Although it is difficult to plot the center of a city coiled into 20 different arrondissements, geographically the spot wouldn’t be too far away from the Place du Chatêlet. Despite this centrality, the square and its surrounding streets wear an air of melancholic emptiness, as if imprisoned by their stifling past.
Paris is not short of celebratory statues and columns, or fountains that rarely spout water. The fontaine du Palmier on the Place du Chatêlet is a typical example – another monument that serves little purpose today beyond marking a point on a map. As with several other city monoliths, you can be fairly sure that it celebrates Napoleonic victories without knowing anything about the object (and that it obstinately remained anchored in the city despite the later Napoleonic defeats).
It takes its name from the palm leaves being held by the statue of Victory at the top of the column, and was completed by the sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot in 1808. The victories were those of the Emperor in Italy, Egypt and Poland, but the monument has changed greatly since then. Even the winged lady is a copy, added in 1898 (the original is in the Musée Carnavalet).
It was of course during the Second Empire – and the rule of Napoleon III, Bonaparte’s nephew – that it was transformed and enlarged, with serial fountain specialist Gabriel Davioud adding the spouting sphinxes. Davioud also designed the twin theatres – the theatre du Châtelet and the theatre de la Ville – which took up position either side of the fountain in 1862.
The original reason for the column was not so much to celebrate some fairly inconsequential victories, but instead to fill a gap in the city that appeared after the destruction of the hated Grand Châtelet at the beginning of the 19th century. The construction could date its origins back nearly a thousand years when it helped the city fight off Viking invasions, but the succession of buildings that followed on the spot were always dark, dismal and invariably linked to punishment and death.