Modern history


The first number of the Révolutions de Paris, published on the seventeenth of July, was devoted to a lengthy – and rather muddled – account of the insurrection. Its climax around the Bastille was represented as a joyous family festival, with gamins scampering around the fighting:

Women did their utmost to back us up, and even children after every volley from the fortress ran hither and thither picking up bullets and shot then dodging back cheerfully to take shelter and give those missiles to our soldiers.

After the children came the grandpas. The liberation of the prison brought into the light of day patriarchs, men who had grown old, immured by the tyranny that had forgotten their incarceration. “The cells were thrown open to set free innocent victims and venerable old men who were amazed to behold the light of day.” The reality was less dramatic. Of the seven prisoners, four were forgers who had been tried by regular process of law. The Comte de Solages, like de Sade, had been incarcerated at the request of his family for libertinism and was happy enough to be released. He was given free lodgings at the Hôtel de Rouen in the Oratoire district before disappearing into the city, much to the regret of his relatives. The remaining two prisoners were lunatics, and both returned in fairly short order to Charenton. One of them, however, “Major Whyte” (described in French sources as English and in English sources as Irish), was perfect for revolutionary propaganda, bearing as he did a waist-length beard. With his carpet of silvery whiskers and shrunken, bony form he seemed, to people expecting to see so many Latudes emerge from the dungeons, the incarnation of suffering and endurance. So Whyte was called the major de limmensité and was borne around in triumph through the streets of Paris, amiably if weakly waving his hands in salutation, for in his bewildered condition he still assumed he was Julius Caesar.

Such was the symbolic power of the Bastille to gather to itself all the miseries for which “despotism” was now held accountable, that reality was enhanced by Gothic fantasies as the building was ransacked. Ancient pieces of armor were declared to be fiendish “iron corsets” applied to constrict the victim and a toothed machine that was part of a printing press was said to be a wheel of torture. Countless prints from the workshops of the rue Saint-Jacques, which had cranked up their production to service the acute hunger for news, supplied suitably horrible imagery, featuring standing skeletons, instruments of torture and men in iron masks.

A genuine encounter between legend and reality took place on the sixteenth when Latude came to survey the scene of his captivity. To his astonishment he was presented with the rope and rung ladder and the tools of his escape, all of which had been conscientiously preserved by the guards who had found them thirty-three years before. They were ceremoniously offered to the famous escapee as “property acquired by just title.” In the Salon that autumn they were exhibited alongside a splendid portrait of Latude by Antoine Vestier in which the hero points to his escape route and shows off the ladder as the attribute of his revolutionary sainthood.

The Bastille, then, was much more important in its “afterlife” than it ever had been as a working institution of state. It gave a shape and an image to all the vices against which the Revolution defined itself. Transfigured from a nearly empty, thinly manned anachronism into the seat of the Beast Despotism, it incorporated all those rejoicing at its capture as members of the new community of the Nation. Participants, witnesses, celebrants, they were all friends of humanity, bringers of light into the citadel of darkness.

No one grasped the creative opportunities offered by the captured fortress better than Pierre-François Palloy. He was to be, simultaneously, both the entrepreneur and the impresario of the greatest demolition job in modern history. Though he used memoir writers and poets and graphic artists, it was Palloy’s conception of the political usefulness of the cult of the Bastille that turned it into a national and international symbol of liberated humanity. Deconstructing the edifice, he reconstructed a myth which, packaged, marketed and distributed, was made available to audiences and customers throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Palloy also understood (and here he was not alone) that the Revolution had created a demand for a new kind of history: the epic of the common man. It had to be related in a new way, not at the leisurely tempo and with the sardonic detachment of a Gibbon or a Voltaire, but in passionately scissored cuts – actualités – in which history was made directly contemporary with the reader’s life. Into that continuously unfolding present, the reader-participant could insert his own experience, even at second hand. This also called for a new style of presentation, full of breathless hyperbole and patriotic exclamation. Instead of contemplating the centuries in the manner of an armchair scholar, the new history had to be chopped up into the memory units of a working man – a single day or a week. Finally, to lend immediacy to those who were geographically distant from the event, its memories – souvenirs – had to take concrete form, if necessary mass-produced, so that by contemplating or touching them the citizen could share in the intensity of the great Revolutionary Day. Jean-François Janinet’s Gravures Historiques, which appeared every Tuesday from November 1789 to March 1791, provided this newsreel-like presentation, offering, for just eight sous, an engraving of a famous event and eight pages of explanatory text. Such was the importance of the fourteenth of July that eight separate issues were devoted to that day alone.

