Blood and Freedom: the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille

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The Domain of Vizille – Museum of the French Revolution, Domaine de Vizille – Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille, France

Not far from the tranquil city of Grenoble is a museum dedicated to the history of one of France’s most bloody chapters.  The château that houses it is linked to significant pre-Revolutionary events, and also served as a summer residence for French presidents from 1924 until 1973 – château Vizille.

The museum was created in 1983 with the intention of looking at the impact of the French Revolution through the nation’s artistic output, not only during the years of revolution but in the decades following it.  This makes for an interesting visit, although naturally the more you know about the period, the more you’ll get out of it.  I have limited knowledge, and hoped I’d come away with a better understanding of these complex and fascinating years.

The history of Grenoble is tied in with the history of the French Revolution.  The story really starts in the early 12th century, when a member of the Guigues family was nicknamed ‘dauphin’ [dolphin].  The name somehow stuck, and in 1285 was used to refer to the feudal principality that had risen up around the Grenoble area – Dauphiné.  In 1349, the last Dauphin became bankrupt and sold his realm to France – on the condition that the region be allowed to retain certain privileges that kept Dauphiné semi-autonomous. In 1453, Grenoble was the third city in France to be granted the right to have a Parlement (the others were Paris and Toulouse), which meant that magistrates got to handle rulings in the name of the king and generally looked after the province.

The Parlement didn’t always support the king.  Sometimes they were directly opposed to the decisions that they were expected to put into action.  This didn’t go down well in Paris, and the Parlement’s powers and status was reduced in the 17th century, during the reign of Louis XIII.  Nevertheless, the Parlement still had some influence, if only in the eyes of the Dauphiné population, as became clear in May 1788.  At this time the Parlement refused to accept reforms that jeopardised their key prerogatives.  In response, the military was called in to forcibly impose the disputed degrees and on 7th June, soldiers served orders of exile to the Parlement magistrates.

Immediately the people of Grenoble rallied behind their representatives, and rioted.  The event is known as ‘journée des tulles’ or the day of the tiles because the people used roof tiles as projectiles to attack the soldiers.  Incredibly, they got away with this rebellious action, and the crowd victoriously carried the magistrates back to the Parlement building that evening.

On the back of their success, barristers Mounier and Barnave took charge, and on 21st July, they led a protest group, made up of nobles, clergymen and commoners from all over Dauphiné, to the tennis court at the château de Vizille.  They not only wanted to uphold the province’s rights, but to advocate similar rights nationwide.

The movement tapped into a mood of discontent in France, and protests were held throughout the country – finally leading to the fall of the Bastille on 14th July 1789.  The French Revolution had started.

As you go through the rooms of the château, you see different types of objects which tell different versions of the Revolution story.  There are lots of grand paintings, which were… not that engaging.  The most interesting for me were the plates – pure propaganda, simple and direct and evidently popular, and therefore possibly more influential, on a basic level, than a fiery pamphlet or a long-winded speech.  They offer a wide range of views, both republican and monarchist, and are mostly optimistic about the impact the revolution will have in uniting the nation.

Exhibition on Dauphin Louis

There was, when I visited, a small exhibition on the tragic life of Louis, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  It focussed mainly on the myths that sprang up around his death and the 19th century artistic depictions of these myths.  Rather as the Princes in the Tower caught the imagination of the drippy English painters of the Victorian period, the dauphin’s suffering was simperingly depicted in emotive ‘history’ paintings.

As you can tell, these didn’t interest me – what was wonderful to see, were the few pictures that were contemporary with the dauphin’s short life, including the incredibly sad bust by Louis Pierre Deseine, which powerfully conveys the childishness and maturity of the young prince.

The Gardens and Grounds

The gardens of the château are highly regarded.  From what I saw, they were extremely beautiful, but because it was so darn hot, I wasn’t in the mood for real exploration.  However, the park was full of families going for walks and picnics, and there are obviously lots of lovely spots for relaxing and looking at the glorious views.

So In Summary

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this museum.  As it was, it was interesting, though not perhaps as educational as I’d hoped – a little more context for those who haven’t studied the subject would be useful, not least because of the shifting loyalties and quick developments that characterise the French Revolution.  Sister-Chickpea, who knows much more about this period, found it particularly interesting, though.  For me, in a more general historical sense, there were lots of fascinating objects on show, from the plates to the portrait of the centenarian couple from Nantes.

But every time I think of the young dauphin, I picture that sad portrait in clay, looking on the verge of tears…

Further Information

Entry to the museum is free.

There is a website with basic information:

The museum organises many events during the year, both in the château and in the grounds.

How To Get There

Vizille is near Grenoble and if you’re using public transport, there is a fairly regular bus from the central bus station (next to the train station).  Here is a link to the timetable:

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