As far as attractiveness goes, the Place de la Bastille could hardly be called a place one would want to include in a series of articles dealing with the more attractive features of Paris; but on account of its historical significance it is something which cannot very well be left out either. The square is quite ordinary, the buildings around it of no particular style, and I have even seen them described as ugly. In fact, if it were not for the one-hundred seventy-foot-high column in the center of it, I am sure that no one would ever visit the Place de la Bastille just to see where the Bastille once stood. However, the Colonne de Juillet, as this column is called, is definitely worth a visit even though it has no more to do with the French Revolution or with the storming of the Bastille than the Gare St. Lazare has. But about this popular misconception I will tell you something as we go along.
There are, of course, a number of very good reasons why the Place de la Bastille should never have developed into anything more attractive, and one of these must surely be its peculiar location. At the south end of it there is the large basin of water known as the Bassin de l’Arsenal on which the barges from the Seine collect before they go up the Canal Saint-Martin. The next is that there is a small railway station-the Care de Vincennes-right next to this basin. So what could you do with a set-up like that? Apparently nothing except to erect a column in the center of it. But outside of this column the marvels of the Place de la Bastille are all underground. For this basin of water continues as the Canal Saint-Martin, runs right under the square, then under the entire length of the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, and does not come out into the open again until it reaches a point near the Place de la Republic, from which point it continues-in the open now-all the way to the Bassin de la Villette, the huge, water-freight terminal to the north-east of Paris. But the most important reason why the Place de la Bastille never developed into anything more attractive is, no doubt, the fact that it just happened to be located in the wrong part of the town.
In the days when the City of Paris was still mostly confined to the Ile de la Cite, the entire area for some distance past what is now the Place de la Bastille, all the way down to the Seine, was on huge swamp. This area was known as the Marais, meaning the swamp, a name by which it still goes today. However, the fact that this was a swamp had not prevented the Romans from building a diked road across it. This road followed the route of what is now the Rue Saint-Antoine and its continuation the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine and was the principal road to the east. This is the district of Saint-Antoine mentioned in Carlyle’s French Revolution as having been so easily incited to insurrections. As time went on, this swamp was gradually filled in and the area was used by market gardeners who lived outside the city limits. When Philippe-Auguste built his first city wall around Paris part of this land came within the city limits, and when Charles V built another wall in 1367 another large part of this area became part of Paris. Naturally enough, this area then became a residential section and a very exclusive one at that. The area being a great deal more open than the older parts of the city, it was not long before the wealthy began to build their residences there.
Starting at the Place de la Bastille, some of these residences are represented today by such splendid buildings as the absolutely uniform houses which surround the nearby Place des Vosges, built by Henry IV during the years 1605-1610; the splendid Hotel Carnavalet built by Mansart during the years 1655-1661, which is now a museum depicting the history of Paris, but was at one time the residence of Madame de Sevigne; the Hotel Lamoib non, which is directly across the street from it and was built in 1580 for Diane of France, who was the daughter of Henry II; the splendid Hotel Rohan, built for Cardinal Rohan, and the Hotel Soubise next door to it, which was built for Madame de Soubise, a favorite of Louis XIV Both of these buildings now house the National Archives. All of these buildings are located on the Rue des FrancsBourgeoise and are within easy walking distance of the Place de la Bastille. A little out of the way, but in line with the Carnavalet Museum, near the Quai des Celestins, there is another splendid residence, the Hotel de Sens, built for the Archbishops of Sens between the years 1475-1519.
Unfortunately, this entire area went to pot when Louis XIV started to build the Invalides on what was then known as the Plains of Grenelle, as I already men tioned. When this ambitious project was started everybody who was anybody suddenly decided to move to the Left Bank again. By the end of the eighteenth century the Rue de Grenelle and the parallel Rue de Varenne had become the most fashionable residential section of Paris and remained so until the time of the Revolution. Today, of course, the fashion has changed again and the elite now live in the Champs-Elysees section, on the Right Bank of the Seine again. But the Marais just never recovered. All the beautiful buildings I mentioned before were either taken over by the city and turned into museums or put to commercial uses of some kind. We are told that until quite recently the beautiful Hotel de Sens was in turn occupied by a glass factory and then by a manufacturer of jam. It is now owned by the City of Paris, but up to my last visit no use had been made of it as yet. These old residences are just too beautiful to be demolished, and since they are also solidly built, the only thing to do with them seems to have been to turn them into museums or rent them out to small business establishments. Today, the entire Marais section is mostly occupied by small trades, of which the furniture trade and the costume jewelry trade are two of the most important. But now, let us get back to the Place de la Bastille again, or rather, to the column that stands in the middle of it.
