La Bastille has been the enduring symbol of social and political freedom for the ordinary people of France for more than two centuries, celebrated annually on Bastille Day with great national pride. As I walk from the buzzy, trendy Le Marais shopping district towards Place de la Bastille I feel a sense of anticipation.
This quarter of Paris has repeatedly been associated with revolution and rebellion since well before the original Bastille fortress was stormed on July 14, 1789, marking the start of the French Revolution; rebels searching the fortress for weapons and gunpowder to further their cause. Echoes of the epic, and often violent, events that have taken place here can be felt everywhere.
The Bastille fortress was originally built in the 1300’s as an eight-towered battlement which was part of the fortifications built to defend Paris from invasion by the English during the Hundred Year’s War. It became a prison from the late 1400’s onwards. Under the reign of the great Louis XIV (1643-1715), members of the upper class who displeased the king were housed here. Famously, the Marquis de Sade spent some of his many years behind bars at la Bastille, but he was serendipitously moved to another location just days before it was stormed in 1789.
After the revolution, the Bastille fortress was demolished, piece-by-piece, as a symbolic indication by the rebels to the aristocracy and royalists that they would not be subjected to this style of oppression again. Napoleon Bonaparte, after his victories against various European Coalition armies, and his subsequent ascension to ruler and Emperor of France, planned to build a huge bronze statue of an Elephant as the centrepiece of a grand fountain at the site. Unfortunately, after fighting so many battles, the Emperor and his government ran out of funds for the project, and the great elephant never came to pass; only a plaster model was ever made, which deteriorated year-by-year until it was gone.
Le Colonne de Juillet, the July Column, present in the centre of Place de la Bastille today, was erected between 1835 and 1840 under the authority of King Louis Phillipe. It specifically celebrates Les Trois Glorieuses, the three glorious days in July 1830 — also known as the Second French Revolution, and the July Revolution. During this uprising, the despotic Bourbon King Charles X was overthrown by the next generation of revolutionists after he passed a number of unpopular laws including, but not limited to: the death penalty for profaning the Eucharist, exclusion of the commercial middle classes from voting in future elections, and censuring of the press.
To walk the entire circle of Place de la Bastille today takes the best part of half and hour, with ten busy roads to navigate, and traffic flowing like crazed red blood cells around the Circle of Willis in the brain; as a walking exercise it is unrewarding. The central island, circular, with its white marble plinth, verdigrous bronze column, and gold-gilded statue of Génie de la Liberté — the Spirit of Freedom — that oversees the chaos, is inviting, but practically impossible to reach through the mayhem; it's footpath strangely deserted and tourist-free.
Ten proud horses, perfectly aligned and in step with one another, wearing magnificent polished livery, carrying equally ornamented soldiers, make their way slowly and deliberately around the chaotic roundabout. Presumably they are on their way home from Armistice Day celebrations that have taken place earlier in the day. Traffic congestion goes from bad to insane.
Exiting the busy-ness of Place de la Bastille by way of Boulevard Henry IV I am quickly transported into a completely different theatre. This quiet thoroughfare of grand residences reflects the passing of innumerable parades: dignitaries, heroes, and criminals have all passed along this avenue going to, or coming, from la Bastille; waving to pedestrians and residents in their windows, or cowering in shame. The twin row of London plane trees lining the avenue have scattered leaves of dull mustard and pastel green onto the ground. The muted emotional expression of the British and their 'stiff upper lip' demeanour mirrored in the safe autumn colour scheme of their namesake tree.
Crossing the Seine to Île Saint-Louis I descend to the walkway that hugs the river and gazes back towards rive droite. Quai d'Anjou is peaceful and clean, unlike similar, more visited, walkways by the Seine adjacent to the Louvre, where litter and the odour of urine abound. A row of mature linden trees is the ceiling, the rapidly moving water of the Seine the foreground, impatient drivers tapping steering wheels while stuck in evening traffic on the opposite bank, the background.
I sit on a bench taking in the vista, and imagine the poet and self-proclaimed dandy, Charles Baudelaire, sitting in this exact spot 150 years before. Inspiration for Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) materializing out of thin air like ethereal muses visiting from a parallel universe. His controversial theory of modernité, a view of the changing nature of beauty in Paris, coalescing around the beauty of this spectacular location.
This place feels like the 'centre' of Paris to me; the eye of the storm. Examining a map of he spiralling snail of the 20 arrondissements that make up the central department of Paris may prove me wrong geographically, but at this moment, all of Paris, all of France, all of Europe, and all the world, seems to be spinning around me. I am the stillness at the centre of it all . . .
November 11th, 2014.