BBC The French Revolution – Tearing Up History

I’m Richard Clay, I’m an art historian. I don’t just study the creation of
art, I study its destruction. In many ways, I study the history of
art from below. In this film, I’m going to tell the
story of the French Revolution through the destruction
of art, buildings and symbols. These are often used by those in
power as weapons to enforce the status quo. In a revolution, the destruction and
transformation of art and symbols is a way to turn the tables.
It’s called iconoclasm. The inside story of great revolutions can be
uncovered through the smashed, altered and
reshaped art of the past. This is a story about art, it’s a story about symbols,
it’s a story about the power of
the monarchy, the power of the church,
the power of aristocracy. Were the French revolutionaries just
a mob? Why were their governments so
afraid of them? This is the history of art, this is a story about the breaking
of images, this is a story of the city being
transformed through destruction, arguably the birth of
the modern world. The French Revolution of 1789 changed
the world. Inspired by the enlightenment notions
of liberty, equality and brotherhood, the people of France tore control of
their destiny from the king, nobility
and church, giving birth to a new way
of seeing the world around us. The revolution was a war whose
battlefield was the visual world, where the symbols of royal,
religious and aristocratic power had long
controlled people’s lives. Revolutionaries took these symbols
and they destroyed them, creating a new political order. The word “vandalism” was invented to
describe them. But I don’t think that they
were mindless barbarians. This battle over who controlled Paris
began 24 kilometres outside the city, here in Versailles. Begun in 1632, King Louis’s forebears
expanded the Palace of Versailles to boast an astonishing 750 rooms
with extravagant gardens covering 800 hectares. This building was the ultimate
expression of French, royal power. Versailles is famous for being an
extravagant piece of architecture with beautiful art. That’s all true, but it’s also the
heart of ancien regime government. The King’s apartments are a tiny
fraction of this vast palace. The rest of it is administration,
as well as servants, of course. And that’s the important thing for
the revolution – this is where government is done, this is the place to come to get
decisions made. For all its gold leaf, I’m not here
to visit the Palace of Versailles, because the French Revolution
effectively began nearby, in this unassuming back street,
at the Royal Tennis Courts. I’ve genuinely studied the revolution
for almost half my life. I’ve never been in this space before. It’s amazing. This is the truth. This is probably, for me at least, the most important place in recent
French history. In 1789, the French world of politics
was in turmoil, divided into three groups
called estates – the church at the
top, nobility in the middle, and everybody else at the bottom. The French people were hungry
and angry and taxed heavily by
a cash-strapped elite. France is effectively bankrupt, they keep losing wars,
it’s an expensive business. So the King says, “I rule by divine right, I request
that representatives of “the three estates that make up
French society “come to Versailles and help me find
a way “of getting my accounts in order.” The third estate and its
champions in the press start to say, “Well, we’re the vast majority of
the French people, “surely we should have more
representatives than everybody else?” And when they tried to gather, the King refused to let them meet in
the allotted space and they found the doors locked,
so they came to the tennis court and they swore an oath, they swore
that they would sit in perpetuity until a constitution was written for
France. This is the moment when
constitutional politics is born. David’s painting of the tennis court, it seems to be such a scene of
consensus, all these arms thrusting
to the centre towards Bailly, who’s leading this oath. But it isn’t entirely a scene of
consensus. We’ve got a figure in the bottom
right hand corner who sits gesturing, firmly holding his arms to his
chest, he is not going to raise his arm and swear this oath,
it’s too big. Robespierre stands clutching
his chest. He’s realising the enormity of
the moment. He’s not a renowned figure yet, but, as we all know, he certainly
will gain a reputation. And in the very centre,
just at the feet of Bailly, there is Sieyes, who’s such a key
writer in the run-up to this event and he sits as if in the eye of
the storm, totally still, as if contemplating what his writing
has unleashed. This is the birth of modern France. The world has been turned upside
down. It’s no longer about
the divine right of kings, it’s about power, sovereignty,
emanating from below. It’s the power of the people. For the first time in their history, the people had a representative
government. The King, his nobles and the church were losing their control over
the people’s lives and the world around them, a symbolic
world that daily demonstrated the power of King, church and
aristocracy. For aristocrats, art was
primarily an intellectual experience. Perhaps the first thing they’d
observe on approaching this painting would be, “Oh, look at this masterly
final touch of the painter “that brings the surface
of the painting to life. “Look at this astonishing fold in
this fabric, “described with a single brushstroke. “Oh, the spontaneity of the artist
and his genius.” This is an aesthetic object. It’s also an object that
tells a moral story. This is a young girl looking boldly
at the viewer with a bird on her finger, but in the history of art,
this elite would know, the bird in a cage is virginity. A bird that’s escaped a cage is
lost virginity. This is a girl who’s confident about
her sexual virtue, holds a bird on her finger. There is an element of morality for
the viewer to discuss, but perhaps most importantly, for
them it’s a fabulous painting, it has aesthetic value. With their extensive education, the
French aristocracy and middle classes enjoyed nothing better than showing
off their knowledge over a snapshot of mythical life,
the racier the better. This is a historical painting,
the subject Diana, goddess of hunting, at her bath. Othello, called Actaeon,
a mythical Peeping Tom, is watching her from the bushes. And she sees him and she turns him
into a stag, and has him hunted down –
it’s a warning to the voyeur. That kind of interpretation of this
object was only really open to those people who had a vast knowledge
of antiquity and of mythology, highly educated,
a highly educated and a tiny elite, particularly made up of an
aristocracy who weren’t allowed to
work for a living, who lived the kind of leisured life
we see depicted here. Who used their knowledge of the past
to mark their social distinction, and justify their role in society. But in a way isn’t this rather like
the way that we think about art today too? That we go to the Louvre and we can
demonstrate our knowledge of
aesthetics, and we queue to see the Mona Lisa to be able to say we’ve
seen something of historical value. The fact that we today share