The Colonne de Juillet was erected at the order of Louis-Philippe in 1841, or fifty-two years after the storming of the Bastille, not to commemorate this event as many people, and I am told, even some Parisians, seem to believe, but as a memorial to the victims of the July Revolution of 1830. Hence the name, Colonne de Juillet. From the fact that this revolution only lasted three days, it is sometimes referred to as the Trois Glorieuses, though what there was glorious about it I couldn’t tell any more than I could about any other revolution. Strange to say, the site where this column now stands very nearly came to be occupied by an elephant, and the circular base you now see at the base of the column was, in fact, intended for this elephant. It seems that in 1803 Napoleon first started to think about erecting a monument to his armies. This monument was to consist of a huge elephant to be cast out of captured Spanish cannons. Only, please, don’t ask me why am elephant. Perhaps he had Hannibal’s campaign in Spain in mind. Anyway, the site selected for it was to be the Place de la Bastille, which, no doubt, was badly in need of some ornamentation. A model of this monstrosity, made out of wood and plaster, was actually set up on this square and remained there under a huge shed until 1839, when it was finally dismantled. If you have recently re-read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable.s you may remember that Gavroche went every night to sleep in the belly of an elephant. Well, this was the elephant. Fortunately, before the actual work of casting this pachyderm got under way, Napoleon was sold the idea of building the much more appropriate Arc de Triumph, and for that we can be thankful.
The Colonne Juillet was designed by the architects Alvoine and Viollet-le-Duc and is much more attractive coulmn than the column on the Place Vendome. In fact, if one placed a picture of these two columns side by side, one would have to admit that in comparison with Colonne de Juillet, the Colonne Vendome is almost graceless. To begin with, the Colonne de Juillet is made entirely out of steel and bronze, whereas the Vendome column was built out of stone and covered with bronze plates afterwards. Also, in the Vendome column the base is about as plain as it could have been made, whereas in the Colonne de Juillet it is quite ornamental and extends for a considerable distance above the ground. The top of this column is also quite ornamental, for it flares out like a Corinthian Column and so provides an appropriate base for the iron balcony with slightly curved sides that goes around the top of it. You can get up to this balcony by climbing two hundred forty steps, and thirty yews ago I worked my way up its spiral stairway once, but today I am only too pleased to leave such dizzy exercises to others. On the very top of the column there is a nude figure of a winged victory, holding a torch in one hand and a broken chain in the other. The pose, which shows her standing on one foot, something like a running Mercury, no doubt adds a certain amount of animation to the column, but I am sure that the column would look just as good without her. Under the base of the column there is a crypt where the victims who fell during the July Revolution are buried. Later the victims who fell during the Revolution of 1848 were interred there also. In any case, one cannot say that the Place de la Bastille has not been thoroughly revolutionized.
No doubt, most of the people who come to visit the Place de la Bastille do so because of its association with the Bastille. However, if you think that you are going to find anything on this square that is going to remind you of the Bastille, you might as well go and look for it on Piccadilly Circus. Early guide books to Paris used to point out that the outline of the Bastille is shown in white paving stones right on the square, and I remember having risked my life once to look for them. Of course, there were no white paving stones to be seen any place, at least not where I was looking. In this respect the more modern Michelin Guide to Paris is a little more explicit. It shows you where the Bastille actually stood in relation to the present square and it was not in the center of it at all as I once thought, but to one side of it, in the area now partly covered by the buildings of the Rue SaintAntoine. It was an ugly-looking fortress, on which no ornaments were wasted, and if you want to know what it looked like you will find several models of it in the Carnavalet Museum where I hope you will go on your own some day.
And now, since we are on the Place de la Bastille, I suppose that you will want me to tell you something about this famous prison, and so I will. The Bastille did not, of course, primarily start out as a prison, but rather as a fortress to guard the approaches of the city from the east. It w as built by Charles V in 1370, or just about the time the French Kings left their palace on the Ile de la Cite to live for the first time outside of the original Paris. This was at about the same time that Charles V extended the walls of Paris to include a large part of what then was partly swampland. This castle, or fortress, was known as the Castle of Saint-Antoine and was located just inside the city walls on the old Roman road that crossed the Marais. The entrance gate into the city, which stood a little to the side of the Bastille, on the other hand, was known as the Porte Saint-Antoine. My guide book tells me that the Bastille was built by forced labor, which was brought out of Paris every day, and that, in consequence, it took only eleven years to complete. Ironically enough, the first man to be incarcerated in the Bastille was one Hughes Aubriot who had been Provost of the Petit Chatelet and was the man who had been responsible for rounding up the forced labor. However, that was not the reason for his having been imprisoned.
