Paris Travelog #3 – The French Revolution

Here’s a link to the previous post in this series, a Photo Essay of Paris by Sukumar – the 1st of its kind in this blog.

One can’t visit France & not take an interest in the French Revolution. The explosive revolution of 1789 gave the world the phrase – Liberty, Equality & Fraternity. The monarchy was over-thrown in France & in its place, a democratic republic that had the inalienable rights of the individuals at its core was installed. Or was it? More on that later.

A visit to the Versailles palace is essential, to understand the origins of the French Revolution. During the reign of King Louis XIII, the Louvre served as the royal residence. When his son – the flamboyant Louis XIV took charge – he changed the headquarters from Paris to Versailles. The stunned courtiers, who were happily set in their wayward ways in Gay Paree, were dragged off to the marshy Versailles, whining & whimpering.

The self-absorbed king built a lavish palace worthy of him, le roi soleil (Sun King). Theoretically, the Versailles palace is a testament to the Baroque style. In reality, the over-the-top palace done in red, overlaid with gold leaves is a temple of solipsism. Its impossible not to catch a glimpse of the massive ego of Louis XIV, no matter where you turn.

Louis XIV really did himself well. Elaborate frescoes of Pagan Gods adorn the ceilings of all the rooms. Louis Quatorze fashioned himself after Apollo, the Sun God. His Throne Room was called the “Apollo Chamber”. From his ornate bedroom, he rose everyday facing east. Courtiers vied with each other to hold his chemise when he dressed. The crowning glory of the palace is of course, the Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), with its chandeliers & gilded candle-sticks. When esteemed guests such as the King of Siam visited, the Hall was lit with 3,000 candles, its lights magnified by 17 precisely arranged mirrors. It must have been a sight to dream of.

Versailles served as the residence of 3 kings of France, all of them named Louis – Louis XIV, Louis XV & Louis XVI.

BTW, the Queens had to give birth in public, to prove the legitimacy of their children. They gave birth in their chambers, but courtiers closely “scrutinized” the births. Damn, they queued up to see a woman shrieking in labor pain, blood oozing from her loins. Ghastly. Guess they really ran short of entertainment in those days.

Severed from the harsh realities of Paris, the King & the aristocrats settled to an easy, hedonistic life in Versailles. So, they had no idea of the brewing discontent & resentment towards the monarchy among the poor. After a severe financial crisis in the reign of Louis XVI, an acute bread shortage hit France. A group of people stormed the Bastille, the state prison & released its inmates. The French Revolution was born – before it could be contained, before a semblance of order could be established, France made its descent into complete chaos.

Incidentally, nothing remains of the Bastille prison. It was razed to the ground, 2 months into the French Revolution. In its hey-days, it had some rather famous inmates – Voltaire. The Man in the Iron Mask. Oh, he was real enough. No one knew for sure who he was, but that never prevented them from spinning yarns at a feverish pitch. Alexandre Dumas believed that the prisoner was the twin brother of Louis XIV. Others washed the dirty undies of the royal family in public by claiming that the prisoner was the “real” father of Louis XIV: Queen Anne of Austria & her husband Louis XIII had been estranged for many years when Louis XIV was conceived 😉

Coming back to the revolution, on October 1789, Versailles fell. King Louis XVI & his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette were placed on a house arrest in Paris till late 1792, when monarchy finally ended in France. A slew of charges were slapped on the King & the Queen. After a brief mockery of a trial, they were sentenced to death. They met their gruesome end in 1793 in the Place de la Concorde (Concord Square): they were guillotined.

We visited the Conciergerie. It was the royal residence, before it was shifted to the Louvre. In the latter part of the French revolution – known as the Reign of Terror – it was used as a prison. While awaiting trial, Queen Marie Antoinette spent a few months in the Conciergerie as prisoner #280. Visitors can still see her cell. The former Queen & Princess of Austria was watched by 2 male guards at all times – all times. There was no privacy. Marie Antoinette was very sick with uterine cancer then, she was hemorrhaging frequently. She used to beg the guards to look away, while she changed or cleaned up. But the guards pointedly refused: Their mandate was to watch the prisoner with eagle eyes. Orders were orders.

