Montparnasse derailment, Paris; ca. 1895
“This incredible photo of the wreck at Gare Montparnasse in Paris shows a very dramatic scene of a train that has crashed through the wall and partially tumbled to the street. The cause? Both mechanical failure and human error. The train was late, so the driver had it pull into the station at a high speed. It had two different types of braking systems: handbrakes and an air brake known as a Westinghouse brake. The conductor realised that the train was going too fast and applied the Westinghouse brake, however it didn’t work. He then waited too long to use the handbrakes, which weren’t sufficient due to the weight and speed of the train. The locomotive crashed through a wall and the first few cars fell towards the street below. Amazingly, only a few passengers and train employees were injured, though one pedestrian on the road below was killed.”
Sieges of Paris:
Two major sieges happened to Paris in the years 1870-1871. That’s right, two.
The first was at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The French had been beaten back to the point that Napoleon resigned (because he was captured) and Republic declared. The French government fled to Versailles (right down the road). Paris, on the other hand, became the point of contention in negotiations. The Prussians laid siege to the capital, cut off supply lines, and shot cannons wildly onto the city. The French – in Versailles – eventually capitulated, and the Prussians stormed the city.
Paris was pissed. They thought the war had been lost by the mismanagement of generals and the cowardice of the provinces. Wasn’t it Paris after all that was most affected by this war? And wasn’t it Paris that so courageously held out?
Under this mounting indignation at the new Versailles government, the shame of seeing Prussians parade through the shining capital of the 19th century, and finally feeling betrayed by the French who “decapitated” the country by moving the seat of government to Versailles (where the kings used to live, btw), Paris declared itself independent. Under the red flag of the people, the Paris Commune was declared.
The Versailles government had to do something. Thiers, the interim leader of the Versaillais, commanded his armies to attack the city. Paris was once again under siege, but this time by their own countrymen. The Versaillais troops literally picked up the cannons the Prussians had set down, and began shooting again.
This means that everyone living in Paris either had to flee their home or suffer through a year of dwindling food supplies and death from above.
Accounts by the Goncourt brothers, for example, tell of the last oyster eaten at the Café Riche. Rats and cats became staples of butcher shops.
The most interesting thing about these two sieges is that the people in Paris were very divided. The bourgeoisie who were not able to flee lived in fear of not only the Prussians (then later the French) outside, but also of the lower classes that became more and more politically vocal. The poor were not just asking for food, but also for a halt on (and sometimes even forgiveness of) debts, including rent. The lower classes began to organize (in Montmartre and Belleville), and eventually during the Commune held elections that in essence deprived the bourgeoisie of their majority.
The point I’m trying to make I guess is that the city under siege doesn’t just come to a halt – in fact, everything you do becomes political or ideological. What you eat, where you go, what work you do all becomes a way of telling others how you expect the siege to end, and more importantly, how you want things to be afterward.
Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?
The Mona Lisa famous largely because of good and abundant press, honestly. The various reasons for the fame of the Mona Lisa can be split into the times before and after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.
Prior to the theft:
- Leonardo’s name was a well-known and very well-respected one in art historical terms, meaning owning any piece by him (especially considering there are only ~25 total paintings out there, either known or lost/destroyed/speculated) was a big deal. He might not have been the best Renaissance painter, but he was the Renaissance Man, and rightfully considered a master of his craft.
- It broke all sorts of conventions for painting at the time: the portrait is cropped oddly, she’s not a religious subject, it’s intimate, the blurred background and use of sfumato was very unusual. Because of this, this new motif of portraiture began to be imitated almost immediately.
- The painting was owned by a number of kings and kept in their various residences before it was transferred to the Louvre after the Revolution. While it was in private (royal) view, its existence was known because of the copies and imitations that already existed, and also because it was accessible to a number of royals, nobles and dignitaries. Once it was put on public display in the Louvre, in the time of the Romantics, it became a big hit. Writers and poets began to refer to her, romanticizing her, making her something of a myth.
- In particular, in the 1860s, an English critic named Walter Pater wrote a long and vivid and extremely poetic essay praising the painting, calling her a “ghostly beauty”. At this point, art criticism was in its infancy, so this made a huge contribution to the field, and became by far the most well-known piece of writing about an artwork at that point. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:
It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions… She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her
- And possibly most importantly, nobody truly knew who the hell she actually was.
So you’ve got this painting that has been copied since nearly the day it was finished, that’s been owned by kings, that was painted by an acknowledged leader of Renaissance ideals and techniques, and that’s had the most famous (at the time) piece of art writing that exists written about it, and its subject is still a mystery.
Then she gets stolen from the Louvre.
After the theft:
- Because of all of the above, the theft was widely publicised. At this point the Mona Lisa was considered a “treasure” of France. There were rewards offered, there were numerous newspaper articles written – we’re talking worldwide, not just in France. Everybody knew the Mona Lisa now.
- After the painting was found, the commercial aspect of her image began. You already had painters and engravers from as far back as the 16th century making copies of her. Now, with a much more widely circulated and accessible media, and new forms of printing and photography, her face was everywhere. Film and theatre stars posed like her, parodies were painted (like Duchamp’s with a moustache), she was on greeting cards and postcards and stamps, songs were written.
- The Louvre lent the painting out twice – once in 1963 and once in 1974 – adding to the international fame of the work.