this way of looking at art as
a cerebral adventure, suggests we’ve forgotten
how powerful and controlling art could be for the people of France
in 1789. For the majority of Parisians, through religion, art had a power to literally change their worlds. Here, Santa Genevieve, on her knees,
beseeches the Virgin Mary to ask God to intercede and save people
suffering because of drought. Every religious image has
this potential, not just to save your soul but also to help address
the challenges of existence. For most people, religious art was an
immersive and very real experience that helped them elevate their minds
to God, whose power could change the world. This painting from the 18th century shows this was a kind of 18th century
sculptural installation. These women aren’t
here to contemplate the brilliance of
this sculptural work, they’re not interested in aesthetics,
nor in history. These women are here in the hope
that Christ and God will help them in their day-to-day struggles. Diderot, the great philosopher of the
18th century, said that he thought that this chapel was theatrical,
he thought it was dangerous, that its immersive environment
encouraged the poor particularly, but people in general,
to suspend their disbelief, just as if they were at a theatre. It’s precisely this fear of the role
that images can play in people’s lives that leads them to
become such contested objects during the revolution. It was during the very first crisis
of the French Revolution that art was used as a weapon in the
struggle between those with power and
those without. With the assembly threatening
the power of the King, rumours had spread that Royalist
troops were gathering outside Paris. The people were furious. Their target was a fortified gateway
into Paris where astronomic customs duties were
raised on imports into the city. Known as
the Barriere de la Conference, it no longer exists today. To Parisians, it was a hated
building loaded with economic and political significance. The 12th July 1879, the Parisians were walking out of Paris and they
were walking out of Paris to the Barriere de la Conference on
their route to Versailles. They wanted to get to Versailles,
they wanted to see the King. But when they get there,
they stop, and what they do is they
attack the Barriere de la Conference which was just at this site. But really interestingly,
this mob of vandals, this ignorant bunch of
barbarians, had turned up with stone masons
and their tools. This sounds
like they might have had a plan. Next to the barrier there were
statues. One of those statues, a female
figure, has a shield, on the shield
are the fleurs-de-lis. The fleurs-de-lis are the symbols of
royal France. This is, as far as the crowd are
concerned, a symbol of royal France. The stone masons are
there because they have a plan, and their plan is to decapitate
the statue. And that is precisely what they do. Many historians of the revolution cite this as the first example of mindless mobs committing
acts of wanton vandalism. I disagree. This moment of unrest, of violence, although nobody’s wounded, but
violence is against property, isn’t meaningless, it’s meaningful. This statue at the gates of Paris
in 1789 says to anybody who’s entering
Paris from Versailles that Royalist France is like
a body politic without a head. This powerful symbol is not
the product of the behaviour of
ignorant vandals. ‘Doctor Guillaume Mazeau,
at the Sorbonne, ‘has been looking at what made
the revolutionaries tick. ‘Were they the violent mob of
popular myth?’ These popular protests, these,
in some cases, armed protests, are these the protests of, of mobs? No, er, a lot of these protestors
want to avoid violence, not because they are peaceful people
but they knew that the Royal Dragoons can stop
these protests by violence. So, we can’t say that it is a mob
because these protestors are not influenced by their, only
their emotion, their passions, their irrational behaviours,
but they have – what is quite new, is that these protestors acts, erm,
in a very modern way. What makes these protests of
July 1789 so strikingly modern? Because they are influenced by other
revolutions of the 18th century, I mean by the American Revolution but also about,
by the European revolutions and they perfectly knew what
freedom means, what equality means. So, it’s not a mob it’s a,
it’s a political protest. Deep within the archives of
the Bibliotheque nationale, prints from the periods used
symbolism of the headless
royal statue to show us the reality of
the situation. And this decapitated statue, it seems
to me, is a key part of the
composition. The King no longer is just the simple
head of state that he once was, now something new has to emerge. A member of the people standing where
the head was. They are now sovereign. Even today, transforming symbols of
power through modification
and destruction is still a provocative form of
protest. Deep under the streets of Paris are the remains of perhaps
the greatest act of iconoclasm of the whole French Revolution. These stones
are all that remains today of the huge royal jail, the Bastille, the ultimate symbol of royal
despotism. But the revolutionaries
turned it from a symbol of cruelty into an emblem of freedom. In the days before the storming of
the Bastille, Parisians were, to say the least,
agitated. They’d been concerned that the city
was surrounded by Royal troops and it was. We get Parisians
starting to arm themselves. And the reason they stormed the
Bastille is, Parisians are furious. They want to take over the prison
because they want the guns and
the gunpowder that they believe are in there, that’s why
they march on this symbol. But it is also incredibly
symbolically significant, it is the symbol of despotism. After a day-long siege,
the Bastille’s defenders were
overwhelmed. Soon the situation
turned ugly. The prison governor
was decapitated by the angry crowd, and his head stuck on a pike. The people who’d stormed the Bastille
begin to demolish it. This incredibly powerful symbol of
royal despotism is being raised to the ground, brick by brick,
by the people themselves. This is the Place de la Bastille, the
greatest, biggest, emptiest space probably left by an act of iconoclasm
in Paris. For me, the siege of the Bastille lead to one of the great
symbolic transformations. It lies here, in a storehouse
100 kilometres from Paris. Straight after the fall of
the Bastille in July 1789, the Commune, a new revolutionary
government of Paris, were hearing that the people of Paris had started to dismantle
the Bastille. The Commune decided they
needed to take action, they needed
to show that the violence was over that they were in control of space, and that included all acts of
violence against powerful symbols. The official responsible for
the dismantling of the Bastille, Pierre-Francois Palloy, understood the powerful messages communicated
by symbols. He produced dozens of
models of the building and sent them to all 83 Departements
of France. Now the Bastille no longer symbolised
the despotic power of royalty. As a result, this kind of plaster
model ended up being circulated around France by Palloy,
in his entrepreneurial mode, so that groups
