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  • 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