Now only the name of the spacious square, Place de la Bastille, is a reminder that the notorious state prison known as the Bastille, the much hated symbol of absolutist power, once stood here. Nothing is left of the building except a few foundations in the Métro, for after the storming of the Bastille on July 14 1789 it was completely demolished within a few months. Stones from the Bastille were used in the construction of the bridge over the Seine at Place de la Concorde.
Inside the Bastille, Métro is a huge mosaic (by Odile Jacquot, 1988), a free interpretation of the Revolutionary flag in the national colors of blue, white and red. There is a model of the Bastille as it was before its demolition in the Musée Carnavalet.
The Bastille ("small bastion") was begun in 1370, in the reign of Charles V, in order to reinforce the newly built town wall at this point, at the end of Rue Saint-Antoine. His successor enlarged the bastion, which by 1382 had become a massive ring fort with eight towers over 20m/65ft high. Even so it provided rather ineffective protection, for out of six occasions on which it was besieged during the civil wars it was taken six times. It became a state prison in the time of Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's minister. The number of prisoners, however, was never very great: in the reign of Louis XIV there were only some 40, and in that of Louis XVI no more than 19. Most of them were persons of rank and standing, few of whom had committed any crime. The majority were grumblers, free thinkers or liberals who were frequently confined on the strength of a royal order (lettre de cachet), without any judicial process. Conditions in the prison were not always disagreeable. Some of the prisoners had their own servants and could receive visitors: Cardinal de Rohan, while in the Bastille, gave a dinner for 20 guests. Among those confined here was Voltaire, who had expressed himself indiscreetly in "Candide" and wrote his "ádipe" while a prisoner, Mirabeau, Fouquet and the Marquis de Sade, who in the end was transferred to an asylum. On July 14, 1789, when the mob stormed the Bastille, they found only seven prisoners to liberate - petty criminals, including, it is said, two who were insane. They celebrated their triumph none the less.
The French writer and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand describes the taking of the Bastille in his "Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe". "On July 14 the Bastille was taken by storm. I was a witness of this assault directed against a couple of old soldiers and a faint hearted governor. If the gates had been closed the people would never have made their way into the fortress. I saw two or three cannon shots fired, not by the old soldiers but by the Gardes Françaises, who had already occupied the towers. De Launay, the Governor, was fetched from his hiding-place and after much manhandling was slaughtered on the steps of the Town Hall. Flesselles, leader of the merchants, had his skull shattered by a pistol shot - a spectacle much enjoyed by the heartless lookers-on.
As in the street fighting in Rome in the time of Otho and Vitellius, the mob indulged in unbridled orgies in the midst of the slaughter. The victors of the Bastille, drunk with success and hailed as conquerors in the taverns, were driven round the town in carriages, accompanied by prostitutes and sansculottes who joined in the triumph.
Passers-by, with respect inspired by fear, took off their hats to these heroes, some of whom died of exhaustion at the height of their triumph. The number of keys of the Bastille kept increasing, and they were sent to highly placed boobies far and wide. The experts proceeded to conduct post-mortems on the Bastille. Makeshift cafes were established under canvas, and people thronged to them as to a fair. Innumerable carriages drove past or stopped at the foot of the towers, the stones of which were being pulled down amid great clouds of dust... It was a rallying point for the most famous orators, the best known writers, leading actors and actresses, the most popular dancers, the most distinguished foreigners, the great lords of the court and envoys from all over Europe. The old France had come to take farewell for ever, the new France to make its debut."
The anniversary of the fall of the Bastille is France's National Day (July 14), which is celebrated all over the country with dances, street festivals, military parades, firework displays and other special events.
Opéra de la Bastille
The site of the Bastille is now occupied by the new Opera House designed by the Uruguay-born Canadian architect Carlos Ott and officially opened by President Mitterand on July 13 1989. The first performance, after the final completion of construction work, was of Berlioz's "Trojans" on March 17 1990.
This prestigious building, a combination of rectangles and curves, covers an area of some 15 hec/37 acr. The stepped lattice-work glass facade has a cool and functional appearance. The bright foyer forms a kind of semicircle round the auditorium, whose tent-like glass ceiling harmonizes well with the steeply raked rows of white seats below. At the entrance is a colorful statue of the Genius of femininity by Niki de Saint-Phalle. The gigantic stage of the main house, which has seating for 2,700, is surrounded by five subsidiary stages of similar dimensions beside it and behind it. The view of the stage from the auditorium and the acoustics are both excellent. The complex also includes an amphitheater with seating for 600, a theater which can be arranged to seat audiences of varying size between 600 and 1,300, a studio with seating for 280, rehearsal stages, a library and a videotheque.
Adjoining the Opera is the Grandes Marches restaurant, demolished and rebuilt as a historical replica.
120 rue de Lyon, Place de Bastille, F-75012 Paris, France
Bastille Colonne de Juillet
In the center of Place de la Bastille is the 51m/167ft high Colonne de Juillet, topped by a graceful figure of Liberty (by Dumont), which was regilded in 1989. It commemorates not the fall of the Bastille but the Republicans killed during the July Revolution of 1830 which overthrew Charles X and brought Louis-Philippe to power. Four Gallic cocks and a lion relief on the base of the column symbolize the free people of France. A spiral staircase (283 steps) inside the column leads to a viewing platform from which there is an impressive view of the new Opéra-Bastille.