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6.8.03

The Idea of a National Patrimony

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) is the author of, among other things, a little story published in 1845 (text in French or in English) about a cigarette girl and a soldier, set to music by Georges Bizet in his last opera, Carmen (1875). However, a series of articles (Sur les pas de Mérimée, or In the footsteps of Mérimée) in Le Figaro traces what is probably his most significant contribution to French cultural history, the creation of the concept of a national patrimony. (The specific sites that have been covered so far include Vézelay [Hervé de Saint-Hilaire, July 15], Conques [Marie-Guy Baron, July 22], Monuments of Corsica [Dominique Costa, July 29], as well as several other accompanying articles.) In the first article of the series (L'inventeur du patrimoine, July 8, 2003), Anne-Marie Romero puts it this way: "Before Mérimée there was a Romantic, whimsical, mixed-up aspiration to attempt to save the architectural treasures left in ruins in postrevolutionary France. After Mérimée, there is a structured national policy of protection for the patrimony."

As Inspector-General of Historic Monuments under the July Monarchy from 1834 to 1859, he was the first to draw up a list of protected monuments and the first in the world to draft legislation of this kind. His Jacobin sympathies led him to reject the concept of private ownership and conservation of historical monuments, in favor of a general ownership on the part of all the citizens of France, and he spent a lot of the government's money on acquiring and repairing important sites (see how this idea has progressed at the Centre des Monuments Nationaux). The idea that these things belong to all French people and are a source of pride is something that is now expressed annually in the Journées du Patrimoine (Patrimony Days), which will be September 20 and 21 this year, days on which all sorts of sites normally closed to visitors are open and free. Mérimée commissioned the first national monument photography project, too, and the photographs of sites that he helped save are a fascinating part of these articles. (In his honor, the catalogue of national monuments now used in France is called Mérimée.) He read Greek, English, Spanish, and Russian, and he was friendly with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo, and Stendhal. Although he learned Russian late in life, he became one of the first to translate Russian literature into French, including the works of Pushkin. He was later offered a ministerial post in the government but refused, deciding to live in southern France because of his respiratory problems. Sadly, his mother's apartment, where he had left many of his papers and manuscripts, was burned in 1871 during the turbulent Commune of Paris. Ironically, the Communards wanted to destroy many of the monuments that Mérimée sought to preserve and actually did raze the Tuileries Palace.

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