Victor Noir lies dead, his top hat by his side and the soles of his feet facing the man who just fired the fatal shot; Prince Pierre Bonaparte of France, the great-nephew of Napoleon, and cousin of the ruling Emperor Napoleon III. That was in 1870, and more than 145 years later a sculpture of Noir’s lifeless body lies atop of where he’s buried in Paris.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Victor Noir. Born Yvan Salmon, the son of a Jewish cobbler, Noir trained first as a watchmaker then a florist, before he moved to Paris to become a political journalist.
His death might well have passed without much notice had he not been shot by an influential French aristocrat who was shockingly acquitted of the crime. That murder made Noir something of a hero to those who wanted to overthrow the Emperor, an event that happened later that same year.
However, these days it’s not the historical entanglement that has kept Noir from fading into relative obscurity, a name in history books, a drawing here and there perhaps. In fact, while little is known of Noir’s life, in his death he’s garnered something of a reputation for being a ‘ladies’ man.’
It could be argued that the cast death mask used for his grave sculpture captures the 22-year-old man’s good looks, and therefore this has brought him to the attention of visitors to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery. While his impact in the world of political journalism might have been largely insignificant, the sculpture upon his grave places a definite emphasis on something other than Noir’s historical significance.
The sculpture’s prominent trouser gradient, shiny from years of attention, probably led to the formation of the folklore that now surrounds Noir’s name. Legend has it that women can enjoy enhanced fertility and libido if they give Noir’s ‘gentleman’s region’ a little rub followed by a tender kiss on the lips. Visitors to his grave often leave flowers and even place notes inside his hat.
History has a curious way of choosing its romantic symbols, its heroes, and its villains. One thing is for sure, while there would have been those who mourned the passing of Victor Noir, his sculpture has led to more fame than his mourning would.
Stand inside the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery using Google street view.