Scale model of the city of Saint-Omer.
PARIS—When defending his realm, Louis XIV not only thought big, but he also worked in visionary 3D. In 1668, his war minister, the Marquis de Louvois, commissioned a large relief map of the port city of Dunkirk to be used in planning the city's fortifications. Others followed—huge exact-scale models of frontier cities and their surroundings—hills, gullies, rivers, forests, villages, roads, farms—that might sustain an enemy siege. The royal collection of scale-model cities grew under Louis XV, Louis XVI and both Napoleons, until modern warfare, post-1870, made them obsolete. Of the original 260, some 100 have survived, most housed in their own museum in the Hôtel des Invalides—28 on display, the rest stored in pieces.
Sixteen models from the reserves, some never before shown in public, have been re-assembled under the immense glass-roofed nave of the Grand Palais for "La France en Reliefs"—a spectacular, beautifully mounted, must-see show.
Encased in glass, many with ramps for viewing from above, the miniature cities (mostly scaled 1:600) include Briançon, Grenoble, Strasbourg and a few formerly French bastions now in bordering countries. The largest is Cherbourg, at 160 square meters.
All were constructed in tabletop sections, like pieces of an enormous puzzle, from detailed surveyor drawings. The topography is formed on wooden slats, with details modeled in papier-mâché. Water is oil paint; surface soil is sand sifted onto glue; tinted silk was shredded for vegetation, and wound around tiny wire stems for trees in permanent springtime. Precisely rendered buildings, from houses to cathedrals, are linden wood covered with painted or engraved paper depicting windows, doors and roofs. They were tools of war, but beyond any doubt they remain works of art.