Thursday, July 23, 2009

Paris Monuments - Arc de Triomphe

I'm in New York City at present, staying with my BFF and her Hero Husband in their historic Harlem brownstone. They put me and the Uber-Mensch up in the top floor bedroom facing the street. Why? They thought we'd feel right at home surrounded by wall decorations of Paris scenes, including a painting of the Arc de Triomphe.

The Arc de Triomphe, or Triumphal Arch, stands at the center of Paris' famous Place de l'Étoile (or Étoile Charles de Gaulle), a star-shaped traffic circle joining 12 avenues at the western end of the of the Champs-Élysées. It honors the many souls who have fought for France, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars.

Emperor Napoleon I commissioned the triumphal arch in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz. Though work to lay the foundations began at the peak of his fortunes, Napoleon would not see his beloved arch realized before his demise in 1814-1815. It was only completed in 1833-36, during the reign of King Louis-Philippe. Napoleon's body did pass through the arch, however, in 1840, on his return trip from St. Helena - where he died - en route to his final resting place under the dome of the chapel at Les Invalides.

Designed by architect Jean Chalgrin, the Arc de Triomphe recalls the Roman Arch of Titus. The Paris arch is so colossal in proportions, that Charles Godefroy was able to fly his Nieuport biplane through it in a 1919 victory parade to mark the end of World War I.

The Arc reads like an encyclopedia of 18th & 19th century French wars and generals and gives pride of place to a WWI tomb of the unknown soldier. Visitors can climb the monument's 284 steps (or take the lift, if it's working, plus 46 steps) to reach the top and one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Paris. There, it's easy to see the city's L'Axe historique (historic axis) which draws a direct line from the Louvre Palace up the Champs-Élysées through the Arc de Triomphe to its modern counterpart at La Defense, the high-rise business district in Paris' north-western outskirts.

There are many replicas of the Arc de Triomphe throughout the world. One of them, right here in my hometown of Brooklyn, NY, commemorates the victory of the Union Army in the American Civil War (1861-65). The cornerstone of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, designed by John H. Duncan,was laid on October 10, 1889, by General William Tecumseh Sherman himself. Three years later, in 1892, President Grover Cleveland helped unveil the monument which stands in the middle of Grand Army Plaza and serves as a gateway to Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Both Arch and Park are well worth a visit on your next trip to New York, as are the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum, located within Prospect Park and just steps from Grand Army Plaza. Take a break for lunch at the ever-popular Tom's Restaurant on Washington Avenue (closed Sunday). Then hop on the 2 or 3 subway line to Clark Street and walk to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Photo of Paris' Arc de Triomphe at night by Benh LIEU SONG, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Brooklyn's Soldiers and Sailors Monument by Jeffrey O. Gustafson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

King Louis XVI Accepts the French Revolution

On July 15, 1789, King Louis XVI rushed to Paris. He stood on the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) before his subjects. He recognized the power of the National Assembly. In addition to wearing his customary white – the color of the Bourbon Monarchy - he also wore red and blue – the colors of Paris. These colors quickly became the colors of France’s first Republican flag:

Supporters of the Revolution commenced wearing the red, white, and blue cockade pinned to their hats, like this revolutionary, who plays the bagpipe over the fallen lion of the absolute monarchy as another revolutionary menaces a priest.

With the King’s blessing, the National Assembly got right to work to declare the new rights of all French citizens under the new French Republic. In August, the Assembly gave France what people the world over believed to be the most important document of the 18th century: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

For those with food in the cupboard, the publication of the Declaration fueled optimism for the future of France. But those with no bread on the table and winter on its way wondered what good their new rights were in this new Constitutional Monarchy. They would rise up once again.

Check back in October for the continuation of the people's struggle for Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité.

The French flag, or tri-colore (three color), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. A French revolutionary wearing a tricolor cockade, courtesy of

Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Paris Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine. In development.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Never Call it "Bastille Day", It's Quatorze Juillet

July 14:
A mob even larger than the day before meets at the Bastille, a 14th century medieval fortress turned prison. The gunpowder needed to fuel the King’s munitions is hiding there, behind the eight stone towers and eighty foot (25 meter) walls. The Bastille has long been associated with the worst abuses of the Monarchy’s power and les citoyens hate it!

