The Invisible Monument

Color photograph of a brass plate embedded in pavement
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This photograph documents what was formerly one of best-kept secrets in Paris: an “imaginary” monument that is my favorite of all monuments in the city. I say “formerly” because the movie The Da Vinci Code made the monument famous, after using it as a plot device.

Anyway, the small brass plate that you see above, which was deliberately designed to resemble the access hatch of a water or gas main, is in fact the only visible sign of a monument to François Arago (1786-1853), a well-known French scientist who (amongst other things) was once director of the Paris observatory. The name on the plate, “Arago,” is obviously the name of the scientist. The N and S designations mark the exact north and south orientations of the plate. The plate is positioned precisely on the Paris meridian, a line of longitude that passes directly through the Paris observatory. This plate, and 134 others arranged along the imaginary line of the meridian from one side of the city to another, are the only evidence of this invisible monument. Millions of people have probably noticed these plates, but only a handful know what they actually represent—including yourself, now that you have read this. I know that I myself saw them thousands of times while walking through Paris before I discovered what they actually were.

This highly inventive and very subtle monument, entitled Hommage à Arago, was conceived by the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets (1941-) at the instigation of the Association Arago. I find it fascinating because it is a complete break with the usual masses of stone or bronze that one sees in monuments; this monument exists only in a sort of virtual reality, and yet it crosses the entire city, making it perhaps the smallst monument to anyone in existence.

The plates used to be quite inconspicuous, but now many fans of The Da Vinci Code (the movie version, not the novel upon which it is based) have stolen them. They aren't really relevant to the theme of the movie or novel at all, but the movie concentrates on them in close-ups at several points. The real ones aren't quite as shiny and polished as those in the movie, and the movie took some liberties with their placement as well. The markers are on the Paris Meridian, which does not intersect the inverted pyramid in the Louvre shopping center (contrary to the claim of the movie). They also do not intersect the brass marker in the Saint Sulpice church, which marks a different meridian.

This particular plate is on the quai Conti, nearly across from the Institut de France.

The Paris meridian, incidentally, is exactly 2°20'14.025" east of Greenwich.

Click directly on the photo to see a larger version (twice this size). Photographed on November 16, 1999.

Bibliothèque Mitterrand
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Last modified on Monday, July 14, 2008 at 22:23:43 UTC
© 2008 Anthony Atkielski. All rights reserved.