Gems of Paris by French Moments

Shared with the 4th, 11th and 12th arrondissements, the Place de la Bastille is one of Paris’ most famous squares owing its name to the historic fortress that once stood there. The vast square (215m by 150m) was the scene of many revolutions which had significant consequences to the history of France: 1789, 1830 and 1848. The Place de la Bastille is still today the French capital’s most important rallying point for demonstrations, marches and public celebrations.

A bit of history

Map of Paris from 1739 with Place des Vosges and the Bastille
Map of Paris from 1739 with Place des Vosges and the Bastille

The square was built on the site of the Bastille fortress and the fortifications of Charles V (as shown on the map above). It marked the limit between Paris and the ‘faubourgs’.

It was on the 14th July 1790 that the first popular dancing ball was organised by entrepreneur Palloy at the occasion of the Fête de la Fédération. Amidst the ruins of the former prison he planted a tent with the sign: ‘Ici on danse’ (here people dance). This tradition has survived to the present day.

Bastille Day Dance in 1912, rue du Renard (4th Arrt), Paris
Bastille Day Dance in 1912, rue du Renard (4th Arrt), Paris

From the 9th to the 14th June 1794 the square welcomed the infamous guillotine. 75 people were beheaded on the Place de la Bastille before the guillotine was moved to the current Place de la Nation.

The square has changed appearance since with the demolition of the Bastille prison (1789-1790), the construction of the July Column (1840), the great urban renovation of Baron Haussmann (mid 19th century), the demolition of the railway station (1984) and the inauguration of the modern Opéra-Bastille (1989).

Coulée Verte René-Dumont 16 © French Moments
Place de la Bastille © French Moments

The Bastille Prison

"The Storming of the Bastille" a watercolor painting by Jean-Pierre Houël
“The Storming of the Bastille” a watercolor painting by Jean-Pierre Houël

The Bastille was a fortification positioned on the medieval wall of Paris that was built under the reign of Charles V between 1370 and 1383. The fortress was transformed into a prison by Cardinal Richelieu and kept political prisoners such as Voltaire and the Man in the Iron Mask.

The Bastille was stormed by a revolutionary mob from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine on the morning of the 14th July 1789. By late afternoon its seven prisoners were freed. This first act of the French Revolution quickly became a major date in French history.

The fortified prison was dismantled between the 14th July 1789 and the 14th July 1790 and its stones partly used to build the Pont de la Concorde. 83 of its stones were carved into small Bastille replicas before being sent to the provinces.

Today the ground plan of the Bastille’s towers and fortification can be seen on the pavement on the western side of the square (from numbers 5 to 49 boulevard Henri IV).

Commemorative Plaque Place de la Bastille © French Moments
Commemorative Plaque Place de la Bastille © French Moments

The July Column – la Colonne de Juillet

July Column Place de la Bastille © French Moments
July Column Place de la Bastille © French Moments

The monumental July Column (in French: Colonne de Juillet) was commissioned by Louis-Philippe in 1830 and inaugurated in 1840. The Corinthian-style column is 50.52 metre tall and was designed by architects Jean-Antoine Alavoine and Joseph-Louis Duc. A stair with 140 steps leads to the viewing platform (close to the public_. It is made of 21 bronze drums and weighs over 74 tonnes.

Its name refers to the Trois Glorieuses or the Three Glorious days of 27-29 July 1830 when King Charles X was overruled by the ‘July Monarchy’ of Louis-Philippe.

A commemorative plaque bears the inscription:

À la gloire des citoyens français qui s’armèrent et combattirent pour la défense des libertés publiques dans les mémorables journées des 27, 28, 29 juillet 1830.”

(To the glory of French citizens who armed themselves and fought for the defence of public freedoms during the memorable days of the 27th, 28th, 29th July 1830).

At the top of the column stands a gilded angel by Auguste Dumont called ‘le Génie de la Liberté’ (Spirit of Freedom). The statue holds the torch of civilisation and the remains of his broken chains.

Génie de la Liberté Place de la Bastille © French Moments
Génie de la Liberté Place de la Bastille © French Moments

The monument was built above a necropolis including the 815 bodies of revolutionaries killed during the Trois Glorieuses and the 1848 Revolution.

The July Column is visible from many vantage points in Paris: from the Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, the Père Lachaise cemetery, the towers of Notre-Dame, the Montparnasse Tower or the Institut du Monde Arabe:

July Column from IMA © French Moments
The July Column from IMA © French Moments

On the site of the square, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte wished to edify a curious counterpart to the Arc de Triomphe: the Bastille Elephant. This project was never completed and only the circular base of the fountain has remained today.

Interestingly an exact replica of the monument was raised in Mexico City in 1910: the Columna de la Independencia.

The Opera Bastille

Opéra Bastille © LPLT - licence [CC BY-SA 3
Opéra Bastille © LPLT – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Before the opera was a train station called ‘Gare de la Bastille’. Opened between 1859 and 1969 it linked Paris to Verneuil-l’Étang and Boissy-Saint-Léger. In the mid-1960s construction of the RER A led to the abandon of the station. The building was demolished in 1984 to give way to an ambitious project: the modern Opéra Bastille. The former railways were transformed into the Promenade Plantée.

The Opéra Bastille is part of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets, a grandiose plan which included the construction of the Grande Arche de la Défense, the National Library in Tolbiac, and the glass pyramid of the Louvre.

Built between 1984 and 1989, its inauguration by the French President coincided with the bicentenary of the French Revolution. The opera was designed by Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott and has a capacity of 3,309 seats.

Port de l’Arsenal

Port de l'Arsenal and July Colomn © French Moments
Port de l’Arsenal and July Colomn © French Moments

The square gives way onto the Port de l’Arsenal, Paris’ marina. The port was the former moat of Charles V’s fortification and its waters link the Seine to the Canal St Martin.



Gems of Paris by French Moments
About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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