of French people could celebrate this act of iconoclasm – others
would call it vandalism,
I wouldn’t, – and they could march together in
revolutionary festivals, perhaps on Bastille Day. It’s just such a beautifully detailed
piece of work. The windows, two of them,
still there, barred. It makes me wonder whether
Palloy and his team are actually
using metal from the Bastille. Certainly much of the metal that was
salvaged from the site was being cast into souvenirs
and sold. Whether or not it’s from the
Bastille, every single set of windows bears the signs of having had bars,
as a really prominent reminder of what a fortress prison
this really was. This isn’t just an incredibly
detailed model of the Bastille, it’s a message that’s being sent to
the Departements of France, that the storming of the Bastille
wasn’t just the efforts of the Parisians, it was an effort made by the nation,
on behalf of the whole nation. The storming of the Bastille
frightened the new Parisian government. They needed to take control of the
situation and they needed money. Their eyes turned to the wealth of
the churches of Paris in what was to be the first act of
officially sponsored iconoclasm. The clergy of San St Peters were
incredibly well connected, they knew the law was
going to change and that silverware would be demanded from them
in October 1789. So they gave a lot of
it away in late September. The church leaders beseeched
the revolutionaries to spare their massive silver
statue of Mary. This statue was particularly symbolic
because it was made from the old silver that had been
given to the clergy by parishioners, melted down to create this incredible
sculpture by Bouchardon. But as the revolution progressed it
became clear that the statue was going to have to be melted down,
that a request made by a pamphleteer in the name of the Virgin Mary that
it should be used for charitable
purposes to help the nation was going to have to be met. And it wouldn’t stop there. As the revolution had progressed, often beyond the control of
the authorities, so the calls for ever more radical
iconoclasm would increase. Paris is a city of revolution.
They’ve had five in total since the Bastille was stormed. Like the revolution of 1789, the anti-capitalist riots of 1968 engulfed most of the city. Known as the soixante-huitard, the young radicals who manned
the barricades are still around. Perhaps one of their number,
Serge Aberdam, can give me an insight into how a revolution acquires
a life of its own. The first time I was involved in
a violent demonstration was at that time when they saw them
acting like, like a mob. They were using those wooden clubs and, er, hitting people actually on
the middle of the street. There were many people there, and they were hitting as heavily
as they could. I was astonished, I was on the side
and I was not involved at the time. A few hours later I was. Really? Till the people were beginning to
act as a group, asking the liberty
of their streets and movement. Did you have a sense of
the fact that you were part of a French tradition, a legacy? Oh, yes, we did. Those days in May when we build
barricades in the upper,
in the Latin District there, and people thought they were in
a tradition and raising those
barricades. ‘Serge really set me thinking about
what it was like ‘on the 12th July
or the 14th July’ and I started to get a sense of how,
what starts as a small group of protesters can rapidly expand into an entire society in rebellion. It’s an astonishing frontline
insight. Like the uprising of 1968, revolutionary fervour spread
throughout the city in 1789. The old world of church and
aristocracy was now officially under attack and the marks of this
destruction of the old world are still embedded in the walls
of the city today. There’s nothing more familiar
in cities than their walls, but it’s odd how quickly
the familiar can become strange. Latin graffiti on the wall of
a 17th century church. “Omnia Communia” –
everything belongs to all. Then iron bars sticking out of
the wall, rusted. What was hung from these bars?
They look like legs. And then a horizontal piece of
concrete above. This was a crucifix. This was pulled down during
de-Christianisation in the French Revolution, 1793 or 4. And then empty walls. A period of peace, perhaps,
in Paris. And a door with a triangle on
top with no religious sign. Liberty, equality, fraternity. Across Paris, teams of sculptors
began removing the symbols of the hated oppressors of
the Ancien Regime. A damaged work of art or even
an empty space above a doorway speaks volumes about the power
struggle at the heart of
the revolution. A door with roundels
chipped out. What was here? Fleurs-de-lis,
all the way up the door, both sides of the door, and two
roundels with nothing in them. What was there? Royal signs,
religious signs, signs of feudalism? Two harmless, armless cherubs
holding nothing. Why? Why were their arms chipped
off? This single wall of a single church
in Paris, tells the story of a succession of
revolutionary conflicts. This wall also tells a story
of contemporary struggle. Omnia Communia?
Everything belongs to all. The walls speak,
we just have to listen and look. The aristocrats and their coats of
arms that used to plaster Paris were also in the firing line. So, in August 1789, the National
Assembly had just abolished feudalism, very sudden, very total. All of the signs of feudalism that
were all over Paris suddenly looked rather out of place and it wasn’t particularly good to
be an aristocrat with your emblems on the outside of your townhouse. Hence, at a place like this, now the Bibliotheque Historique
de la Ville de Paris, it used to the house of
the Lamoignon family, and here we’ve got a black inlay that’s been placed
on later, because what would have happened is
the Lamoignon family plastered over their coat of arms because they were
no longer aristocrats. Possibly hoping that one day this abolition of the aristocracy
would be revoked. As the revolution progressed, the
temporary solution of just plastering over the coats of arms of aristocrats was no longer really working. They’d been doing that work but now
they were starting to emigrate. The revolutionary authorities needed
a more permanent solution, and this solution was simply to chip out the
coats of arms above the town houses’
doorways, like this example. Incredibly elaborate aristocratic
frontispiece, but with a great big
empty space in the middle of it. All record of the existence of these
families over the generations in Paris was being completely erased. Only months into the revolution and the streets and buildings of
Paris had changed significantly. But in the summer of 1789,
bread was still too expensive and people were hungry. Dissent
spread on the streets of Paris. In October 1789, Paris was hungry. Paris was also angry. This
combination of hunger and anger leads to a kind of protest movement
that grows, and in due course, 5th October, several thousand
Parisians end up marching out to Versailles and they camp here, and
the next day, when they head back to Paris, they head back
with the Royal family, the centre of government has
moved from Versailles back to Paris. With the royals safely in the heart