Armed with canon and guns stolen from Les Invalides as well as with scythes, clubs, pikes, even stones – anything that can be used as a weapon – the mob demands the fortress guards to give them the King's gunpowder and to free their prisoners. The guards refuse. They allow no one anyone inside. They prepare to defend the Bastille with rooftop canon.

No one knows who actually fires first. But after a standoff lasting many hours, a gun blast is suddenly heard, startling both sides out of a tense and eerie quiet. The mob, thinking it is under attack, storms the fortress. Members of the new Revolutionary police force, the National Guard, join them.

They chop off the head of the chief guard and stick it on a pike. They hold the dripping head up for everyone to see. The mauraders go wild, tearing the Bastille apart, stone by ancient stone, until their fingers bleed. They free the prisoners being held there (there are only seven). They steal the King’s gunpowder and immediately train the King’s arms on the King's Royal troops.

A violent, more radical side of the French Revolution has been unleashed, like an angry genie given unexpected freedom. It will be years before the bottle is corked once again.

At Versailles, when told the news, the King asks, "is it a revolt?"

"No, Sire," comes the response, "it is a revolution."

But the Revolution is still not won. What will be the King's reaction? Stay tuned for tomorrow's thrilling conclusion. And remember, the French never call their independence day "Bastille Day". They call it, le quatorze juillet, July 14th.

18th century engraving of The Bastille before its destruction, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
"The Taking of the Bastille," courtesy of
"The Taking of the Bastille," by Jean-Pierre Houël, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Paris Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine. In development.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Les Citoyens Plunder the Arsenal at Les Invalides

July 13:
The morning after Citizen Desmoulins’ impassioned speech, 60,000 people meet at Les Invalides, the home for veterans of former French wars. Les citoyens (the citizens) get away with over 10 canon and 28,000 muskets belonging to the King’s Army. They meet no resistance from the troops on guard there.

But...they found no gunpowder!

Where is the gunpowder, they cry!

The answer comes: It's at the Bastille.

Visit us tomorrow, le quatorze juillet, for the climactic march to the Bastille and the start of the second, more violent, phase of the French Revolution.

Taking of weapons at Les Invalides, courtesy of

Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Paris Tours: Beward Madame La Guillotine. In development.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Camille Desmoulins Incites the Revolutionary Mob

July 12:
Rioting in the capital city of Paris due to the sacking and disappearance of Jacques Necker. The government orders all theatres as well as the Opera closed. A mass of people descends on the Palais Royal.

While dining there, Camille Desmoulins, a poor journalist from north-eastern France and Third Estate delegate, finds himself surrounded by an angry mob. The people are frightened by the advance of the King’s troops on Paris. How will they defend themselves against the King’s soldiers if they attack?

Desmoulins is known for his awkward stutter. But on this day he loses it, at least for a little while. He knows where to find weapons. They will steal them from the King! They will capture the royal munitions stored at Les Invalides!

He climbs onto a table here at the Palais Royal’s Café des Foy. “Aux armes, Citoyens!”, he shouts (To arms, Citizens!). “Plunder the Arsenal!”

In France, the color green represents hope. Desmoulins tears a leafy branch off a nearby tree and puts it in his hat. The rowdy mob also tears tree branches to adorn their hats until they have stripped bare the trees of the Palais Royal.

From that moment, wearing or waving a tree branch symbolizes one’s support for the French Revolution.

Come back tomorrow to see the surprise that awaits the mob when it reaches Les Invalides.

Print of Camille Desmoulins exhorting the people to take to the streets, courtesy of

Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Paris Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine. In development.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Diamond Necklace Affair

The Diamond Necklace Affair was an 18th century sting. It took place in 1785, four years before the events that sparked the French Revolution. Though the Queen was a victim in the affair, it greatly damaged her already compromised reputation in the eyes of the French public. What happened was this:

A lady claiming to be the Comtesse de Lamotte Valois convinced Cardinal de Rohan, who was desparate to win the Queen's favor, that Marie Antoinette desired a celebrated necklace consisting of 647 diamonds and numerous high quality gemstones, but that she lacked the funds to purchase it. Simultaneously, the Comtesse convinced the Crown Jeweler and designer of said necklace, M. Boehmer, that it would indeed be purchased by the Queen of France using Cardinal de Rohan as an intermediary.

