Local Experiences

History Lesson: What is that fountain outside Saint Michel?

Part of visiting Paris is the inevitable trip to Place Saint Michel. Situated next to the Seine River in the 5th arrondissement, this famous square has become a popular photo opportunity for most visitors – if not for its never-ending supply of street performers then for the iconic fountain found there.

The Saint Michel Fountain doesn’t quite live up to the grandiose nature of Rome’s Trevi fountain, but it’s certainly the most interesting aspect of the square. At 26 meters high and 15 meters wide, the impressive fountain was constructed by architect Gabriel Davioud from 1858 to 1960. It was originally commissioned by Baron Haussmann, as part of his greater project to reconstruct Paris. When a large new boulevard was finally completed – what is now Boulevard Saint Michel – Davioud was called upon to build a fountain for the new space. And thus, the Saint Michel fountain was born.

However, it wasn’t a cake walk getting the fountain built. Davioud initially bid to construct a large fountain in the middle of the square, with a female statue representing Peace as the centerpiece. However, local officials struck the idea down. They wanted him to build something that would cover up an unsightly portion of the wall on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint-André des Arts. Davioud adapted his sketches and set to work on a new creation.

That creation included four horizontal sections and four red marble Corinthian columns, with a new version of the central sculpture. After the Peace sculpture was nixed, Davioud proposed creating a larger-than-life version of Napolean Bonaparte. But this controversial choice was vetoed as well. Finally in 1858, a large sculpture of the Archangel Michael and the Devil with water gushing from below was decided upon to be the central component of the fountain.

In addition to Davioud, nine different sculptors worked to complete the fountains various fixtures. Francisque-Joseph Duret stepped in to build the Archangel and Devil, and Henri Alfred Jacquemart created the two mini fountains found on either side of it, in the shape of winged dragons. Four separate artists were brought in to create each of the miniature sculptures perched at the top of the columns, each representing a cardinal virtue: Prudence, Fortitude, Justice and Temperance.

Unlike many of the other fountains in France, the Saint Michel fountain is composed of a variety of different stones. Red and green marble, blue and yellow stone and bronze can all be found on the front wall.

With so much going on within the Saint Michel fountain, you’d be advised to tear your eyes away from the street performers on the square and really inspect Davioud’s masterpiece. And of course, take a photo or two.

See sights like the Saint Michel fountain in the glorious daylight or under the stars at night. Just join one of our Paris Day & Paris Night Tours.

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