Pre-history and Ancient
Down in the Périgord region of central western France, caves reveal the artistry of Cro-Magnon man dating from the late Stone Age. The megalithic standing stones of Brittany stand tribute to other early inhabitants of which little is known. It was the Phoenicians who founded the Greek settlement of Massalia (Marseille) around 600BC, where the Romans later established Provincia, and then gradually moved north to conquer the Celtic tribesmen of the land they called Gaul.
After Julius Caesar defeated the last Gaulish chieftan, Vercingetorix, in 52BC, France remained part of the Roman empire until the 5thC.
The Dark and Middle Ages
Beginning in the 3rdC, the Germanic tribes – Goths, Burgundians and Franks – invaded from the east across the Rhine. The Franks gained supremacy, and their king, Clovis I, converted to Christianity and established his capital in Paris. Two centuries later, Charles Martel turned back the Muslim hoards at Poitiers. His grandson, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 800, initiating a period of stability and a flowering of the arts and culture.
Lack of a strong heir, feudal rivalries and Viking incursions in the north led to the disintegration of the empire after Charlemagne’s death. With the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, English expansion became a constant threat to the French, in which the English were notably assisted by Eleanor of Aquitaine who divorced Louis VII to marry Henry Plantagenet, bringing a substantial area of France with her.
Philippe II Auguste succeeded in unifying much of France by a series of strategic marriage contracts, conquering Normandy and winning English possessions north of the Loire for the crown. However, a succession crisis contested by Philippe de Valois and Edward III of England developed into the Hundred Years War which lasted until 1453.
121BC Romans cross the Alps.
52BC Julius Caesar defeats Vercingetorix and conquers Gaul.
3rd-5thC AD Barbarian invasions (Vandals, Visigoths, Franks).
4thC Gallo-Roman city of Lutèce becomes Paris. Arrival of Christianity.
508 Clovis 1, first Christian King of France, settles in Paris. Start of Merovingian period (508-751).
732 Muslim armies defeated by Charles Martel at Poitiers.
751 Start of Carolingian period (751-987).
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
9thC Norman invasions of France.
987 Hugues Capet elected ruler; start of Capetain dynasty.
1066 Norman invasion of England.
1095 Urban II announces First Crusade at Clairvaux.
1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry Plantagenet (future Henry II of England), placing a third of France in English hands.
1180 Philippe II Auguste embarks on 43-year reign.
1209-18 Albigensian Crusades in southern France crush Cathar heretics.
1226 Accession of Louis IX (Saint-Louis); died in 1270 at Tunis during Eighth Crusade.
1253 Founding of the Sorbonne.
1309 Clement V transfers papacy from Rome to Avignon.
1328 Philippe IV becomes first Valois King.
1337 Start of Hundred Years War with England.
1356 French king, Jean le Bon, taken prisoner at Poitiers by Edward, the Black Prince.
1415 Henry V of England defeats French at Agincourt.
1429 English routed at Orléans by Jeanne d’Arc (burnt at Rouen 1431).
1515 Francois I, Renaissance connoisseur, introduces finest Italian artists to work on his palace at Fontainebleau.
1562-98 Wars of Religion set Huguenots (Protestants) against Catholics.
1594 Henri de Bourbon (Henry of Navarre) converted to Catholicism, and crowned Henri IV at Paris.
1598 Edict of Nantes safeguards Protestants right to worship.
1624 Cardinal Richelieu becomes Prime Minister, represses Protestants and starts Thirty Years War with Hapsburgs.
1643 Accession of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’; literature, the arts and military architecture (Vauban) flourish.
1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees ends border disputes with Spain (Louis XIV marries Infanta Maria Theresa 1660).
1685 Revocation of Edict of Nantes and suppression of Protestants.
1701-13 War of Spanish Succession (defeated by Duke of Marlborough).
1715 Accession of Louis XV.
1756-63 Seven Years War. France loses her North American colonies.
1769 Napoleon Bonaparte born in Corsica.
1789 Storming of the Bastille.
1792 Declaration of the First Republic.
1793 Louis XVI executed. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.
1804 Napoleon crowned at Notre-Dame. First Empire.
1815 Battle of Waterloo; Napoleon banished to St. Helena.
1830 Charles X loses crown to Louis-Philippe d’Orléans in July Revolution.
1848 Louis-Philippe overthrown by Second Republic.
1852 Napoleon III, Bonaparte’s nephew, initiates Second Empire.
1870 Napoleon III deposed. Proclamation of Third Republic.
1889 Paris Exhibition and unveiling of Eiffel Tower.
1900 First Métro (underground or subway) opens in Paris.
1914-18 First World War.
1939 Outbreak of Second World War.
1940 Paris bombed; British retreat at Dunkirk.
1944 De Gaulle heads troops of Free French to liberate Paris.
1946 Proclamation of the Fourth Republic.
1954 France inaugurates independent nuclear programme.
1957 EC founded by France, West Germany, Italy, and Benelux.
1958 Creation of French Commonwealth; de Gaulle elected first President of the Fifth Republic.
Wars of Religion
The emergence of Protestantism clouded the 16thC, dividing the nobility. The Catholic massacre of a Huguenot (French Protestant) congregation in 1562 led to the civil upheaval of the Wars of Religion. Henri IV, a Protestant turned Catholic, eventually stemmed the bloodshed with the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted Protestants freedom of worship.
