On the 200th anniversary of his birth, the city of Paris held a contest to design a new Arago memorial. Arago (1786-1853), a famous French astronomer, scientist, humanist and politician had already had a statue near the Observatoire. However, this bronze statue was melted by the German occupiers in World War II. Since then only a pedestal remains.
Dutch artist Jan Dibbets won the contest with a daring tribute to Arago. His work of art consists of 135 round bronze plates that are 12 centimetre in diameter and marked with the name ARAGO plus N and S pointers. Each medallion was set along the Paris prime meridian with scientific accuracy. This meridian runs through the Observatoire and is a fictitious, time defining line of longitude across the earth between North and South pole. In 1884 France had to give up his prime meridian in favour of the new international standard of Greenwich.
Dibbets medallions were placed on sidewalks, in parks, in squares, in streets, in public and private gardens and even in the Louvre museum. The monument has a total distance of 9.2 kilometres and was officially ‘inaugurated’ in November 1994.
Searching for the medallions is like a magical journey through Paris. Dutch journalist Freriks wrote an inspiring book about it. You may find tourists as well as Parisians walking the tour. Like, for example, two Parisian ladies I met, who based on a list of locations walked a part of their exploratory journey each Saturday. Funnily enough they used a list collected from the Dutch Embassy website in Paris.
It is amazing to notice the disappearance of a number of medallions. Through road works without alert municipality officials? Stolen? Melted down due to the current copper prices? Or just through vandalism?
One of empty holes can be found in the pavement in front of the entrance to Jardin du Luxembourg, rue Auguste Comte. You can still find the medallions in the park, as it is closed at night.
We can only hope that this ‘Hommage à Arago’ will not end like the statue in front of the Observatoire.