of Paris, the people could keep
their eyes on the King. Now in Paris, King Louis kept
his head down, endorsing revolutionary
redistribution of church wealth. But Louis was no fool – he knew
his family was in danger. They made a fateful decision to try
and escape to Marie Antoinette’s
homeland, Austria, in the summer of 1791, but they were
captured at the Austrian border. The family was brought back to Paris
in very real danger. This is a moment on the
26th July 1791, when the royal family are brought back to Paris having
tried to escape to Varennes, and the people of Paris line the
streets as they always would for
a royal entry into the city, But this time they don’t cheer,
this time they stand in silence and in many places they
actually stand with their backs to
the royal family’s carriage. This print maker’s chosen
an amazing moment, which is the moment when
Louise XVI comes past the statue to Louis XV on to the way into
the Tuilerie Palace. And there are young boys who have
clambered up on to the statue of
Louis XV, this much detested king, and they’re blindfolding the statue, as if to say, even Louis XV wouldn’t want to see this awful scene
of a cowardly king who’s abandoned his people and
abandoned the revolution. This was a kind of iconoclasm. The revolutionaries used a statue of
Louis XV as a weapon of protest
against the traitorous King. To find out what they were really
trying to achieve, who better to speak to than
a modern day so-called vandal. What’s the link between us and the
revolution, what are we doing here? Well, you reckon you’re vandals, you
call yourselves vandals, he’s wearing
a T-shirt that says vandal on it. And I write about vandalism during
the French Revolution, but I’m saying these people weren’t
vandals, this wasn’t vandalism, they’re not blind,
ignorant barbarians, they’re incredibly smart people and they understand that monuments in
public space are being used to try
and control them. So they pour shit on their heads or
write graffiti on it. OK. So, why they hell are you
a graffiti artist? This whole project was the idea of
demonstrating that we’re not vandals,
we’re truly artists. I like it. In 2010, Parisian graffiti artist
So What lead a 40-strong team that covered
the walls of a huge abandoned
supermarket with art. What was the driving force behind
this incredible installation of graffiti? When I was 16 year old I was angry at the world, I wanted to burn and graffiti
was a way for me to get that to the world, you know. I had all the reasons in the world
to do it. We think we’re right to do it, and
in a lot of places we are right to
do it. What fascinated us is that this
place has been heavily squatted, gypsy families, and our
government spend a month-and-a-half leading a war on gypsies,
dismantling gypsy camps because they cannot do anything
about the economy so they were
giving a hard times to the most fragile population in this country. It’s really sophisticated art,
it’s really thought provoking, I’m just wondering whether you got
a response where anyone’s calling it vandalism
still? I’ll tell you this, the whole
idea was to make a statement that they call us vandals but
that’s not what we are, you know, we are artists, I mean, I’m clear about that, at
this age, I might not have been clear about it
at 20 years old but now I am. But this is what the
project is. For me, the beauty of
this graffiti is that So What and friends
were using a controversial building as a vehicle for protest. Not what I would call vandalism. This is incredibly relevant to what
else we’ve been looking at. We’ve been looking at how in the
18th century people would transform, physically transform a sculpture, but they’d also talk about it in
a different way, so you can take a symbol and
transform it, my dear vandal. Exactly, exactly. Are you
for a vandal? I’m delighted to have
met a pair of vandals. All right.
Pleased to meet you. Who I now think
are ignorant barbarians(!) So What – what an astonishing name,
So What. what I love about So What is that
this incredibly avant garde
graff artist sees this historical tradition
and this historical tradition is like, I don’t know, kind of part of the DNA of
the culture of Paris, this culture of resistance,
this culture of contestation, that just because you can afford to
build the massive monument, like the Eiffel Tower, that doesn’t mean that you are
actually in control. Anyone who can hold a pen,
a spray can, they have power, too. The Parisian ability to take a symbol
like the statue of Louis XV, and turn it into a witty and cutting
attack on the traitorous King is alive and well in the guise
of So What. In the summer of 1792,
at a public appearance, revolutionaries forced the shamed
Louis XVI to wear a red revolutionary bonnet. Now it wasn’t just royal statues
that were being transformed and used for mockery,
it was the King’s own body. A man who’d once claimed to rule
by divine right is now dangerously close to becoming
an all too human target. On the 11th July 1792, the National Assembly
declared the country to be in danger from Austrian invasion. Led by the radicals
of the Commune, the people went after the King in
the Tuilerie Palace. On the 10th August 1792, Parisians
accompanied by National Guards from all of the sections of Paris,
and by Marseilles troops who had marched all the way from
Marseilles to protect Paris from Austrian invasion, stormed up the Tuilerie Palace
gardens. Halfway down they faltered and
Theroigne de Mericout, a woman, stood up and led the charge. The men,
shamed by this leadership, followed her into a hail of musket fire from
Swiss Guard. Despite the presence of close to
1,000 Swiss mercenaries the crowd won the day. By the end of that day, Swiss Guards
bodies littered the palace gardens and the entirety of the palace. Almost to a man they were massacred. The people, once they got into
the Louvre found the royal family
cowering in the meeting room of the National Assembly. A debate opened up and the Assembly
managed to calm down the invaders to a point where they were
dispersing. But the next day it became clear
that the conclusion of
the National Assembly was they would simply suspend
the monarchy. To the people of Paris this was not
going to be good enough. What would happen the next day was
the statues of kings would begin to
topple. Before the revolution, royal power was asserted through
statues of kings. It was backed up by the threat
of violence. For these statues of kings, these are very specific
representations of the monarch. He’s enormous, he’s herculean, he’s in armour, he carries
a martial baton, tiny little fleurs-de-lis all the
way along it, he’s a military leader. Behind the power of the king is the
power to exert violence on his people if necessary. This is really about
the power of the monarchy. Even today, you can find examples of
the struggle to control the images around us. On a column in the centre
of the city you can find a symbol of
Napoleonic power, an eagle. Just below,
the modern day artist Invader has added one of his creations. The weird thing is this witty,
clever, quite sympathetic
intervention in a public space is illegal, but that monstrosity,
