1790 Paris FR

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Fête de la Fédération and 1790s’ Festivals

The increasingly financially challenged French Ancien Régime was being confronted with new social and political ideas, many of these jointly developed with American Republican thinkers, who had recently achieved independence from Britain.

The Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houël

The Bastille was stormed on the 14th July 1789, albeit essentially a symbolic anti-royalist gesture But this prompted the French Revolution and overthrew the royalty and nobility.

This was an era of high tariff barriers for the movement of goods and this was disrupting both European domestic and export trading. It became apparent, that without the nobility and the clergy there was something of a hole in the fabric of French society, which needed to be filled.

The Fête de la Fédération watercolour 
by Antoine-Jean Duclos

The longest lasting of these was to be the celebration of Bastille Day. On the first anniversary, 14th July 1790, the Fête de la Fédération was held. Men and women, retailers and labourers were encouraged to create platforms and grandstands on the Place de la Bastille and along the Champs-Elysées. The event included music and dancing, military exercises and speeches.

The revolutionaries adopted a Roman Empire approach, somewhat disparagingly referred to as ‘bread and circuses’, as the proletariat was provided with a series of regular rituals and festivities. Wine was at the centre of these festivities, as drinking was a social and communal act that commemorated newly found freedoms.

Celebrations on the Champs-Elysées

Across the ensuing decade there were a series of ideological events launched to keep the citizenry aware of revolutionary progress:

  • 1793, the Festival of Unity followed on from the abolition of royalty and the storming of the Tuileries Palace
  • 1793, the Festival of Reason celebrated the move away from religion as churches were transformed into Temples of Reason, Notre Dame Paris had its altar re-dedicated to Liberty
  • 1794, the Festival of the Supreme Being was created by Maximilien de Robespierre to institute a new state religion. Citizens were expected to run commemorative events, the one in Paris being the largest of course. This festival featured five statues of the inharmonious concepts – Ambition, Atheism, Discord, Egotism and False Simplicity. Robespierre theatrically approached the statue of Atheism with a flaming torch, his Flame of Truth set the statue on fire, eventually to reveal beneath ‘Atheism’ a fireproof statue of ‘Wisdom’, though it emerged rather burned and blackened from the display. [At the same time a new decimalised Republican Calendar was introduced, with months renamed as Germinal, Floréal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor, Fructidor, Vendémiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse, the weekdays were renamed as day one (primidi) to day ten (décadi), the tenth being a day of rest.]
  • 1796 the Festival of Victory was to celebrate military victories in Italy, this was followed by the Festival of the Foundation of the Republic.
  • 1798, the Festival of Liberty and Reason continued the process, seeking to underline the new regime’s values and beliefs.
Festival of the Supreme Being, G Texier
Festival of the Supreme Being ceremony

It was in 1797 that the notion of industrial exhibitions was first mooted (the first of these held in 1798), this sought something more fruitful than bread and circuses, yet was still conceived as a spectacle, that would include processions and other entertainments.

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