- Dan Brown wrote some ridiculous book claiming that
the Louvre owned 6 Mona Lisas and the curator got to “decide” which one to display as realthe Mona Lisa is androgynous and represents the union of Jesus & Mary Magdalene, and was a threat to the Catholic Church. Or that it was a self portrait. People read Dan Brown and believe this.
- And now, more than 8 million people every year see her, and her fame continues.
She’s not famous because she’s the best example of a painting ever, or even of a Renaissance painting. She’s famous because people keep talking about her. They have done ever since she was painted, and they’ll keep doing so. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s 90% myth.
After the liberation on Aug 26, 1944, Parisian women with their children run for cover as remaining German snipers open fire from the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
This striking photo, taken on Aug. 26, 1944, during the liberation of Paris and held in the National Archives’ collection of Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, shows Parisians running for cover on the Place de la Concorde as snipers fired on the city’s ongoing celebration. The image shows civilians caught in the crossfire, transitioning quickly from party to self-preservation mode.
While the Germans had officially surrendered the city to Allied forces the day before and citizens were out in the streets in force, pockets of French collaborators and German soldiers remained. French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who paraded through the streets to the Champs-Élysées on the same day this picture was taken, took fire from snipers several times. Later in the day, de Gaulle famously came under sniper ﬁre inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Franz Reichelt “The Flying Tailor” created a jacket that doubled as a parachute and tested it by jumping off of the Eiffel Tower. (It ended in tragedy.)
Franz Reichelt, an Austrian tailor who later moved to France, was obsessed with the idea of human flight. He was an early designer of a basically frameless parachute made out of nothing more than silk, some rubber and a couple of rods. Late 18th century parachute experiments by Louis-Sebastien Lenormand or Jean-Pierre Blanchard – experiments that are seen as successes – had relied on fixed-canopy solutions, which means that the parachute was already open at the time of the exit. These designs were well suited for high altitudes.
When Franz Reichelt began to work on his design in the summer of 1910, he was aiming at a “parachute-suit” to be worn by the jumper, a suit that had to be folded out before the leap by spreading the arms. With his “bat-suit”, as the public called it, Reichelt was hoping to have come up with a parachute suited for low altitude jumps and jumps out of airplanes. (Here, tests had regularly ended in the death of the aviators.)
Reichelt’s suit had successfully landed dummies thrown out of his apartment window on the fifth floor; as he kept pushing his design forward to reduce the weight to about 9 kilograms, dummy tests failed. Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, kept asking police officials for the permission to conduct a test from the Eiffel tower. After some back and forth, he was granted a permission for dummy tests in February 1912.
At 7 a.m. on February 4th in 1912, Reichelt arrived at the Eiffel tower in a car, already clad in his bat-suit. He declared he would jump himself rather than using a dummy. Friends and bystanders tried to persuade him not to do it, but at 8.22 a.m., Franz Reichelt unfolded his suit standing on a chair on a bar table and jumped from 57 meters off into the icy Parisian air.
The suit did not catch air as Reichelt had hoped it would. After five seconds of free fall, he was dead in an instant. His crushed body left a 14cm deep crater in the frozen ground underneath the tower.
Robespierre: a child of the Enlightenment, a tragic misunderstood figure, or a forerunner of modern dictators?
The first thing I will say is that there is no understanding Robespierre without Rousseau. There is the famous apocryphal story that he slept with the Social Contract under his pillow. But Rousseau is best understood as a transitional figure between the Enlightenment proper and Romanticism, it is in this light I think we must understand Robespierre. Today we remember Rousseau as a political philosopher, or for Emile and his educational theory, but if you want Rousseau as his contemporaries (and Robespierre) knew him look more closely at Julie or especially his Confessions. What emerges is an immensely sentimental philosophy, which considers man as largely subject to passions, passions which are beyond morality and can only be measured by the intensity of their feeling. The astonishing trick of Rousseau’s Confessions, on his audiences and many of us today, is that it consists mainly of his admitting terrible, even unconscionable things, but throughout he has such pure, consistent, and appealing sentiment that you cannot help but love him more for it.
Robespierre’s entire career is animated by a similar overwrought emotion. It fuels his success until it takes him to martyrdom: the single-minded refusal to compromise, unlike a Mirabeau or even Danton, it is his strength before it unites the multitude in guilty fear of him.
The second thing I will say is that for Robespierre Terror is a revolutionary doctrine, a republican doctrine, necessary in every respect to the Revolution in the time of its most pressing need. For Robespierre a revolution must be ‘something more than a noisy crime to distract from previous noisy crimes’ (from his penultimate speech.) What more is it? The Revolution is a total refoundation of society, a new social contract, liberty from the old regime means the opportunity for radical reformation into a new model for humanity. Of course in Rousseau’s formulation what happens to enemies and refusers of the social contract? They are exterminated or exiled. They threatened no less against the revolution. When a revolution is in peril (as it was in 1793) it must either realize itself through violence against the threatening reaction or perish.
Robespierre was never misunderstood in his own time; he is misunderstood now as being bloodthirsty. This is ignorant of the record, Robespierre was the leader of the anti-war faction when the Brissotin were declaring preemptive war, and it was his attempt to reign in the corrupt terror of Fouché that was the immediate cause of 9 Thermidor. He is tragic in that it was his absolute devotion, his incorruptibility, the very qualities that made him a champion of liberty, that brought about the downfall.