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28 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 25 January 2013

All that remains of the famous 1889 Exposition Universelle on the huge Champ de Mars in Paris is the Eiffel Tower. And even that wasn't intended to survive.

Peter Snow travels to Paris, clutching a copy of Le Matin for 7th May 1889, to examine the background to this iconic structure's creation. The legendary French newspaper provides vivid detail on the opening ceremony of this massive event and the array of buildings that made up the exhibition: the massive Galerie des Machines, full of new-fangled machinery from around the world; the Palais des Beaux Arts, showcasing painters and sculptors; and all manner of pavilions provided by countries large and small. Easing transport round the huge site, we read, was the Decauville Railway.

Dominating everything though, is the Eiffel Tower. And it's the central feature of the firework display which closes the exhibition's opening day. Taking in the view from on high, Peter examines how the tower came to be built, what it symbolises and why it has survived. There are also visits to the Theatre de la Ville, where Massenet's opera Esclarmonde was premiered; to a celebrated hotel which opened on the very day this edition of Le Matin was published; and to the world-famous Carnavalet Museum, where many contemporary artefacts bring the exhibition alive.

Peter also examines the political agenda underpinning the creation of the exhibition, timed by the Third Republic to mark the centenary of the French Revolution. Why is Le Matin keen to know Britain's opinion of the event? Peter also brings alive reports in the paper that the exiled Napoleon III's former home in Kent is being sold and that his widow has been spotted in Birmingham en route for Malvern.

Producer: Andrew Green
An Andrew Green production for BBC Radio 4.


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