Who was “Patriote Palloy”? He was yet another example of a self-made bourgeois who had prospered under the urban boom economy of the old regime and who certainly had no need of a revolution to make his fortune. Both his mother and father came from wine shop-owning families, but they managed nonetheless to send him to the Collè ge d’Harcourt, full of the sons of liberal aristocrats. Like them he took a commission in the army and at twenty, in what must have seemed a step backwards but which was actually a shrewd move, he became an apprentice mason. A year later he married his master’s daughter and launched himself in the construction industry, which in the 1770s and early 1780s was the most spectacularly profitable line of business in Paris. Palloy worked on private houses in Saint-Germain, the Farmers’-General wall (which he later helped knock down), the new meat market at Sceaux and quickly moved from mason to foreman to entrepreneur. By 1789 he had accumulated an amazing fortune of half a million livres, possessed three houses, including one inherited from his father-in-law, as well as a number of shops and parcels of as yet undeveloped real estate. He had all the trappings of worldly success – a carriage, fine furniture, a large and intelligently acquired library – and along with much of Paris liked to quote Roman histories as inspirational examples to the present generation. He was thirty-four years old.

Like so many other revolutionaries, Palloy was not a fuming failure, but a model success story of old-regime capitalism. This, however, did not preclude his immediate identification with the cause of the patrie. On the fourteenth of July he was commandant of his local district militia on the Ile Saint-Louis. Well within hearing range of the battle at the Bastille, he claimed that he had run to the scene and on arrival took a ball through his tricorn hat by the side of Lieutenant Elie. Though his name was misspelled as “Pallet” in the official list, there is no doubt that he did indeed acquire a brevet de vainqueur to certify that he had been one of the sacred nine hundred.

It took Palloy just one day to realize that as vainqueur, construction engineer and experienced boss of labor gangs he was in a position to acquire his most important piece of real estate to date. On the fifteenth he brought eight hundred men to the Bastille, ready to begin the work of demolition should the electors agree. Jumping the gun made him immediate enemies. Architects had plans that the Bastille might be preserved as a monument to fallen tyranny; some officers in the volunteer guard militia (soon to be the National Guard) thought they should have sole custody of the building. But Palloy’s plans for demolition were expedited by the anxiety among the electors that royal troops might retake the citadel through underground passages that were rumored to extend all the way from the Château de Vincennes. The myths of the Bastille, then, exerted a hold even on tough-minded ex-prisoners like Mirabeau. For in response to reports by local residents that they had heard groans and conversations coming from deep within the ground, Mirabeau took a tour of the cachots and the underground vaults, knocking on walls and doors with the son of one of the ex-warders to see if there was not indeed some labyrinthine connection with Vincennes to the east.

Once he had set his mind at rest, Mirabeau mounted the towers for a less sinister ceremony. Waving to the crowds below, he swung a pick at the battlement and the first stone fell to great applause. Other notables like Beaumarchais and the Marquis de Lusignan followed, after which there was a free-for-all. In the next few days, papers were scattered, burned or secreted as mementos, bonfires burned by day and fireworks exploded by night. Warders, now accepted as good Patriots, gave guided tours of the cells, embellishing their anecdotes to conform with the standard mythology of torture and chains. Women locked themselves in overnight so that they could claim in the morning to have slept with the rats, spiders and toads that had been the companions of Latude.

Through all these festivities, Palloy was planning his business. Inevitably, it was the Permanent Committee at the Hôtel de Ville, now established as a municipal executive, that licensed the work. Palloy was just one of five specialists appointed to see to the demolition, others being in charge of carpentry, joinery, ironwork and the like. But he very rapidly established himself as more than one of a board. Beside the work of demolishing the masonry, the rest was minor and Palloy’s crew was by far the biggest, numbering almost a thousand workers at its height. He himself was paid 150 livres a month and in turn paid his men well: 45 sous a day for the foremen, 40 for the subforemen and 36 for the navvies. In the late summer of 1789, when work was exceptionally scarce and prices high, the job was a boon, especially to the local population in Saint-Antoine and the areas immediately north and south of the Seine from where much of the casual manual labor was recruited.

Palloy not only provided work and pay, he gave structure to the entire enterprise. All on-site men were required to carry identity cards, especially designed by Palloy himself and in the three patriotic colors: white for the entrepreneurs, blue for the site inspectors and red for the workers. Each showed a globe surmounted by the fleur-de-lis, the emblems of the three orders and the optimistic motto Ex Unitate Libertas. The cards themselves very soon became precious items for which collectors were said to offer as much as twelve livres each. On the site throughout the work, Palloy acted as boss-father, throwing parties for the workers, playing with the many children who took part and keeping them out of the falling debris. Wielding a cane and a clapper with which to call people to attention, he also was constable, judge and jury, fining malefactors who got into drunken fights or were caught pilfering. Two such culprits were even hanged, and at the end of the work Palloy summarized the casualties as “four insurrections; fifteen accidents; eight murders and two woundings” – which he evidently felt was about par for the course.

