While I have formerly written about the Panthéon here, I found this paragraph from Colin Jones’ book Paris: The Biography of a City (p. 281) to be a delightful illustration of how the building was really a ping pong ball in 19th century French politics, the scoring point ended up being the death of the beloved Victor Hugo.
“‘It is not a monument, it’s a thermometer,’ quipped a journalist describing the fluctuating history of the Panthéon. In 1791 the National Assembly had commandeered the Sainte-Geneviève church as the resting-place of great men, and gone on to place the mortal remains of the philosophes Voltaire and Rousseau there. A church as well as a mausoleum from 1806, it was converted back solely into a church by the Restoration government in 1822. The July Monarchy turned it back into a mausoleum in 1831, but Louis Bonaparte made it a church again in 1851. It was the death of Victor Hugo [in 1885] which led the Assembly to reconvert it–definitively, as was to prove–into France’s Panthéon.”
Victor Hugo’s final march to his ultimate resting place in the Panthéon included an eight-hour processional through the streets of Paris. It is estimated that 2 million Parisians lined the streets to see the ‘paupers hearse’ he requested. (They ignored his request to be buried in a pauper’s grave.)
While the government feared the occasion would result in revolutionary radicals staging aggressive demonstrations. But, they never materialized.
The episode illustrates how governments can combine architecture, literature, and pageantry into compelling political theater.