totally out of keeping with the city, Paris sponsored by Volkswagen,
isn’t illegal. So who does own the right to make
meaning in public space with symbols? The space invader artist or global
corporations? And on the 11th August, 1789,
it wasn’t images of corporate power that got attacked, but the detested royal statue of
the King’s grandfather, Louis XV. To actually topple a statue is
no mean feat. Anybody who’s seen the footage
of the statue of Saddam Hussein being brought down by
American Marines during the Gulf War will understand the scale of
the task. There it took an armoured car several
attempts to get the statue
to the ground. So the Parisians are engaging in
a complex engineering task. When they finally get the statue on
to the floor they then begin to break
it up, and actually that’s an important gesture, because when the National Assembly
give the official go ahead for this
kind of unlicensed iconoclasm a couple of days later, they say the
debris should be taken to the forge, melted down to create cannons to fire
on the armies of kings. This is a material transformation of
the statue. The statue itself is
going to become a series of powerful, military
symbols – cannons. Even the much-loved Henry IV was
under threat of destruction. Come mid-August 1792, the statues of
kings were toppling across the city, but the statue of Henry IV still
sitting in the centre of
the Pont Neuf. Parisians are trying to decide what
they’re to do with this much-loved statue of this much-loved king. Were they to pull down even the good
King Henry, who they’d constructed as
being a sympathiser of the revolution? In the end, they decided they would,
the debris toppled. Mercier said, “It turns out it
wasn’t solid bronze after all. “They couldn’t melt it down to form
cannons, the statue is as hollow as
the power of kings.” Of course, you
might be wondering why this statue is still here. This is an inferior copy, it’s put up
later by royalists after a kind of
counter revolution. How very Parisian. The radical government of Paris,
the Commune, becomes increasingly influential. The monarchy was abolished. From now on, members
of the National Assembly, like Robespierre, were struggling to
limit the Commune’s power. All royal symbols were at risk, even those on the front of
Paris’s cathedral, Notre Dame. The facade of Notre Dame
has been restored since, but in 1793 the statues of kings
were annoying radicals and the government of Paris. Early September 1793, the controversy over the statues of
kings at Notre Dame was reaching a boiling point. On 5th September
the national convention had declared
terror to be the order of the day, these were the original terrorists,
self-proclaimed. Meanwhile, at Notre Dame, the radical
sectionaires are saying why have we
got these colossal statues of kings, still sitting on front of Notre Dame? Dougone, Francoise Dougone,
a stonemason, and his team, come down to Notre Dame by order of
the authorities and erect an enormous scaffold and they work their way along
these statues of kings. His team got to work surgically
chipping off the crowns and
royal symbolism like fleurs-de-lis from the statues. But this wasn’t enough,
they had to come down. The noose is pulled round
the neck of the statue and the statue is pulled down,
and it crashes onto the pavement. And this is the major concern in
the aftermath of each of these falling from that height for
the revolutionary authorities – we’ve broken the pavement. The debris is piled up beside
Notre Dame, where a contemporary diarist noticed
it was being used as a toilet and it
stank to high heaven. He says, “The sight of these objects,
the smell of these objects “is disgusting, but it’s not
as awful as the smell of the past “that they represent.” In a way, I think, he’s playing with carnivalesque
notions of the role of shit in culture. The funny thing about shit is,
whether you’re a soldier, a member of the people or
you’re a king, you all shit. But not all revolutionaries thought
the statues were worthless. The heads were rescued and
unofficially preserved for
the future. The marks on them hold
clues to what the revolutionaries
were trying to achieve. In 1793,
things hadn’t been looking too good for the statues of kings, but the amazing thing is that
in 1977, when building work starts on a bank,
in the basement, discovered, wrapped in plaster are
these remains of the heads of the statues of kings. This was a deliberate act of
preservation. After all, these had been condemned
as being grotesque gothics, which is to say, in very bad taste. What we see are some of the traces
of the act of breaking. So all of these heads are missing
their noses. Now, this seems too incredible a
coincidence, did they all fall flat
on their faces from the gallery when they hit the path at
the outside of Notre Dame? I don’t think so. Clues as to what was going on can be
found in recent history, too. The cutting out of the faces on
the images of despots by
revolutionaries, like this defacing of the posters of
Gaddafi – powerful political acts. Were they actively defaced
afterwards, perhaps as they’re lying beside Notre
Dame being used as a public toilet? That actually seems plausible to me but is this an act of vandalism?
I’m not so sure. 1793 saw more than the destruction
of statues. Radicals like Robespierre
within the National Assembly introduced a policy of terror, the arrest and execution of those
unfaithful to the revolution. Here we are, back on the Place de la
Concorde, the kind of beating heart of the terror in Paris. The beating heart
as in the place where all
the beating hearts were stopped. The real beating heart’s probably
the revolutionary tribunals which are sending people to the
guillotine, sometimes with just
24 hours notice. But a guillotine was mounted here. The irony of having just across
the river nowadays
the Assemblee Nationale is pretty significant. But this square saw an awful lot of
bloodshed. The famous Mr Guillotine. “A machine proposed to the Assembly
Nationale, “for the punishment of
criminals by Monsieur Guillotine.” I think we all know how it works. It’s quick, it’s humane,
it’s enlightened, and it used to sit in
the Place Louis XV. Finally, in early 1793, after being found guilty of treason
against France, the King was executed. The statue of Louis XV
had been toppled and it’s directly opposite the empty pedestal that
Louis XVI is executed on the 21st January 1793,
and his head held up. With the destruction of the royals,
the radicals within
the government moved on to the other great power,
the church. This attack on the church,
known as de-Christianisation, would engulf the most cherished
religious spaces of Paris. This comprehensive attack on
Christian France began here at the great cathedral of Notre Dame. On 10th November 1793,
radicals, from the Commune, decide to
challenge the authority of God. In the autumn of 1793, a visitor to
Notre Dame could have come in and happened upon the first ever
festival of reason, and in coming to the crossing of
the knave they might have seen a mountain, and on it an actress,
an actress in a church, who when she died wouldn’t even be
worthy of being buried in church
grounds because she was regarded as being tantamount to a prostitute. And this actress was playing
