On July 14, 1789, Louis XVI’s diary summed up the events of the day in one word: “Rien” (Nothing). The king was mistaken: The storming of the Bastille triggered the French Revolution and his own demise.
Apart from the pink cobbles outlining its former location, there is little to remind the history buff of the eight-towered fortress. It was razed to the ground, and its stones used for the construction of the Pont de la Concorde “to give the people the opportunity to trample on tyranny.”
Through February, there’s a chance to learn more about the dreaded symbol of the Ancien Regime. “The Bastille: Hell of the Living,” a fascinating exhibition at the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal in Paris, tells the story of the royal prison.
The Bastille was built in the 14th century during the Hundred Years’ War to protect Paris against attacks by the English. That was a flop: In the course of history, the fortress was besieged seven times and surrendered six times.
In the 17th century, it was turned into a jail -- not just for aristocrats, as a popular myth has it. It accommodated a colorful mix of common criminals, lunatics, writers of forbidden pamphlets and disgraced courtiers -- many imprisoned without due process solely on the basis of a royal “lettre de cachet,” sometimes on the most frivolous pretexts.
It’s true that grandees were better treated. Up to a point, they could maintain their former lifestyle, bringing over their own furniture, servants, books and wine.
One of those was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask who was rumored to be a twin brother or an illegitimate son of Louis XIV. In fact, he wore a velvet mask, and the death certificate in the show identifies him as “M. de Marchiel.”
Another prominent blue blood was the Marquis de Sade who, at the instigation of his mother-in-law, spent more than 20 years behind bars. The show includes several of his letters and manuscripts.
The most glittering among the 235 items is a copy of the diamond necklace that the credulous Cardinal de Rohan was tricked into thinking he had purchased for Marie Antoinette. After 10 months in custody, he was acquitted of fraud, yet his reputation was in tatters, and so was that of the queen, who had been exposed as vain and coquettish.
Danry de Latude used another trick to ingratiate himself with Madame de Pompadour, the first lady at the court of Louis XV: He sent her a fake bomb and warned her against a dangerous conspiracy. His plot backfired: The police took it seriously and locked him up for 35 years.
Written in Blood
Latude became famous for his three escapes; each time, he was recaptured. A portrait shows him with the rope ladder he used. You can also see one of his numerous complaints filed with the chief of police: Because paper and ink had been taken away from him (or so he said), he wrote it with his own blood on strips of his shirt.
The Arsenal is not a bad place for such a show: It was here that one of the most sensational mass trials in French history was held.
This involved many of the high and mighty at the court of the Sun King. The show includes a portrait of the principal defendant, the fortune teller and poison brewer Catherine Deshayes, known as “La Voisin,” as well as a transcript of her interrogation.
The personal belongings of Robert Francois Damiens may remind you of another cause celebre -- his attempt on the life of Louis XV and his brutal execution: He was publicly tortured and torn in pieces by four horses.
For the heroic sans-culottes, the storming of the royal prison must have been a letdown. They found only seven inmates -- four forgers, an accomplice of Damiens, a madman and a count who had committed incest and was incarcerated at his family’s request.
An eighth prisoner, the Marquis de Sade, had been transferred 10 days earlier to a mental institution because he kept shouting obscenities at passers-by.
“La Bastille -- L’Enfer des Vivants” runs through Feb. 11, 2011, at the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal, Paris. Information: http://www.bnf.fr or +33-1-5379-3939. Excellent catalog (34 euros).
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)