For all these interruptions, the work proceeded with startling speed. By the end of July the load-supporting vaults and beams were exposed, and throughout July, working downwards, floors were rapidly demolished. A clock tower that featured prisoners in chains striking the hours was melted down in a foundry, and in August the sculptor Dumont was paid four hundred livres for shattering the four stone figures of Saint Anthony, Charles V, Charles VI and Jeanne de Bourbon that had ornamented the Porte Saint-Antoine.

By the end of November, most of the Bastille was demolished. There was some anxiety among the workers that their zeal was now about to put them out of a job. Palloy was himself concerned that the commission should not end on the ruins of the fortress. Thus, while the physical work was completed, his own inspired version of the Bastille Business had only just begun.

Some of this involved new projects. The municipality took him up on a proposal to erect a platform on the Pont Neuf opposite the statue of Henri IV, where the cannon of the Bastille could be mounted. During the winter months a number of the original work gang cleared out the moats and ditches of the fort. But much more of Palloy’s energies went into promoting the cult of the Bastille as a political tourist attraction, complete with guided tours, historical lectures and accounts from vainqueurs of the events of the fourteenth of July. Early in 1790, the son of a British physician, Millingen, was taken by his father to visit this famous attraction.

Thousands crowded to behold the ruins of the Bastille, and my father led me to contemplate this fallen fortress of the tyrannic power. In the ruined dungeons close to the ditch and infested with water-rats, toads and other reptiles were still to be seen stones on which had reposed the unfortunate prisoners, doomed to expire in the oubliettes, forgotten by all the world, condemned to be buried alive, and the iron rings to which their chains had been fastened were still riveted in the flinty couch which bore impressions of aching limbs.

The important thing was to produce – in the theatrical sense – events which would recapitulate both the horrors of the Bastille and the euphoria of its fall so that successive waves of visiting Patriots could be recruited for revolutionary enthusiasm. Palloy’s first such event was a ceremony he organized for the work crews themselves, who thus became vainqueurs of the masonry of the fort. On February 23 an “altar” (in the first among all the revolutionary festivals to follow), constructed entirely of iron balls, chains and manacles, was set up amidst the ruins. On the following day, after a religious ceremony at the Church of Saint-Louis, seven hundred workers all swore loyalty to the constitution, and through a mechanical contraption of great ingenuity, the punitive ironmongery self-destructed to reveal a huge array of flowers (artificial, given the season?). After this stage miracle, the seven hundred made their way in procession to the Hôtel de Ville carrying a model of the Bastille that they had fashioned from its stones.

The idea of a model of the Bastille was not Palloy’s but that of one of his masons named Dax. Typically, however, Palloy took an ingenious artisanal idea and turned it into a major enterprise – claiming, as he did so, credit for the scheme. Other developments during the spring of 1790 helped him sustain interest in the Bastille. At the end of April bits and pieces of human skeletons were discovered in the substructure and were instantly described as the remains of prisoners who had died in captivity, manacled to the walls, forgotten even by their jailors. In all probability they were the bones of guards dating back to the Renaissance, but the opportunity for sensation was irresistible. They were exhumed with great solemnity and on June 1 taken in four separate coffins (though no one was certain which bones belonged to whom) to the cemetery of Saint-Paul, where they were reinterred. In his sermon the radical Bishop of Caen, Claude Fauchet, used the dry bones to cast himself as the revolutionary Ezekiel greeting a new “Day of Revelations, for the bones have risen to the voice of French liberty; through centuries of oppression and death they have come to prophesy the regeneration of nature and the life of Nations.”

Palloy’s own enterprises were, for a while, overshadowed by the monumental preparations for the Fête de la Fédération on the Champ de Mars, but its date – the fourteenth of July – helped sustain interest in the Bastille. Prior to the first anniversary, plays reenacting the great day, a mass of prints and engravings, poems and songs were all grist for his mill. Not least were the hundreds of thousands of provincial National Guardsmen who had come to Paris for the great festival of patriotic unity and for whom a visit to the Bastille was an obligatory pilgrimage. For the guards Palloy threw a great ball on the ruins of the Bastille, with brilliant illuminations and fireworks, great tents decorated with the tricolor and an outsize sign that read Ici lon danse.

That still left many millions of Frenchmen for whom the fall of the Bastille was a remote event. And it was to bring them within the patriotic fold that Palloy put together his traveling revolution kit. It was to be taken by specially commissioned and distinctively costumed “Apostles of Liberty” to all of the eighty-three departments into which France had been divided. Among them were to be Palloy’s ten-year-old son; Fauchet; Dusaulx, the author of the popular Work of Seven Days (the re-creation of the world in July 1789) and another of Palloy’s friends, Titon Bergeras, who would later deafen the Legislative Assembly with his baritone oratory. Whenever possible Latude himself was to accompany the apostles along with his rope ladder to give a personal account of his trials.