the role of the deity of reason, in a ceremony that was a festival
of reason. This is an extraordinary moment in
the history of this church, its first day in a new life, not as a church but as a temple
of reason. Notre Dame wasn’t alone.
Across Paris the great churches ceased to be Christian and they
became temples of reason. Central to their new status was
a state-sponsored campaign, the wholesale removal, alteration or
destruction of religious symbols. On 5th September, 1793, the section finally got to hold its
first festival of reason. Probably all of these chapels
to the side were sealed off with drapery so you couldn’t see the
imagery and it’s in the pulpit that a local sectionaire
stands and says to his audience, “So, if this god exists, “why doesn’t he strike me down right
now with a bolt of thunder?” And then he gazed pregnantly at
the ceiling, for a moment, and says, “There you go, no thunder,
he doesn’t exist.” At the end of this ceremony,
the whole of the section take two of the wooden statues and they
process them to a local square, where they burn them. With God banished, next to go were
the symbols and art. The sculptor who brought down
the kings at Notre Dame, Dougone, worked on the 240-foot high towers
of Saint-Sulpice. What was so important
that it meant risking life and limb? Francois Dougone’s time at
Saint-Sulpice, eight weeks, involved making hundreds of changes
to the symbolism of the church, but this work right outside
is the first thing that revolutionaries visiting the space
would have seen. Right over the main door, begins with
this bas relief of Faith. Here Faith used to hold a chalice, but instead now she holds
a flaming torch that symbolises the enlightenment that the visitor is going to receive
inside. The little cherub beside her once
held a cross. Now the cherub holds instead,
fasces, fasces, that symbol of Roman unity, also Roman law and order, that eventually becomes the symbol
that gives the name to fascists. In this bas relief, the cherub to
the left, this time the cross has been turned into a sword,
a kind of military symbol, surely. So the real work of Dougone began
once he got inside the church. All of these trophies that line
the knave high up, that are now blank, re-sculptured by
Dougone, working at this vast height on
scaffolding that his team had brought
to the church and assembled there. But working on the high ceiling was
just the beginning. Dougone and his team had to
go even higher. This graffiti here, we’re on the way to the
chapel of the students and its Saint Sulpician priests. Oh great, it’s getting narrower(!) 1967, somebody last came up here. We’re running out of graffiti. This is it, people lose the will to
write as they get to this altitude, perhaps I’m not the only person
who’s afraid of heights! Above the knave, the interior
of the church is covered in graffiti. I just can’t resist looking for a
hastily scrawled “Dougone was here”. Who are these men who took the time
to carve their names into this wall, at this height? Is that a revolutionary? 1808… 1859, 1830 – the year of the revolution. Dougone didn’t leave his signature
behind, it seems. At a height of about
200 feet, I reach the bells – even these didn’t escape the
revolution. Wow, the bells – they’re all new.
During the revolution they were all pulled down,
all but one of them, to turn them into thousands and
thousands of coins, each bearing the symbol of the republic,
for distribution around the country. That’s transformation of symbols. At 240 feet in the air, I can get
a sense of the lengths Dougone and his team were going to
in their roles as revolutionary iconoclasts. So Dougone, in his report for the
work he did at Saint Sulpice, said, “I was working at a really
prodigious height, “and the weather was appalling.” And this is kind of why he charged
so much, now I’m up here I kind of understand what he means,
and his team must have been hanging off here with ropes to chip
out the church’s signs that are just beneath where I’m
standing on this tower. They must have been working in a
similar way on the floor down, where the bells are, going outside of
the safety of the walls to alter the statues. Yeah, they were charging
a lot of money, but even taking account for inflation
as they were, I kind of think they probably
deserved the danger money. Dougone might have been an
entrepreneur, but he was
clearly a committed revolutionary. Between 1793 and 1794, like other
teams of masons, he transformed the churches
across Paris. But the deeply engrained Catholicism
of the French people was hard to wipe out. Robespierre, one of the architects
of the terror, realised that the revolutionary assembly had allowed
the Cult of Reason to go too far. In 1794, after executing those
responsible, he launched a new cult,
with a new God. On the 8th June 1794,
Parisians were invited to an enormous festival for a new cult,
it was the Cult of the Supreme Being. And this festival is to celebrate
it – they get to see this incredible spectacle,
this enormous mountain built on the Champs du Mars,
and then a massive column, which is probably made of paper mache and on top of it, an enormous
figure of Hercules, symbolising the power of the people. Yet within just six weeks, this cult
was in its last throes. Within six weeks, Robespierre himself
had been arrested, by the very members of the convention
who had processed with him up the Montagne. Members who were increasingly
worried that it was chop, chop, chop for them as
government guillotined them. They turned on Robespierre, arrested
him, and on the 28th July 1794, Robespierre, realising he was
cornered, tried to shoot himself –
simply blowing off his jaw. 24 hours later he was dead, and the Cult of the Supreme Being
was dead with him. After Robespierre’s death, the revolutionary Cult of the Supreme
Being fell away – the people were
eager for an end to such radicalism. As the assembly fought for control in
the aftermath of Robespierre’s death, an upwardly mobile young general took
control of power for himself. His name was Napoleon, but his coup didn’t lead to democracy
and equality for all. By 1815, Napoleon himself had fallen
from power. And the royals had returned,
rebuilding the statue of good old Henry IV on the Pont
Neuf, built from the recycled bronze of a statue of one of Napoleon’s
favourite generals. It just goes to show, the battle over
who controls these symbols of power on the streets of Paris has never
really ended. Just like Parisians of the French
revolution, from the moment that we step
outside of our doors, we’re in a world of images
and symbols that demand our attention and even our loyalty, but we have to
realise that these symbols shape our world and the way that we
understand it and imagine it. The French Revolution shows us that those who control
our symbolic world can never take their power
for granted – there’s always somebody who’s willing
to scrawl on a symbol, to pull it down, to smash it up, to smear it with shit,
to set it on fire or to make subtle and creative
changes to it, that create a new symbol. As Picasso taught us, the act of creation is always first
and foremost an act of destruction.

