Unknown France

The French Revolution Comes to Life in the Alps

A 17th-century château near Grenoble once used as a summer residence by five French presidents now houses the world’s only museum devoted to the 1789 Revolution.
The Château de Vizille, “birthplace” of the French Revolution. © Domaine de Vizille/Département de l’Isère

Located 20 minutes by car from Grenoble, Vizille is a quiet, picture-postcard village. Its main square features a bakery, a bar, and a historic monument. But instead of commemorating the two world wars, as is often the case elsewhere in France, it actually remembers that the local region was the setting for the first stirrings of the French Revolution – even claiming it was its “birthplace.” On July 21, 1788, almost a year to the day before the storming of the Bastille, representatives from the nobility, the clergy, and the third estate in the province of Le Dauphiné gathered at the Château de Vizille to call for a new political order. This event played a pioneering role in the revolution, and a museum focused exclusively on this period of French history was opened 40 years ago.

Some 20 rooms, from the cold stone foundations to the parquet flooring on the upper levels, showcase a long series of artwork and relics, including patriotic earthenware, swords used by the National Guard, and even a drum from the Ancien Régime, which had its royal fleur-de-lys symbol scratched off and replaced by the inscription “Vive la nation et la loi” (Long live the nation and the law). Other curiosities include a miniature replica of the Bastille, created using rubble from the original prison! Its base is equipped with handles, as the model was sent to agents known as “the apostles of freedom” and presented to the public at civic celebrations.

A replica of the Bastille created using rubble from the Paris prison, whose demolition began on July 16, 1789. © Domaine de Vizille/Département de l'Isère
The museum portrays the major chapters of the Revolution using paintings, sculptures, and poems. © Domaine de Vizille/Département de l'Isère
As well as the French Revolution Museum, the Château de Vizille features a lake, a rose garden, and a park larger than 140 American football fields! © Domaine de Vizille/Département de l'Isère

The educational museum covers the years between 1789 (the Estates General and the storming of the Bastille) and 1799 (Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup and the end of the revolutionary period). A complex decade explained to the site’s 70,000 annual visitors using paintings, sculptures, and poems. The vast number of often enormous canvases portray the major chapters of the French Revolution. The most striking include Charles-Louis Müller’s 1850 painting L’appel des dernières victimes de la Terreur showing the fear and despair in the eyes of future guillotine victims imprisoned at Saint-Lazare Prison in Paris. A gripping way to illustrate the Terror (1793-1794) and its summary executions. During the summer of 1794, some 1,300 people were decapitated! Félix Philippoteaux’s Le dernier banquet des Girondins is another pictural gem, also painted in 1850 and inspired by a political history manual by Alphonse de Lamartine.

The visit continues under the stern glare of leading revolutionary figures such as Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre, and Marat. A sort of hall of fame in the form of paintings, sculptures, and caricatures! The final part of the exhibition focuses on the myths surrounding 1789 and their appropriation by various political movements in the 19th century, as well as the struggle between republicans and monarchists. The rooms then lead out to the park around the château, which is larger than 140 American football fields. As well as a lake filled with swans, geese, and ducks, the estate features a rose garden, French-style parterres, 80 different tree species, and an animal reserve. Visitors can absent-mindedly watch bucks, does, and stags while still captivated by this immersive journey through French history…


Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.