The Bastille has, of course, had a good many notable prisoners since and, I imagine, a good many more of whom no one ever heard. For although the Bastille was built primarily as a fort, it became a prison for political prisoners almost from the start. This meant that its prisoners were generally men of some standing, for no food and lodgings were wasted on outright criminals in those days. These were simply sent to the gallows. The prisoners of the Bastille were, therefore, generally men of some standing who happened to have the ill luck to get into the way of someone who had more influence and would use these means to get rid of an annoying rival. In order to get someone confined to the Bastille, or to any other place, all that was necessary was to obtain a so-called lettre de cachet from the king, or one of his ministers, and name the person you wanted to be rid of. When a lettre de cachet was once issued a person could be taken out of circulation without a trial by simply having him imprisoned indefinitely.
As you may remember from your reading, Voltaire spent eleven months in the Bastille for libel (1717-1718) when he was still known as plain Francois Marie Arouet. As you might guess, Monsieur Arouet spent most of this time writing and it was while he was in the Bastille that he finished his play Oedipe. When this play was produced on the stage after his release it turned out such a success that the Duke of Orleans, who was then Regent of France, and to whom he owed his confinement, granted him a small pension. We are told that when the Duke informed the witty author of this favor Voltaire is said to have replied: “Monseigneur, I should consider it very kind if His Majesty would be pleased to provide henceforth for my board, but I beseech Your Highness to provide no more for my lodgings.” However, he became the involuntary guest of the King once more in 1726 when he was again sent to the Bastille, this time to keep him from getting killed b}- engaging in a duel. He was released after two weeks on the promise that he would leave France, and that is when he went to England.
Incidentally, in case you are going to ask me about the Man in the Iron Mask, who was one of the most writtenabout prisoners of the Bastille, it might interest you to know that it was this same Voltaire who circulated this story. There never was a man in an iron mask. In 1698, what appeared to be a distinguished man, wearing a velvet mask, was brought to the Bastille. This person died in Prison four years later without anyone ever having learned his identity, although any number of books have been written as to who he really was. In writing about him, the wily Voltaire changed the velvet mask to an iron mask and so added immensely to the interest of the story. All in all, we are told that the prisoners in the Bastille did not fare too badly. If one had the money, one could have one’s own apartment and even one’s own servants and, as in some Paris hotels of today, one could even receive and entertain one’s lady friends. It was the fact that the Bastille stood as a symbol of the King’s prerogative and the ease with which one could be confined there that ultimately made it such an object of hatred.
The time for the destruction of the Bastille came on Tuesday, July 14, 1789, when the Paris mob descended upon it in justified anger. As I already mentioned when I described the Gardens of the Palais-Royal, the dismissal of Baron Necker by Louis XVI on July 12, 1789, had set Paris seething with indignation. On the morning of the fourteenth the mob marched on the Invalides, broke into the arsenal, confiscated twenty-eight thousand rifles and twenty-four cannons and marched on the Bastille. The Bastille that day was manned by eighty-two old French veterans and thirty-two Swiss mercenaries under the command of its governor, the Marquis de Launay. After almost a day’s siege, de Launay, hopelessly surrounded and with but a day’s provisions, was willing to surrender the fortress on the promise of immunity to its defenders. The promise was solemnly given “on the word of an officer,” but the solemn word of an “officer” had no more meaning to that mob than it would have had to any other, for shortly after the surrender the bleeding head of the Governor was carried on a pike through the streets of Paris in triumph. The garrison itself fared a little better. The Garde Francaise, who had joined the mob later in the day, formed squares around them and so were able to save the lives of most of them.
And who do you think were the “prisoners” who were released from the Bastille that day: Two crazy men, four counterfeiters and one count who had been sent there at the request of his own family. These were then carried through the streets in triumph, probably hardly knowing what was happening to them. But all that was of no consequence. What was of consequence was that the Bastille, which had been a symbol of tyranny for more than four hundred years, had been taken. La Bastille est pris! What did it matter that that very night the ladies of the French Court were attending a ball at Versailles, and that Louis XVI, feeling a little tired, had retired early, completely unaware of what had taken place in Paris that day.
The dismantling of the Bastille began the next day and took almost a year. By the time the first anniversary of its storming rolled around, the ground had become sufficiently leveled so that the people could dance on the square, as they have been doing on France’s Independence Day ever since.