About the author


  1. a totally beautiful documentary, as well as many those by bbc. i seriously wonder, why it is not popular among youtubers.

  2. Thank you for uploading… This guy is brilliant. I want to see everything he and this director/producer have done 🙂

  3. Great documentary ! Certainly a unique perspective shedding new light on this heavily discussed subject

  4. Interesting how he just sort of blows off napoleon at the end even though he solidified many of the gains of the revolution into the institutions that are the foundation of modern france. Also I expected him to at least mention napoleon's restoration of the catholic church under the concordat since it directly follows the discussion of the church in france.

  5. We destroyed our things, because we were sick of destroying you. We have won 18 wars against you, and you defeated us 5 times, with all your allies.

    This is the History of an united people, who were dreaming of liberty. We TOOK our liberty.

    And the word Vandalism was invented when the Vandals, a Germanic raiders tribe, raided Cartago in 400 – 500 after JC. By the way.

  6. Wonderful!!! Thanks for sharing. Also, I cannot believe you boys are discussing your countries' past military performances after watching a video as brilliant and as insightful as this one. Please go compare the size of your (probably smallish) penises someplace else, will you.

  7. the revolution was an act of mass murder against innocent people and guess what!!!!! the republic went away and Napoleon killed millions across Europe but thank God the nations of Europe fucked the revolutionaries!!!!!!!!! Long live All the Kings of Europe that destroyed the French Republic and Empire!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Does anyone know what is the piece playing in the background during the explanation of the tennis court painting, it sounds like Elgar (?).

  9. I totally disagree. These acts done by the angry mob were nothing but acts of barbaric vandalism. There is no excuse and the so called "Great revolution", however noble their cause was, brought mostly destruction and bloodshed. Revolutionary France was the first practically totalitarian state and the crimes commited in the name of the "republic" are countless. In Royal France, even if Monarch had absolute power ( actually he had a huge but still limited power that is why he had to summon Estates General for extra taxes in 1789) such depravations were impossible. Ofcourse the corrupt aristocrats, the stupid privilidges were a part of this system. Louis XVI wanted to fight with this, but he was to weak to stand unshaken facing an aristocratic opposition. In Bastille in 1789 were kept only 7 prisoners. One of them was Marquis de Sade – sexual pervert, some rapists and counterfeiters. The bastille had a garnison of 97 people who were butchered in barbaric manner in 1789. That why I always want to laugh when they comemmorate the storming of the Bastille. But People always prefer to trust myths not truth. The Ravolution, especcialy, after abolishing the Monarchy destroyed the character of France shaped by more than 1000 years. And this whole Republic is built on the "white-pure" myth of the French revollution. But the history is showing rather different view on this events started in 1789.

  10. Oh my God now the BBC praising French Revolution …Even french media and french ppl are begining to realize how naîve they ve been all along the year giving credit  to this massive swindle !

  11. Picasso? I learned that the quote is from the Russian anarchist Bakunin: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”
    But apart from that it was a very informative video from the vandalizing professor (though his views are highly debatable, in my opinion).

  12. Still not quite sure why everybody praises French revolution. Maybe I'm not enlightened yet. And maybe that 'yet' is just a fiction.
    40.000 people dead for some rational uprising, leading to death of one of their founders, namely Robespierre. Let's not take that as a good way of solving deeper economical and moral issues. Europe can do better than that.

  13. At the end of the day, the nobles brought this on themselves. I don't condone mob violence, or the September Massacres, but all this bloodshed could have been lessened, if not outright avoided, had the nobles simply accepted reality: the upper class merchants could not cover the kingdom's massive debts, so they should have. It wasn't like they couldn't afford it.

  14. A well done, thought provoking documentary, but I picked out a couple of inaccuracies which are surprising given that this is a BBC production.

    The painting of Diana is not of the goddess taking a bath–Boucher did, in fact, paint such a scene. This painting is titled Diana's Return from the Hunt. The detail about Acteon is interesting, though misleading because it's the wrong painting. Legend has it that Actaeon stumbles upon Diana by chance during a hunt, and not as a "peeping Tom."

    The other inaccuracy is when Richard Clay says that Louis XVI and his family were, "captured at the Austrian border." They were captured in Varennes-en-Argonne which is 30 miles from the border of (what was then) the Austrian Netherlands, not Austria.

  15. Why the US revolution has lasted and the French failed, btw the French beat the English in the US struggle but then went bankrupt

  16. Can't resist this …. The French are Revolting !! X-)
    Nothing about my alto ego The Black fingernail either 🙁
    Its good to be the king

  17. "Why doesn't he strike me down with a bolt of thunder?" Because thunder is sound_, genius. _Lighting is the electrical flash that strikes the ground or a person.

  18. Kind of ironic that this guy is fascinated by great works of art, yet there seems to be an underlying dislike of the nobility about him. If it wasn't for the nobility and their money to commission these works of art, he wouldn't have any art to admire !

  19. The stone masons had a plan? That is all masons do is plan how to subvert and destroy anything that is of Jesus Christ. That is what the high level masons do to this veryday. History can never be understood until we understand the anal control freaks in power, those with a revolutionary spirit to bring in communism/new world order.

  20. The eternal battle between those who worship Jesus Christ and those who rebell and hate Christ. That is the story that has gone on since the day Christ was born, and still is the worlds greatest story, still the worlds major thing taking place.

  21. This kind gentleman, if he actually believes what he espouses, proves he has a great imagination or a ridiculous view of history….

  22. Richard Clay has a lot of growing up to do. His thinking is weak – not a well-read mature adult. France has been a second-rate country ever since its monarchy was eliminated. The flaws of the monarchy, and they were serious, could have been redressed without the excessive savagery of the barbarian mobs of vandals. I prefer Edmund Burke to Richard Clay.

  23. No idea how on earth one could tie Graffiti artists in to the French Revolution- not at all plausible. Also the whole Prelude to french revolution is not included – ie factors leading up to it – droughts and skyrocketing bread prices heavy taxation .some of this is not accurate like the entire march up Versailles and storming of that happened/ what happened is not at all like what is suggested here.