Louis XIII (1610-43), and Louis XIV (1643-1715) had the 17thC to themselves. Ably assisted by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII began to restore the principles of an absolutist monarchy by disbanding the Estates General (a feudal parliament made up of the nobility, clergy and bourgeoisie) and consolidated French territory with significant frontier gains from the over-extended Spanish empire. He also built up the economy and extended trade to the colonies. Richelieu and the king died within months of each other, leaving a five year-old heir, Louis XIV. While the queen, Anne of Austria, acted as regent, Cardinal Mazarin continued to implement Richelieu’s objectives, and secure the solid power base that would make France the premier economic and military power of Europe for the latter half of the century. However, the parlements (unelected administrative councils) and nobility became increasingly incensed by the gradual disappearance of their privileges and general economic hardships. A series of revolts, known as the Frondes, were quickly suppressed, but Louis’ famously luxurious lifestyle and fondness for displays of military might further drained resources and support.
The accession of the infant Louis XV heralded another period of regency and attendant squabbles, followed by the disastrous War of the Austrian Succession, and the loss of France’s colonies in the Seven Years War. By 1789, with Louis XVI on the throne, the country’s finances were in such chaos that the Estates General were recalled. On June 13, the Third Estate (the bourgeoisie) declared itself a National Assembly, and a popular uprising led to the storming of the Bastille in July. During August, feudal obligations and hereditary privilege were abolished, and the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. As the Revolution gathered pace, the moderates lost ground. The king was executed in January 1793, and Robespierre emerged as the terrifying guardian of the First Republic. He himself met the fate of many of his victims at the guillotine in 1794.
Power passed to a five-man Directorate. which in turn fell to a coup d’etat led by General Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. While upholding the principles of the Revolution, Napoleon reorganized the bureaucracy and tax systems, crowned himself Emperor, and set about conquering Europe.
Defeated by the Russian winter (1813), he abdicated, only to return to be beaten by Wellington at Waterloo in 18l5. The monarchy was restored in the form of Louis XVIII and Charles X, but lost by Louis Philippe, the ‘Citizen King’, whose absolutist tendencies encouraged the rise of the Second Republic headed by the elected Louis Napoleon (nephew of the Emperor), later Napoleon III.
Defeat by the Prussians marked the end of Napoleon Ill’s tenure, and the rise of the Third Republic. Dogged by an humiliating peace treaty with Prussia, and political scandals such as the notorious Dreyfuss affair in which a Jewish army captain was framed for treason, France was then savaged by the First World War. Political wrangling coupled with social unrest filled the period between the wars, while the effects of the 1930s depression and the impracticality of the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line defences left the country easy prey to Hitler’s military machine.
The First World War veteran Maréchal Pétain signed an armistice with Hitler in the hope of minimizing the damage. His collaborationist government sat at Vichy, and the French facists had a field day rounding up Communists, Jews and other ‘dangers to society’, while the Resistance fought back. Leader of the Free French forces, General Charles de Gaulle took control of government in 1944, then resigned while the newly declared Fourth Republic dallied with a series of ineffectual coalition governments, got dragged into conflicts in Indochina and Algeria, and became a feunder member of the EC in 1957.
De Gaulle was called back to save the day in 1958, and was elected first President of the Fifth Republic in 1959, at the head of his right-wing Gaullist party. Algeria was granted independence in 1962, but the flood of pieds noirs refugees (Algerians claiming French nationality) sparked off racial tensions which are still apparent today. Paris, May 1968: the explosive student uprising followed by a general strike finally ousted de Gaulle, and placed Prime Minister George Pomppidou in power, to be succeeded by another Gaullist, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In 1981, Fran͵cois Mitterand’s Socialist Party ended the Gaullist reign, but the Socialist celebrations were short-lived. Dogged by scandal and in-fighting between Left and Right, the government lurched though to the economic downturn of the late 1980s to disappear almost without trace in the parliamentary elections of 1993.
THE ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE
The earliest stirrings of art in France seem to have occurred in the Stone Age, some 350 to 100 centuries BC, when Cro-Magnon man introduced the idea of interior decoration with cave paintings such as those found in the Dordogne region. The megalithic stones of Carnac in Brittany, some of which bear traces of abstract carvings, date from the Neolithic period, and were followed by the increasingly sophisticated tools, the weapons and finely-wrought metal jewellery of the Bronze-Age Celts.
The Greeks founded Massalia (Marseille) in the 6thC BC, but the first collective artistic influence arrived from over the Alps with the Romans. In Provence, the amphitheatres of Aries and Nîmes, the magnificent Pont du Gard aqueduct, and remains found at Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence represent some of the finest examples of Roman architecture outside Italy. These classical patterns are evident in the early Christian architecture of the 5th to l0thC, such as the baptistry of Frejus cathedral and St John’s in Poitiers.
