like seeing Paris from a bird’s eye perspective, and the Paris Panthéon offers one of the best perspectives of the French capital. Here’s a guide on visiting the Paris Panthéon, as well as a brief history and some insider tips to make the most of your visit!
Editor’s note: If you want to save time on the day of your visit, you might consider purchasing a Pantheon ticket online in advance. Check here for more details.
- Introducing the Paris Pantheon, The French Capital’s Most Famous Mausoleum
- The controversy surrounding the Pantheon
- What to see and do in the Paris Pantheon
- How to visit the Paris Panthéon
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Introducing the Paris Pantheon, The French Capital’s Most Famous Mausoleum
Situated in the Latin Quarter of Paris there’s both the chance to go high above the ground as well as below it in this iconic Parisian building. The Latin quarter is so called because during the founding years of the arrondissement’s famous Sorbonne University, the students spoke entirely in Latin.
Although construction of the neo-classical style building started in 1758, the building was not completed until 1790. From its outset, the project was plagued with difficulties; money problems slowed the building, and the chief architect died.
The Pantheon was actually originally intended to be a church dedicated to St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris. Indeed, in many accounts the former ecclesiastical building is referred to as the church of Sainte-Geneviève.
However, following the death of statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, it was quickly changed to be a resting place for France’s greatest men (and women). A plaque within the Pantheon reads:
“AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE”
(The homeland is thankful to these great men)
Despite the count having been an early proponent of the French revolution, in true French Revolution style, his body was disinterred at some point during the chaos that ensued. His body has never been recovered.
The controversy surrounding the Pantheon
As with any national monument, the Paris Pantheon has shouldered its fair share of controversy, not to mention plenty of mystery surrounding some of the most famous people interred within the Pantheon vaults:
Only one woman is interred in the Pantheon
Famous people buried in the Paris Pantheon include (surprise, surprise) 99% men. Among their ranks, you can find the final resting places of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Louis Braille. The one woman interred in the Pantheon on her own achievements is Marie Curie (for her work on cancer and radiation).
A couple of years ago, there was a public uproar (as there should be!) over the fact that only one woman was interred in the public monument as upon her own merits. Two women French resistance fighters during Nazi occupation were offered a place in the Pantheon. Their families declined and so plaques with their names have been added instead. This means that the grand total of women invited now stands at 3. Not quite equality yet…
Voltaire’s Remains were maybe stolen?!
First things first: did you know that Voltaire’s real name wasn’t Voltaire? It was actually François-Marie Arouet. He adopted the name Voltaire during the time that he was locked up in the Bastille (the prison where the Bastille monument now stands). Although no one is really clear where he got this name from, it’s worth noting that ‘Voltaire’ is an anagram of the latin form of ‘Arouet’.
Following Voltaire’s death, he was bestowed one of the greatest honours a French citizen can receive: being buried in the Paris Pantheon. But what is actually in Voltaire’s tomb today? Well, during the 1800s, a rumour was widely propagated that Voltaire’s remains had been stolen by religious fanatics and thrown into the Seine…
Evidence surrounding the theft of Voltaire’s remains
After much internet searching, I found this article called ‘The Bones of Voltaire and Rousseau‘ from the Sydney Morning Herald Feb 2, 1898:
“What the “Standard’s” Paris correspondent describes as a ghastly and repulsive ceremony took place on Saturday afternoon, December 18, in the vaults of the Pantheon. For some time past a controversy has been carried on as to where the bones of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid at rest. Though their tombs exist in the crypt of the Pantheon, an impression prevailed that under the restoration ultra-royalist fanatics had disinterred their remains and flung them in the Seine.
This story, supported by Michelin and Victor Hugo, obtained sufficient credit to induce the authorities to break into the tombs, open up the coffins, and inspect the remains. The Academie Francaise, the Insitute, and the government, with a crowd of reporters, were present at the ceremony. Voltaire’s coffin was first opened. His bones were found to be lying in a confused heap; but M. Berthelot, ex-minister of public instruction, took up his skull and exhibited it to lookers-on. M. Jules Olaretie pronounced it to be a striking resemblance to the bust of Voltaire by Pigalle…“
Not only an interesting (and macabre) read, this article puts pay the rumours and speculation about Voltaire’s missing body. In truth, it’s likely we’ll never know the exact cause for the rumours, nor will we ever know the full extent of the truth surrounding them. Nevertheless, the theft of Voltaire’s remains is a fascinating Parisian myth!
What to see and do in the Paris Pantheon
Admire the Foucault Pendulum
Asides from tonnes of controversy and stunning architecture, the Paris Pantheon is also home to a rather unusual timepiece. Foucault’s Pendulum as the timepiece is formerly known is a 67m high swinging pendulum was used to prove that the Earth is round.
If you’re interested in how Foucault’s Pendulum proves that the Earth is round, I found an article here. The Foucault pendulum you see is actually a copy because the original is housed in Arts et Metiers. While checking out the Musée des Arts et Metiers, be sure to head nearby to the Jules Verne steampunk-inspired Arts et Metiers metro station!
Venture into the Pantheon Crypt
It’s common knowledge that there’s as much going on below Paris as above it. From the catacombs to the metro, Paris has sprung up like a tree, with just as many roots below as branches above. Being interred in the Paris Pantheon is one of the greatest achievements that a French citizen or resident of France can earn.
Go up the Pantheon dome
What better way to get to know Paris, than by getting a feel for the layout of the Land? Well, the dome of the Paris pantheon provides just that and more! After walking up countless flights of stairs and following twisting passageways, you finally end up around 60m above ground level. Tip: make sure you head out on a sunny day around mid-late afternoon for the best photos!
How to visit the Paris Panthéon
Like most of the famous French monuments, you’ll have to pay to actually visit the Panthéon. Though the former church can still be admired from its stunning experience, there’s perhaps no better way to experience this famous French landmark than by wandering around inside.
If you’re curious to learn a little more about the local area, then this free and self-guided walking tour incorporates a visit to the Pantheon. Rue Mouffetard is a particularly fun market street that is also worth wandering along. Otherwise, you should know that residents of the EU under 26 years old can visit the Panthéon for free.
To make the most of your Paris visit, you can even purchase your Panthéon Admission Ticket and Self-Guided Tour in advance. Included in the price is a skip-the-queue function which is particularly useful during peak season (i.e. summer and school holidays). Buy your Paris Panthéon ticket here.
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Sources Smithsonian, Wikipedia, NY Times, Pantheon Paris, Voltaire Almighty