Boehmer was at first surprised by this news as he had been pestering the Queen to buy his masterpiece for some time. Repeatedly, Marie Antoinette had refused, saying the 2 Million francs would better serve the Navy. She never actually wanted the garish, many-looped necklace. For one, she didn’t like the look of it. But also, she recognized the foolishness of indulging in such extravagance with the nation in financial turmoil. Unfortunately for Boehmer, no other European royal wanted the necklace either, so he was delighted to learn of the Queen's alleged change of heart. The Comtesse urged that the transaction go forward with the utmost discretion.

Cardinal de Rohan, for his part, wanted nothing more than to be acknowledged by the Queen. She had not spoken to him, publicly or privately, for eight years. Recognizing this vulnerability, the Comtesse made him believe that the Queen secretly wanted the necklace. So de Rohan negotiated with Boehmer to purchase it for 1.6 Million francs in staged payments. With Comtesse's help, he delivered the necklace, as of yet unpaid, to the Queen under cover of night in a quiet corner of the Versailles gardens. He could therefore not understand why the Queen never wore the jewels nor why his status at Court remained unchanged.

As it turns out, the letters received by de Rohan, presumably signed by Marie Antoinette, were forged, and the woman to whom the jewels were given was a prostitute bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Queen. She appeared before him in the shadows of the trees, elegantly veiled, and communicated only by the Queen's characteristic nod of the head. Boehmer was appeased as long as the scheduled payments of de Rohan continued. But when they stopped coming and the victims finally became aware of the hoax, the jewels were long gone. The necklace had been broken up and the gems sold off separately in London.

By the time the truth came out, the Queen was already embroiled in a public controversy with de Rohan, believing him a conspirator and a forger. The Paris pamphleteers went to town, expounding the fiction that the Queen was conniving, self-serving, and naïve. It was easier for her subjects to accept that she was a liar rather than the victim of a criminal conspiracy. She was guilty in their eyes because they wanted her to be.

The Diamond Necklace Affair provided fodder for the lack of trust the people felt toward their King and Queen as the events of 1789 began to unfold. Four years after the Affair...

...French peasants are spending an entire month's wages on bread alone.

...The King re-installs Jacques Necker, who is very popular with the people, as Finance Minister. Necker states that it is the duty of the French government to ensure that every citizen has enough bread and grain. The population is hopeful once again.

...Necker urges the King to convene the Estates General to help find a resolution to the country's financial dilemma. But the Third Estate are almost immediately locked out of the meeting!

...In their own meeting, he delegates of the Third Estate form the National Assembly, calling it “the true government of the People”. They vow to write France's first constitution.

...Third Estate delegate, Maximilien Robespierre, leads the charge for the nobility and aristocracy to start paying their fair share in taxes.

...July 9: the National Assembly turns itself into a Constituent National Assembly, giving itself the power to make laws.

...July 10: 30,000 Royal troops surround the city of Paris on the orders of the King.

...July 11: Louis XVI sacks the most popular man in his government – Jacques Necker - and has him spirited out of the country!

Only three more days to Quatorze Juillet. Stay tuned for daily updates as the hungry people grow ever more alarmed at the guns pointing at them!

Painting of Cardinal de Rohan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Boehmer's infamous diamond necklace. Print courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Drawing of Marie Antointte in the Versailles gardens by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, c. 1783, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This is what the impersonator might have looked like to de Rohan.
Painting of Maximilien Robespierre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 2001.
Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Paris Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine, in development.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Queen Marie Antoinette: Madame Deficit

Why was Queen Marie Antoinette so reviled by her subjects?

Marie Antoinette, née Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, the fifteenth and penultimate child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, came to Versailles at the tender age of 14 to marry the 15-year-old Dauphin, or future king, Louis-Auguste, grandson to King Louis XV. The two future monarchs had grown up so pampered that when Louis XV died of smallpox in 1775, just five years after their royal nuptials, even they knew they were not ready for the responsibility before them.

