Experiencing the Centenary
Discovering the Centenary
Understanding the Centenary
Experiencing the Centenary
Discovering the Centenary
Understanding the Centenary
Fernand Jacopozzi, “Magician of the light”

Fernand Jacopozzi, “Magician of the light”

Iluminations et travaux de Jacopozzi
© Xavier Boissel, Didier Vivien, Gaspard Vivien
Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)

Fernand Jacopozzi (1877-1932) is this Italian born engineer (he was born in Florence) to whom the French High command entrusted the task of illuminating the fake Paris; for this he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, although his creation to the North-East of Paris was never tested. However, his work did open the way for other similar projects, which, when the Second World War occurred, proved to be very effective.

At first one thinks of the Starfish sites, in the decoy-towns built in England during the Blitz to save the real cities such as Bristol, Manchester or Sheffield. Note that Starfish sites mean sites which were deliberately created to simulate the effects on structures for nuclear tests, notably in the United States as part of “Operation Teapot”, the so called famous Survival Towns. Little is still known about these Starfish sites, but a considerable amount of interest in them has started to develop in England, judging by a rather long and detailed article in the Daily Mail of 1 March 2013.

The other creation which is quite similar to that of Fernand Jacopozzi was the Disguise California project: in 1942, the Americans, fearing an invasion by air over the West coast, built a fake housing estate in California, which more precisely, was a collection of painted canvasses covering several hectares, placed over the top of the Boeing aircraft factory, to look like a part of a quiet suburb.

For all that, if the engineer Jacopozzi was to be left a place in posterity, it was not to his fake Paris that he owed it, but rather to ... to the real city of Paris. Indeed it turns out that it was the engineer Florentin who, after the Great War, illuminated the capital: it is him, therefore, that we have to thank for the illumination of the city’s most prestigious monuments: the Arc de Triomphe, Opéra Garnier,  Place de la Concorde,  Madeleine and finally and above all the Eiffel Tower.

For the exhibition of decorative Arts of 1925 in Paris, the Eiffel Tower company decided to illuminate the monument; it consulted painters such as Fernand Léger and Raoul Dufy, but also Fernand Jacopozzi; the latter who asked André Citroën to finance the project; promising him as his words had it: “Your name, and your name 20 metres in height, in illuminated letters, on the most   illustrious of monuments... A flamboyant pylon bearing your name... A name visible from 50 kilometres away... An advert on a scale never seen before...It will be the torch of Paris, the city of light...”1 In the space of a month and a half, he erected a number of wooden structures on to which he fixed the sockets for 250,000 light bulbs of six different colours, fed by 90 kilometres of electric cable.

The exhibition of decorative Arts started on 5 May 1925 and it was quite some show that was put on for the people of Paris: the tower came alight for what was barely a minute, giving the impression of a gigantic firework, displaying the name Citroën  in giant and flamboyant letters 30 metres high; Le Corbusier, who was ever so excited about the display, wrote in the review L’Art Décoratif d’Aujourd’hui : “In plaster Palaces where the decoration is twisted, it appears pure as a crystal”2. This awesome feat in advertising marketing would remain in place until the middle of the 1930s. The airman Charles Lindbergh explained how he even used the advert as a marker for landing at Le Bourget, at the end of his journey across the Atlantic in 1927. Although Jacopozzi’s illuminated decorations never got to be used as decoy for the German bombers, the idea was none the less there. Then , “in 1926, Jacopozzi added thousands more light bulbs to produce sparkling cascades giving the effect of water being sprayed out in harmonious jets”3, and “in 1927, the tower was  decorated to simulate lightning and the tower on fire with flashes zigzagging four hundred metres down the tower. The tower looked as though it was being consumed by flames.”4

These successive illuminations of the Eiffel Tower earned Jacopozzi a long article in 1927 in L’Illustration, which wasn’t short on praise for the “person who has turned our Eiffel Tower, a simple and useless dark peak in the Paris night’s sky, into the most splendid and enchanted electric theatre that the world has ever seen”; the journal went on to enthuse:  these magical delights “have superbly demonstrated a new form of decorative advertising. There has been nothing so great or so grandiose as this until now.”5

But the engineer Jacopozzi – who was nicknamed “the magician of the light” – was not content to stop at this feat; he carried on with his urban illumination company extending it to a number of other monuments: “After the Eiffel Tower, Jacopozzi went on to provide the illumination for the major Parisian shops at Christmas time and for the New Year: the Louvre, the Galeries Lafayette, the Samaritaine, the Bazar de l’Hôtel de ville, the Bon Marché.”6 He was the driving force behind the advent of illuminated advertising hoardings to the extent that in 1931, one year before his death, he had “become someone that one could not do without for any event involving lighting.”7 In 1930: Cardinal Verdier asked him to light up Notre-Dame and offered him 3,000 francs for his services; but Jacopozzi did it for free. A year later, he lit up the replica of the Temple of Angkor as part of the colonial Exhibition which was being held at the Porte Dorée in Paris, at the Bois de Vincennes.

So, Jacopozzi is the symbolic father of Paris by night, the person who contributed massively to the myth of the city of light, set on the silver plates by the photographer Léon Gimpel (1873-1948) who himself was in fact the author of a remarkable series of colour photographs of Paris in the twenties. He is in a way, the “Eugène Atget of colour”. But what is equally astonishing is that Gimpel was one of the first to have used the autochrome process, notably during the Great War; such that we have him partly to thank for the rare colour photographs that were produced at this time (notably the series of photos of children taken in the streets of Paris, playing with model aeroplanes). Jacopozzi and Gimpel are two little known figures in our History, but at the same time two key characters.

By way of conclusion: the illuminated decoy which was supposed to mislead the enemy and which never came to be would have its epiphany in the modern city as if the aborted project of an unreal Paris had triumphed in the illuminated derealisation of Paris; the planned war of appearances is bulging with the modern spectacle, and the magnificence of a product which has triumphed in the urban wonder-world.


1 Quoted by Pierre-Marie Gallois, The Hourglass of the century, Published by L’Âge d’Homme, Lausanne, 1999, page 23. More detailed information on Fernand Jacopozzi, to be found on pages 22 to 26.

2 Le Corbusier, Decorative Art of Today, Paris, Vincent and Fréal, 1959 [1925], page 141.

3 Jean-Claude Daufresne, Celebration in XXth century Paris, the temporary Architectures from 1919 to 1989, published by Mardaga, 2001, page 171.

4 Op.cit. page 173.

5 L’ Illustration no.4423, 10 December 1927, page XXXI. This article has the very significant title of “Modern magic”.

6 According to Pierre-Marie Gallois in When Paris was a city of light, op.cit.

7 Op.cit. Ibid.