Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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.