“Dear God,” prayed Louis XVI, falling to his knees, “guide us and protect us. We are too young to reign”.

As you read here, Louis XVI inherited a France burdened by debt and crippling poverty. He was unprepared to cope with the looming crisis that faced his country. Marie Antoinette was not permitted a political role, nor did she want one. As Queen of France, she had one main job: to produce a male heir.

Yet the King was as adept in the bedroom as he was on the throne. Seven years passed before he and Marie Antoinette produced a child, and 11 long years before the Queen gave birth to a boy, the first Dauphin, Louis Joseph, in 1781.

In the meantime, Marie Antoinette became the target of libel and gossip, both in and outside Court. Her interests during these years included fashion, gambling, opera, the staging of plays in which she often played a role, and the creation of a vast private pleasure garden at the Petit Trianon. These pastimes were costly at a time when French peasants were surviving largely on bread.

The Queen made things worse for herself by alienating important members at Court when she retreated to the Petit Trianon and refused to invite them for visits!

Simultaneously, the King saw an opportunity to get back at Britain for his grandfather’s humiliating loss in the Seven Years War. He agreed to send troops and aid totaling 2,000 million livres to support the American revolutionaries. In the 1770s this sum could have fed and housed 7 million French citizens for a year. With France already teetering on financial collapse, this expenditure was seen by many as irresponsible. Indeed, it would have a calamitous effect on the French economy.

Yet, it was the Queen who was blamed. The people dubbed her, “Madame Deficit”. Though she had given her adopted country four children, including two potential heirs to the throne, she would never live down in the eyes of her subjects the reputation that tainted her from her early years at Versailles.

Things went from bad to worse for the Queen during the Diamond Necklace Affair. More on that tomorrow.

Painting of 12 year old Marie Antoinette, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.Painting of the new King of France, Louis XVI, 1775, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of Marie Antoinette with her eldest children, Madame Royal and the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Petit Trianon of Versailles by
Colocho, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 2001.
The French Revolution. The History Channel, 2008.
Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine. In progress.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The French Revolution Marches Forward

Today is Independence Day in the States. The French equivalent is just 10 days away - Quatorze Juillet (July 14th).

In early July back in 1789, things are really beginning to heat up here in Paris! (See previous posts for explanation of preceding events. Start here.)

Having achieved the support of the King Louis XVI's Finance Minister, Jacques Necker, the National Assembly grows ever more emboldened. The eloquent delegate from Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles, the Comte de Mirabeau, declares, "We are here by the will of the people, we shall only go away by the force of bayonets."

While a moderate who favored political reform by constitutional monarchy, on the British model, Mirabeau's sentiments spark a flurry of political pamphleteering at the Palais Royal.

At the Palais Royal:
Pamphlets cause extremists to grow emboldened too. They cry for the immediate dissolution of both the Monarchy and the Church, favoring total control of the French government by the Third Estate.

King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette are increasingly vilified. The treatment given to the Queen, derisively nicknamed The Austrian Woman, is particularly crushing. Groundless prints and publications give rise to the myth that Marie Antoinette is out of touch with her people, interested only in herself, and a hindrance to the governance of France. She is featured as a winged creature with webbed feet and a spiked tail, or in a flurry of drunken orgies with both men and women. (In fact, at this point she is a known teetotaler and completely devoted to the King and her children.)

Between Paris and Versailles:
Louis XVI continues to send troops to surround Paris, ostensibly to defend the city against the possible recurrence of riots such as that which took place three months before: On 28 April 1789, workers at The Réveillon Walpaper Factory in the St. Antoine district of Paris, fearing pay cuts, destroyed the factory as well as the home of its owner Jean-Baptiste Réveillon.

The Reveillon Factory fire would turn out to be the first of many violent acts still yet to come. Stay tuned.


Painting of Comte de Mirabeau, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Print of Marie-Antoinette as a serpent, courtesy of

Painting of the Reveillon wallpaper factory riot, 28 April 1789, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 2001.

Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City. London: Pan Books, 2003.

Jones, Colin. Paris: Biography of a City. London: Penguin Books, 2004