  24. Very nice! If interested in the actual size of the destroyed Bastille, check out :

  25. Dreadfully boring and partly historically inaccurate. This chap is really in love with his self and just trying a bit to hard in pushing his avantgarde theses.

  26. This guy would be on the losing end of a guillotine if he were in this era!! These people were murders, and this guy seems to justify and romanticize their actions

  27. This guy's a real A-hole. In the Revolution they didn't have much knowledge of consequences but in 2014 there's no excuse!!! This guy stands guilty before the testament of the 120 million dead because of Bolshevik Revolutions alone. His promotion of resistant culture is grossly irresponsible!!!!!

  28. I'm less than five minutes into this show and already I see the British bias and inaccuracy – the Three Estates are not The Monarchy, The Aristocracy, The "Everybody else", they are: The Clergy, The Nobility, The Commoners. France was not continually "losing wars", part of their debt stemmed from winning the American Revolution! I think I'll watch to the end to see how short Napoleon ends up being!

  29. King Charles of English summons the English parliament in the 1600s and ends up overthrown by the English revolution of the 1640s. France's King Louis XVI calls a meeting of the States-General, and is then toppled by the French Revolution of 1789.

  30. try watching "The French Revolution BBC documentary" and compare to this random bloke talking about stuff.. why are modern documentaries so … so… "History for dummies"- like? please, stop, i'm not interested in watching 75% of the documentary a face of some random bloke talking to me, i want to see the actual thing! these documentaries are just not necessary, why do they keep making them?

  31. This guy is such a fucking tourist it's like he has no real idea of what he's talking about.
    France didn't keep loosing wars France was bankrupted because of the American revolution and the huge expenses it created namely sending armies and fleets overseas and equipment to the American rebels, also the only reason the sso called "French-indian" war was lost was a lack of reinforcement and resources.

  32. The revolutionaries could have you imprisoned or worse for not being enthusiastic enough when cheering a man like Robespierre – I imagine the same thing could happen today in North Korea or did happen in Nazi Germany. Every time I hear their National Anthem I remember how drunken perverts forced Marie Antionette's young son to sing it – later killing him by child abuse and neglect. Bunch of perverts really.

  33. How much you wanna bet that he cries to this God that he thinks doesn’t exist or has been banished for salvation when he knows he’s dying or when a doctor tells him he’s got weeks or months to live? Same thing for the idiot who inscribed those sentiments on the inside of that former church. There really are no atheists it’s just that people who profess to be suppress the truth and want to replace the God that they know is there and responsible for their lives and everything in the universe, but who don’t want to be accountable to for their wretchedness and wickedness. There is nothing you can point to in the world that you can say evolved from scratch or didn’t have a designer or builder from your house to your clothes to your smart phone. Does anyone really think that if you wait millions of years your smartphone will evolve into a laptop?

  34. If anyone knows where all these landmarks are, please let me know! Planning a trip in August and would love to go see these.

  35. this is a video that I can watch this just for homework. but I like it I love France and french <3

  36. I could not possible watch this documentary till the end as it is too superficial, one-sided and biased. This 'professor' is a leftist ideologist who is blind to the unnecessary suffering in making this 'better world'. Not much of a historian, I would say. God save us from such enlightened 'intellectuals' and their sick fantasies.

  37. Romanticising the French Revolution is insane. It was a Radical Revolution where no one was safe from being raped/ tortured/murdered. I thought this representation of the truth would be made thru artwork.

  38. The idea that the destruction of beautiful pieces of baroque and Rococo art and architecture could be a positive contribution to culture is utterly bizarre.

    It should be asked, if one were to carry the motif of destruction to it's logical conclusion, so that buildings, statues and monuments were fully destroyed, rather than just transformed, would this be considered such a positive contribution? What I mean to say is, the historian seems interested in the revolutionary transformation of the baroque era architecture of Paris. But the purpose of the revolutionaries was not to create art for the purposes of posterity; it was simply to destroy. That there is anything left to be admired is simply incidental. So from the perspective of an art historian, how can such a principle be considered positive? He appears to be cheering destruction, with no limits to the effects of that destruction on architecture.

  39. His accent is painful to listen to here! Whatever happened to the plummy tones the Beeb used to conquer the English-speaking world?

  40. The English royalist fascists have no place at all in this documentary, as the English are lying fascist brainwashed dogs of the monarchy & also dumb cunts with a made up , very biased "English" view on history! British bullshit cooperation= lies lies and English propaganda! History has taught the world Never trust the English!

  41. I disliked this video. Because he didnt mention that it was an atheistic revolution.

    They mocled Christians and they mocked their wordship places.

  42. OK, but dear professor of art history: what would become of you, if "revolutionaries" succeeded in destroying all art ..?

  43. It wasn't the working class of Iraq or the Libyan proletariat that brought down the statues of Saddam and Quaddifi, but the U.I. imperialist army and armies of its British and French conquerors.

  44. If the royals of the country keep their people as a crowd not a nation thn this type of destruction will come.
    If we see the history of France common people of the country were the slaves of royals and church and that was the reaction of that cruelty.

  45. Oh don’t worry we Americans melted down a statue of king George and made 42,000 bullets out of him.

  46. How dare anyone compare the people's toppling of the King's of France with the imperialism of US Empire to destroy Iraq and manifest a public protest…stop your ridiculous crap

  47. "This is the moment when constitutional politics is born." Of course, that was actually born in the U.S. first — by a couple of years.

  48. Robespierre and his ilk remind me of the "General" from Kubrick's "Dr.Strangelove". The excitement he gets from power, and the almost sexual thrill he gets from the knowledge that millions of people are going to die. I bet Robespierre and Saint-Just were rock hard the whole time they wiping people out with the signature of a pen. But, then again, if the point of your revolution is to "start anew", to reset the clocks and calendars and begin again, it's only logical that everyone who has been exposed to the "Ancien regime" should be erased. "Liberté, egalité, fraternité indeed!

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