Paris Walking Tour — Antoine Lavoisier Escapes an Explosive Situation in the Marais
Explore Paris at the crossroads of two revolutions — the French Revolution and Lavoisier’s scientific revolution. (90 min; 4 km)
Two revolutions rattled Paris at the end of the 18th century, one political and the other technological in nature. History presents these as two separate stories. However, for the people who lived through them, the two revolutions became entwined in experience. The events of one overlapped and interfered with those of the other, like two parallel beams of light in a diffraction experiment. This was especially true for people living in the Marais district of Paris in 1789, where the storming of the Bastille sparked the French Revolution and where Antoine Lavoisier lived and had his chemistry laboratory. This walking tour explores what it was like to live at the crossroads of two revolutions.
Antoine Lavoisier was a leading member of the bourgeoisie, a growing class of wealthy professionals paid for their knowledge and ability to administer essential functions of government and industry. As a businessman, Lavoisier was partner in a firm with a contact to collect the king’s taxes on goods shipped into Paris. As a member of the Academy of Science, Lavoisier provided expert advice on technical issues, such as supplying water for the city of Paris and schemes for lighting its streets.
Lavoisier was also a leader of the technological revolution, which was the source of his valuable knowledge. He developed new techniques to study chemical reactions that allowed him to debunk the philogiston theory of combustion and correctly identify oxygen as the essential reactant in both combustion and respiration.
At the time that this portrait was painted in 1788, Lavoisier had attained a position that allowed him to influence the course of history. The loss of influence of the aristocracy to the rising bourgeoisie class set the stage for the French Revolution that introduced democracy to France and the rest of Europe. And, Lavoisier’s new experimental techniques laid the foundations for the modern science of chemistry and stimulated the rapid growth of the chemical industry in France. However, revolution is a time of both opportunity and peril.
A Begin the tour in the heart of the Marais district at 58 rue des Francs-Bourgeois. Many of the streets and buildings of the Marais retain the character of Paris from the medieval period, between the 5th and 15th centuries. By the late 18th century the Marais district had become a preferred location for the urban residences of the aristocracy and other well-to-do. In 1789 this building was the residence of Geoffroy d’Assy, who obtained his wealth from a hereditary monopoly on trade in the nearby Temple district.
The astronomer Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre also lived here and had a well-equipped private astronomy observatory on the roof. Delambre was an active member of Paris’ scientific community. He was employed by Geoffroy d’Assy as a tutor for his children. It was Delambre who would perform the calculations, based on a geodetic survey of the Paris Meridian from Dunquerk to Barcelona, to determined the official length of the metre for the metric system.
Across the street, through the alley next to number 57, spy a tower built on one of the last remaining sections of the wall built by Philip Augustus for the defense of Paris, 800 years ago.
Walk southeast on Rue des Francs-Bourgeois toward Rue de l’Abbé Migné. Destination will be on the left (500 m)
BVisit the Musee Carnavalet , the excellent museum of the history of Paris (closed until 2019). The museum occupies two neighboring mansions, also known as “hôtels particular”: the Hôtel Carnavalet and the Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau. Exhibits trace the development of Paris from its time as an outpost of the Roman empire through to the present day. View an exhibit here on the storming of the Bastille in July 1789.
Walk southeast on Rue des Francs-Bourgeois toward Rue de Sevigne (200 m). Turn right onto Pl. des Vosges, and enter through the arched passages beneath the pavillion.
C The Place des Vosges was the place to be in Paris if you were a member of the aristocracy from the 17th century up until the Revolution. It is an early example of city planning and urban redevelopment.
Originally known as the Place Royale, the Place des Vosges was built on the site of the palace of Henri II, who died from wounds received in a tournament held there. Catherine de Medicis, wife of Henri II, had the old palace demolished and moved to the Louvre. The Place des Vosges opened in 1612, and it became the model for urban development in other parts of Paris and in Europe generally. The Place des Vosges served as a meeting place for the nobility and minor aristocrats until the Revolution made aristocracy unfashionable.