To supply his apostles, Palloy produced 246 chests of souvenirs. Prompted by Dax’s idea, he had already gone into production, creating every conceivable kind of item from the debris of the Bastille that remained to him. Inkwells had been made from “fetters” and other items of ironwork; fans depicting the battle for the fortress made from its miscellaneous papers; paperweights from its stones in the shape of little bastilles; snuffboxes; ceremonial daggers. The Dauphin even received a set of marble dominos shaped like Bastilles. These could be sold or provided gratis to provincial Patriots, but they were bonus items in the chests, whose makeup was strictly regulated by Palloy.

Each kit consisted of three chests. In the first was the pièce de résistance, a scale model of the Bastille, complete in virtually all details, with working doors, grilles and drawbridges. A miniature of Latude’s ladder would be hooked to the appropriate turret and a little gibbet complete with dangling cord added to the courtyard for the right effect (though executions were never carried out in the Bastille). For the battle scenes there were miniature cannon, balls and a white flag. The clock was painted to read 5.30: the sacred moment of surrender. The second chest contained the wooden platform for the model and an engraved portrait of the King; the third, images concerning the “skeletons” and their reburial, portraits of revolutionary notables like Lafayette and Bailly, a ball and cuirass from the Bastille, Latude’s biography, a plan of the fortress and poems on the various events custom-written by Palloy himself. A final item for the third box – also available to the public in Paris – was a “fragment of a crust, two to three inches thick, formed on the vaults of the cells by the breath, sweat and blood of the unfortunate prisoners.”

An idea of their mission with the new gospel can be gleaned from the experience of one of the apostles: the actor François-Antoine Legros. Given traveling conditions and the burden of the thirty-three chests he was transporting, the scale of Legros’ journey was little short of epic. He set out in November 1790 for Burgundy, traveling through Melun, Auxerre and Dijon, then heading south towards Provence. At Lyon he helped arrest conspirators against the patrie, but near Salons his mule train was attacked by brigands. Legros managed to kill one of them, but the pistol shot frightened his horse, which bolted, throwing him and breaking his leg. By the time he reached Toulon his money had run out (Palloy’s allowance of nine livres a day being intermittently sent and in any case insufficient), and he was forced to rejoin a company in which he had once been a player. Though his performance in Voltaire’s Zaïre did not, as he put it, “meet with the success I had expected,” he seems to have earned enough to resume his mission, as he took ship for Bastia in Corsica, the last stage in his extraordinary trip. By the time he finished he had been ten months on the road, and had traveled nearly fifteen hundred miles.

If the apostles were exhausted by their efforts, Palloy himself was scarcely less so. Rather than his fortune having been made by the Revolution, he actually seems to have lost it in his tireless commitment to spreading the new gospel. There was a continuous demand for his souvenirs, one from as far away as “the Society of St. Tammany in New York” in 1792, and Palloy set up what he hoped would be a permanent “Museum of Liberty” near the Pont Neuf.

Politically, though, he was losing his grip. The myth of patriotic unity enshrined in the cult of the Bastille was being severely tested during 1792 and many of Palloy’s pet heroes were becoming rapidly discredited. Mirabeau, whose bust he had made from a Bastille stone and presented at his funeral in April 1791, was unmasked as a royalist intriguer a year later; Lafayette, for whom he had a sword made from four bolts of the Bastille, decamped to the Austrians in the same year. Worst of all, the King, whose likeness had decorated all his chests, had been caught fleeing the country. Even in July 1792, a month before the final fall of the monarchy, Palloy was still hoping that the King would appear at a ceremony meant to launch the royal project of a column at the site of the Bastille.

In December 1793 he went to see his old friend Citizen Curtius, who was busy making a head of Louis XV’s mistress Mme Du Barry for good Patriots to abuse. Palloy knew another genius when he saw one. He marveled at the likeness, and Curtius told him in a businesslike sort of way that yes, he thought it especially good since he had been able to go to the cemetery of the Girondins and inspect the freshly severed real thing. Despite the cold, he had sat down then and there to achieve the best wax image he could to convey her expression at the coup de grâce.

Three weeks later Palloy found himself in the prison of La Force, notwithstanding calling himself the Republican Diogenes Palloy, the victim as he insisted of wrongful and treacherous conspiracy. On the eighth of February 1794, the man who had led France to believe that with the demolition of the Bastille prisons would never stain the face of freedom in France, wrote from what he called his cachot, protesting his innocence, his patriotisme, and still obligingly giving instructions for the dispatch of models of the Bastille to newly “liberated” departments. On the seventeenth of March he was freed, but although he turned his hand to assisting with republican festivities, he noted with unconcealed dismay in July that though “until now I have only utilized the ruins of the Bastille, sacred site of the beginnings of liberty, for allegorical feasts… citizens now want to see another genre of spectacle and have installed there the ‘little window’ of Guillotin.”

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