For many years throughout the 20th century, this proud portrayal of statesman Léon Gambetta was the...

Léon Gambetta monument: the centrepiece now missing from Allées de Tourny

For many years throughout the 20th century, this proud portrayal of statesman Léon Gambetta was the centrepiece of Allées de Tourny in central Bordeaux. What has happened to this monument, which disappeared from view in the 1960s but which can still be spotted on many old postcard views of the city?

The majestic work was positioned towards the middle of the promenade in 1905. The statue of Gambetta was executed by the sculptor Jules Dalou (1838-1902) while the figures at his feet were designed by Camille Lefèvre, a student of Dalou. The plinth which served as the backdrop to the various features was the work of local architect Jean-Camille Formigé (1845-1926). To pay for the monument, funds were raised nationwide by political supporters who sought to celebrate Léon Gambetta’s legacy.

The Gambetta monument and the same view today, minus the monument!
This Republican politician, born in 1838, was a key figure in France during the latter part of the 19th century. Gambetta had been a government minister in 1870, president of the Chambre des Députés from 1879 until 1881, then president of the Council and Minister for Foreign Affairs between 1881 and 1882.

His status as senior statesman was gained during and after the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. Although opposed to the war with Germany, he adopted a patriotic line, urging his colleagues to leave Paris and run the government from the provinces. This was rejected but a delegation to organise resistance was dispatched to Tours. Gambetta left Paris (in a hot air balloon), took control as minister of the interior and of war, and quickly organised an army. Success was impossible however and after the French defeat near Orléans, the seat of government was transferred to the Grand-Théâtre in Bordeaux. In conflict with the prime minister, Gambetta spent time in exile in San Sebastián, Spain, but soon returned to France.
In the foreground, one of two fountains designed by Mathurin Moreau (see below).
It is around this time that Gambetta became renowned as the leading defender of the lower classes, delivering a pivotal speech on June 26th 1871, calling for countrymen (“paysans”) to be given the political means to become “full and free citizens” (“de libres et complets citoyens”). The positioning of the monument on Allées de Tourny, within view of the Grand-Théâtre (the scene of this momentous speech) harks back to the event. Gambetta continued to contribute to the country’s shift from empire to republic, championing “moderate republicanism” and heavily influencing the stance adopted by the head of Government at the time, Marshal MacMahon. Gambetta died aged just 44 in 1882 from intestine or stomach cancer.

President Loubet (third from left
in front row) arrives for the
unveiling of the monument, 1905.
The monument in Bordeaux was unveiled during a large-scale ceremony on April 25th 1905 by the then president of the French Republic, Émile Loubet. The objects and figures portrayed at its base paid homage to victims of the Franco-Prussian War. The pedestal also featured the coat of arms of the city of Bordeaux against a backdrop of flags. The monument remained there until the 1961 when the Allées de Tourny were given a radical overhaul. The whole area was excavated with a view to installing an underground car park, and the new-look Allées was that of a smooth promenade stretching from the Grand-Théâtre to Place de Tourny.

Two shots of the Allées de Tourny, one in the early years of the 20th century, the second in the late 1960s, by which time the Gambetta monument had gone, the fountains were more modest affairs, and traffic flow meant that for some time the Allées boasted a unique, British-style system of driving on the left.
The monument was therefore totally dismantled. The Léon Gambetta statue was subsequently positioned in the centre of, appropriately enough, Place Gambetta, but it proved to be too imposing for that space and was unpopular with the general public. It was removed before too long and the various components of the monument were put into storage in the reserves for outsize objects of the Musée d’Aquitaine in a quayside warehouse near the Pont d'Aquitaine. It has not been possible to view the monument ever since, other than when the monument came out of hiding for a short period in 1995 when it was put on display outside the museum itself. However, an 80-centimetre-high plaster miniature, produced in 1901 at the same time as the full-scale monument, can be seen among the museum’s permanent exhibits. It was donated to the city of Bordeaux by the committee of Gambetta supporters who had funded the work. Meanwhile, occasional plans surface to reinstate the full-size statue, but at most potential sites (such as Place de la République, by the Palais de Justice), the ground is not robust enough to support its mass. 

Details from the plaster miniature on display at the Musée d'Aquitaine.
Finally, eagle-eyed readers may also have noticed that the old pictures of Allées de Tourny show ornate fountains at each end of the promenade. They were two of 15 pieces designed by Mathurin Moreau in 1854 and were also removed during the 1960s overhaul – their upkeep was considered too costly at the time.

Though initially replaced by two more modest, low-maintenance models, today’s Allées no longer feature any fountains at all. The Moreau fountains are still very much in existence though: one is further up the coast in Soulac-sur-Mer (and in bad need of repair work) while the other has, since 2007, been positioned on a roundabout on Avenue Honoré-Mercier in... Québec City, Canada! Appropriately enough, it is now known as “Fontaine de Tourny”. And back in Bordeaux, Léon Gambetta may no longer be celebrated in the shape of a monument, but the square which was given his name in 1883 remains a central hub of the city: Place Gambetta.

Allées de Tourny today, and the entrance to the car park which contributed to the removal of the Gambetta monument!

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