Walk south to the matching pavilion on the other side of the square, and exit the Pl. des Vosges. Continue straight onto Rue de Birague, and turn left onto Rue Saint-Antoine. Continue to the end of the street.
D Place de la Bastille is the site of a different kind of urban redevelopment project, the one that launched the French Revolution. The Bastille was built in the late 14th century to guard the eastern entrance into Paris. It was an immense structure, a fortress, surrounded by eight high towers and a deep moat. At the end of the 18th century the Bastille functioned mostly as a prison and as headquarters for the police. For residents of Paris who lived in its shadow, the Bastille loomed ominously as a symbol of state control and oppression by the monarchy. Look for its outline marked in the pavement.
On July 14, a mob from the working class neighborhood to the east stormed the Bastille, looking for weapons and hoping to carry away the gunpowder that was surely stored there. The revolutionaries seized control of the fortress, killed the royal governor, and released its prisoners.
The image of the Bastille entered the nationalist mythology of France as a symbol of the overthrow of despotism and an affirmation that the will of the people can overcome any obstacle. In the following weeks, workers demolished the fortress stone by stone. Pieces of the Bastille were sold as souvenirs.
Turn right and exit the roundabout onto Bd Henri IV. Make a slight left onto Bd Bourdon and walk about 230 m. Turn right onto Rue Bassompierre and continue for about 27 m. Destination will be on the left.
EAntoine Lavoisier had his laboratory at this location, on a quiet side street in a building known as the Petite Arsenal. In addition to his work as a tax collector and for the Academy of Science Lavoisier held the position of Superintendent of the Royal Powder Works. As Superintendent, Lavoisier supervised the manufacture and distribution of gunpowder in Paris and to the surrounding region. The perks of the position included housing and space for his private laboratory on the grounds of the gunpowder factory.
Therefore, in July 1789, a few minutes walk from the epicenter of the French Revolution, Antoine Lavoisier was literally sitting on a powder keg. Not just one powder keg, but a whole storeroom full of them. One day, in the week after the storming of the Bastille, Lavoisier hears a sharp rapping sound at the door, like flint against steel. It is the neighborhood revolutionary committee.
Can the Superintendent please explain the suspicious activity that has been reported at the Petite Arsenal? Kegs of gunpowder were being loaded onto carts and taken away. Was this, perhaps, being done to put the gunpowder out of reach of the people, and leave them unable to defend Paris from a counterrevolutionary assault by the king’s army?
Lavoisier agrees to accompany the committee and resume their discussion at the quay along the Seine, where a boat is being loaded with the gunpowder from the Petite Arsenal.
Walk west on Rue Bassompierre about 36 m, and turn left onto Rue de l’Arsenal. Turn right onto Rue Mornay (200 m), and then make a slight right onto Rue de Sully. Destination will be on the left (about 51 72 m).
F On their way to investigate the powder shipment, Lavoisier and the revolutionaries would have passed the main building of the Arsenal, now a library and public exhibition space. Its collections include papers documenting the techno-utopian Saint Simonist movement that influenced the thinking of many engineers and industrialists who guided the industrial revolution in France in the early 19th century.
In 1789, the Arsenal occupied a bluff overlooking the bank of the Seine, which then followed the Boulevard Morland. The area on the other side of the boulevard was an island known as the Isle de Louviers. Shipments of wood were offloaded and stored here before being distributed for sale in Paris.
Walk northwest on Rue de Sully to Bd Henri IV (about 140 m). Turn left onto Bd Henri IV, and then right onto Quai des Célestins (about 33 m) Destination will be on the right (about 42 m).
G This striking building has a long a varied history appropriate to its location near what was an active waterfront and port until the 19th century. A hotel was built here in 1587. In 1816 the building was converted for use as a sugar refinery, probably from sugar beets, an industry France developed in the early 19th century to compete with sugar produced from sugar cane grown in the Caribbean. The current embellishments, in a Neo-Barouque-Italian-Spanish style, are relatively recent, dating from 1857.
Walk northwest on Quai des Célestins toward Quai Henri IV (about 170 m). Turn left at Rue Saint-Paul, and continue for about 46 m.