During the Reign of Terror – between June 1793 and July 1794 – almost 17,000 people were guillotined. The “leading light” of the Reign of Terror was a nut-case-cum-fanatic named Maximilien Robespierre. He targeted all the presumed enemies of the revolution – including moderates who did not want to guillotine the royal family – & his political rivals. The Conciergerie became the holding cell of the doomed.

In a strange case of reversal of fortunes, Robespierre was found guilty of tyranny in July 1794. He was guillotined – some say, face up – the next day. He was shot in his lower jaw during his arrest – the wound was possibly self-inflicted. Before guillotining him, the executioner ripped off the bandages covering his wounded jaw. Robespierre’s screams rent the air, as the guillotine came down.

A magnificent Obelisk (see Cleopatra’s Needle) –  taken from the Luxor temple in Egypt, stands sentinel in the spot where the terrible guillotine once stood. Flanked by 2 cheerful fountains, with a ferris wheel behind it, Place de la Concord looks like a picnic spot now. We had a fresh barbe à papa (cotton candy). The gilded top of the obelisk glittered benignly, determined to make us forget the macabre details of years past.

Sukumar will continue this travelog, with another Photo Essay, centered on the French Revolution.


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    Cool. Very Cool. I like the way you are intertwining various aspects of France – its history , art and attractions. And the pattern of a photo essay based on the preceding post sounds good to me!!.

    Thanks for education Priya. Time to revist my school days and catch up on French history.

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    Excellent post Priya. I knew the french revolution date as 1789 and Napoleon’s reign as in the 1820s. Never really put two and two together until you explained the history to me. For all the talk about the French Revolution, it is interesting to note that it didn’t really succeed in bringing people power. Instead it paved the way for an imperialist like Napoleon (notwithstanding some of the good things his reign brought about). It is sad that Robespierre turned out to be a demagogue rather than a true leader. Wonder what course history would have taken had democracy taken firm roots right then?

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    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    We didn’t want an overdose of anything, so tried to serve something different in every post. Up next is art.

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    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Sorry if I sounded rather didactic during our trip 🙂 I couldn’t help it, I love history too much. It is indeed interesting to note that the French Revolution was not a resounding success. They had to achieve democracy after many trials & errors.

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    pk.karthik said January 7, 2010, 1:37 pm:

    Wonderful writeup Priya.I thoroughly enjoyed your first writeup as well.Your take on the revolution is really interesting .It took the French 150 years to truly understand democracy inspite of giving us the terms equality,liberty and fraternity.
    With respect to the revolution I would suggest you have a look at Mel Brooks ‘s movie “History of the World Part 1”.The jokes are bit lavotorical but the satire is worth a watch.

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    Karthik – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    History of the World is a lovely movie. And I’m a big one for toilet humor 😛 In that movie, more than the French Revolution, I liked Moses & his 15, er, 10 commandments – and the origin of music 😀

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    Totally loved History of the World Part 1. Fantastic satire.

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    Excellent history lesson Priya. I was under the impression that French Revolution was just to overthrew king like any other revolution, but after reading this post i found more about French Revolution. I wonder French is pioneer for equality, separate church from state and social justice, but even though they weren’t/aren’t super power. i agree they are rich and famous but not like USofA. why? may be they don’t have diversify population to develop like USofA or Former Soviet Union or China.


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    Excellent another one. Your take on the revolution which I never understood completely is good. I remember a lesson we had in English regarding this about a royal member trying to escape from the jail in the revolution backup. I also used to think Napolean as king of France (how stupid I am).

    Karthik – History of World Part 1. 🙂 It’s gooood to be the keeeng. Awesome sarcasm and humor. Priya I liked Moses part. (and you might like to search Youtube with this search string “Moses GPS”)

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    Sukumar – Yes, Mel Brooks & Gregory Hines were too good in that.

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    Subba – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Many countries are not as rich as the US – as you say, France doesn’t have as much diversity – even though most immigrants (with some exceptions) have assimilated well. Plus, its a welfare state. Full-blown capitalism will be very hard to practice in France. But, people seem to be a lot happier than in the US.

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    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Napoleon indeed become the Emperor of France. Will cover that in another post.

    Youtube – Thanks 😉 What Moses needed in the desert – The video is in Hebrew (I think), but the language gap didn’t matter at all 😆

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