The Capetian dynasty, established in the late 10thC, introduced a degree of stability; from this, and from the power and wealth of the Church, emerged the great ecclesiastical buildings which characterize the Romanesque style: massive pillars, rounded arches and carved capitals, becoming increasingly ornate. There are especially many fine Romanesque churches in Burgundy (Fontenay, Tournus, Vézelay), the Loire (Fontevraud) and Languedoc-Roussillon (Toulouse); regional variations include the Auvergnat style seen at Orcival and Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont-Ferrand.
The pointed arches and ribbed vaulting of the early Gothic style which first appeared in the mid 12thC (Saint-Denis in Paris) allowed architects to build higher and lighter. Huge areas of stained glass (Chartres and Metz) added to the decoration; the lacy stonework of Flamboyant Gothic flourished in the north from the late 14thC. Notable secular Gothic buildings include the Palais de Justice in Rouen, and the Palais Jacques Coeur in Bourges. Meanwhile, south-western France was being peppered with fortified towns, the bastides (see page 204).
Stylistic developments derived from the Italian Renaissance appeared in France at the end of the 15thC, emerging forcefully in the early Loire châteaux such as Chenonceau (1513), Azay-le-Rideau (1518) and Chambord (1519). Fran͵cois I imported Italian artists and craftsmen to transform Fontainebleau, who in turn trained the ‘School of Fontainebleau’ in the rich and allegorical Mannerist style.
The emergence of a strong and secular court encouraged academic endeavour, notably the works of Montaigne, the poet Pierre de Ronsard and the humanist philosopher, René Descartes.
In the 17th-18thC, France was the premier power of Europe, eager to display her wealth and cultural superiority. Le Brun, Le Vau, Claude Perrault and Jules Hardouin Mansart ‘Frenchified’ Baroque to grandiose effect at Versailles, the Louvre and Les Invalides; Le Nôtre perfected the formal garden; and sumptuous châteaux proliferated in the provinces. Though Claude Lorrain’s landscapes and Poussin’s classical themes were painted in Italy, the portrait painter Mignard was on the spot to capture the good and the great; and theatrical entertainment was provided by Moliére and Racine.
As French society and art soared to ever greater flights of fancy in the 18thC (Marie-Antoinette dressed up as a milk maid, the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard, Rococo decoration), the playwright Voltaire and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about their doubts.
Revolution and Romanticism
The consummate republican artist and Napoleonic favourite, Jacques-Louis David, turned away from frivolity and concentrated on powerful historical or classical subjects in the 1780s, giving them a simple grandeur and purity. This neo-classical influence ran alongside 19thC Romanticism, which also sought to evoke the realities and indeed the heroism of contemporary life and recent history as it affected the artists. In painting, its chief exponents were Géricault and Delacroix; in literature, Balzac, Dumas and Victor Hugo; in music, Berlioz and Chopin.
Realism and Impressionism
The first significant break from the classical tradition came as an off-shoot of Romanticism with Corot’s landscapes, and those of Barbizon School artists Millet and Rousseau. Often working in the open air with ready-mixed paints, they strived to achieve a more spontaneous and naturalistic approach than their predecessors. But the new style was far from popular. Public criticism of Socialist painter Courbet’s work led him to classify it as ‘Realism’; which together with Manet’s dramatic use of bold colour and shadow heavily influenced the up-and-coming Impressionists, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro.
The term Impressionism, coined by a disparaging critic at an exhibition in 1874, stuck. As its advocates abandoned form in the pursuit of naturalism, Flaubert and Zola reflected a similar drift in their writing; while Debussy and Ravel explored atmosphere in their music.
Form was still a force to be reckoned with in architecture, however (the neo-Baroque Paris Opéra, Haussman’s grands boulevards); and the concept of Modernism, new materials and structural skills, inspired the centre-piece of the Paris Exhibition in 1889, the Eiffel Tower.
The Twentieth Century
The Fauves (‘Wild Beasts’) Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck painted the town red (the sky green and the sea orange) at the turn of the century, while Pablo Picasso favoured blue, then explored Cubism with Braque. Between the two world wars, Constructivism, Dadaism, Expressionism and Surrealism excited and confused the art world; literary figures from Hemingway to Beckett flocked to Paris to join Anouilh, Camus and Genet in the cultural crucible of Europe. Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Sartre formulated the principles of Existentialism; and French cinema, the natural visual extension of Existentialism, flourished with the work of Renoir and Carne, followed, in the 1950s, by Chabrol, Truffaut and Godard.
Almost a century’s worth of urban planning has seen the pendulum swing from the first dreary concrete high rises and Le Corbusier’s socially admirable but aesthetically disappointing Cité Radieuse to the daring love-it-or-loathe-it Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Inner city rejuvenation has led to large-scale restoration projects such as Rouen’s half-timbered old town centre, and juxtaposed exciting new buildings with historical monuments as in Nîmes, while Paris has I.M. Pei’s glass Pyramide at the Louvre, the spectacular Cité des Sciences et de I’lndustrie at La Villette, and Mitterand’s bid for immortality, the Grande Arche at La Défense.