H The revolutionary committee reconvened its meeting with Lavoisier near this spot in the ancient port of Saint Paul. Boats were lined up along the river bank, about where the Voie Georges Pompidou highway is now located, one of them filled with kegs of gunpowder. The question, again, for the superintendent of the powder works is, “Why is this gunpowder being moved out of Paris?”
Standing among the powder kegs, Lavoisier answers calmly that this powder is an inferior grade destined for sale in the colonies. A shipment of high-grade gunpowder is waiting on boats moored upstream, and the inferior-grade powder is being moved to make room in the storeroom. See, the kegs are marked “POUDRE de TRAITE,” meaning that it is the poorer grade intended for export.
A murmur ran through the assembled mob. To those few in the crowd who could read the words look suspiciously similar to “POUDRE de TRAITRE,” traitor’s powder — their powder. “Hang the bastard!” someone shouts, recalling the fate in recent days of other government functionaries who failed to account for their actions satisfactorily. The committee hesitates in its deliberations, but it agrees to seek input from a higher authority.
Next stop, the Hotel de Ville…
Walk northwest turn right onto Voie Georges Pompidou. Continue onto Rue du Fauconnier, and turn left onto Rue de l’Hôtel de ville. Destination will be on the right.
I On the way to see the authorities, Lavoisier and the mob passes the Hotel de Sens. This is one of three medieval-period mansions remaining in Paris. Built around 1500 in a Gothic and early Renaissance style, the Hotel de Sens was originally owned by the archbishop of Sens. Today, it houses the Forney art library.
Continue walking west on Rue de l’Hôtel de ville toward Rue des Nonnains d’Hyères (about 91 m). Turn left onto Rue des Nonnains d’Hyères and continue for 33 m. Turn right onto Quai de l’Hôtel de ville. After about 700 m, turn right onto Pl. de l’Hôtel de ville.
J The area in front of the Hotel de Ville (city hall) has been the site of countless public trials and executions. The committee, with Lavoisier escorted at the front, quickens its pace in anticipation of a resolution to their inquiries.
Fortunately for Lavoisier, the provisional city government is presided over by a friend, the astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly. It did not take long for Bailly to size up Lavoisier’s situation. Bailly employed the full authority of his office to assure that all details of the powder shipments were investigated in detail and properly documented. Who ordered the shipments? Were proper signatures obtained? Inventories, shipping manifests, etc. It was after midnight before all necessary information could be assembled, by which time most of the mob has dispersed. Lavoisier exited, quietly, by a side door and went home.
The present day Hotel de Ville was built in the last half of the 19th century, but this location has been the center of government for the city of Paris for centuries. Statues of notable figures from history line the facade. Lavoisier is there as well as these others from the pantheon of 72 scientists and engineers named on the Eiffel Tower: Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, Adrien-Marie Legendre, and Henry Victor Regnault.
Walk west on Av. Victoria toward Rue de la Coutellerie (about 260 m). Turn left onto Pl. du Châtelet, and continue across the Pont au Change. Destination is about 50 m along Bd du Palais on the right.
KThe Conciergerie is part of a complex of buildings used as a palace by kings of France in the medieval period. During the French Revolution and, in particular, during the period of The Terror when rampant paranoia greased the slides of the guillotine, this building housed the main prison. Lavoisier joined other condemned prisoners in the dungeons of the Conciergerie while waiting his execution on May 8, 1794.
Lavoisier did not take the hint and get out of Paris, like many of his well-to-do bourgeois friends and colleagues, after his adventure at the port of Saint Paul. Instead, he opted to remain in Paris to be helpful to the cause of liberalism and democracy. Unfortunately, Lavoisier could not overcome resentment over his role as a tax collector, especially a tax collector who obviously profited from his trade, and he was eventually charged with fraud. Lavoisier’s friend and one-time savior Bailly preceded him to the guillotine by six months.
The mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who avoided the guillotine only because Lavoisier intervened on his behalf, summed up the consequences for Lavoisier and France this way: “It took them only a moment to remove his head, but it will take more than a hundred years to produce another like it.”