Two Views of Place de la Bastille

19th-century illustrations of Place de la Bastille

Two 19th-century illustrations depict Place de la Bastille in the years before and after Victor Hugo ‘s description of the Elephant in Les Misérables IV.6. 2: [above left] Elephant caparaconne d’or by Alvoine, from the time of Napoleon; [below left] La Colonne de Julliet, from the time of Louis-Phillippe.

The source for these illustrations is France in the Age of Les Misérables, a fascinating web site created in 2001 by history students at Mt. Holyoke College forHistory 255, “‘Les Mis’ and ‘Les Media’: Realities and Representations in France of the Les Misérables.” The course was taught by Professor Robert Schwartz, who continues to maintain the site.

Walter Benjamin would have loved the Mt. Holyoke project, devoted as it is to collecting and interpreting cultural representations of 19th-century Paris. It looks like an excellent companion to any contemporary reading of Les Mis.

Here is the thesis behind Les Misand Les Media:

“Indeed it is through a precise repertoire of looks and glances that a ‘physiology’ of the city, moral as much as physical, is mapped out. The visual ordering of space has become a vehicle for articulating cultural values” (Nicholas Green; The Spectacle of Nature; NY: Manchester University Press, 1999, p. 12)

The quote above illustrates how Paris as a city reflects Paris as a people. Paris saw the beginning and the end of the French Revolution. The geography of Paris before the Revolution of 1789 mirrored its social hierarchy. The Revolution was a product of the increasing tensions between the old Aristocracy and the growing bourgeoisie class. Technological, social, political, and economic changes in Paris, as seen through different representations such as historical maps and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, reflect the change from an aristocratic to a modern, bourgeoisie society realized in Baron Haussmann’s massive building program of the 1860’s.

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