French Connections for Bastille Day

This weekend in D.C. had a decidedly French flavor, and that’s before I even realized that today was Bastille Day.

On Saturday I visited the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization founded at the close of the Revolutionary War by French and American officers to preserve the bonds forged during that long struggle. George Washington, the general who helped unify the Continental Army and the colonies, served as its first president.

Among its ranks, there were two founding French members who would be well known to future Washingtonians – the Marquis de Lafayette and Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

A mural in the sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.
A mural in sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Lafayette was the young French aristocrat who ending up playing a key role in both the American and French Revolutions, and whose name and statue grace the park on the north side of the White House.

And L’Enfant of course was the talented but difficult engineer and artist who served General Washington during the war, and was later selected by him during peacetime to design our first capitol – Federal Hall in New York City – and then the capital, the District of Columbia.

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Capitol(ine) Hill

What better way to start the comparisons between Rome and Washington, D.C. than at the center of it all – Capitol Hill.

In Rome, it’s called the Capitoline Hill – or Capitolium in the original Latin, and Campidoglio in the modern Italian.

Ancient Rome was famously settled around seven hills. Although the Capitoline was the smallest, it was the symbolic center of the ancient city, both spiritually and politically.

On its peak was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, dedicated to the king of the gods. And just behind it was the Forum, where all official political business took place.

A 19th Century drawing depicting the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill during the Roman Republic.

During the peak of the Roman empire, this small hill was literally the power center of the world.

So how did Washington end up with it’s very own Capitol Hill?

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The Capitoline Venus in the Nation’s Capital

My European visitors are usually a little bit surprised when we tour downtown Washington and they get a first glimpse of our federal office buildings.“All of your architecture, it looks like Rome,” one of them told me, more than a little amused.

I think they’re expecting to see something a little more “American.”

But in the early days of the republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson helped set the tradition of looking back to antiquity for civic symbolism.

As president, Washington was responsible for planning the new federal capital along with his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. They encouraged the use of Roman architecture for all of our new buildings – including the White House and the Capitol – to link the new American republic with the ancient Roman one.

Even today, visitors can find traces of Rome throughout Washington, D.C. That symbolic link was made more official last month as the District signed a sister-city relationship with the Eternal City.

As one of the first cultural exchanges in the relationship, Rome lent Washington one of its treasures: the Capitoline Venus.

Capitoline Venus - NGA
The Capitoline Venus will be at the National Gallery of Art through September. (Photo: Robert Yule)

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A Big Apple Inaugural

So I found myself wandering the wind-blown streets of lower Manhattan this past weekend, searching for traces of the nation’s first federal capital.

It might seem a little early for a field trip in this blog about historic Washington, D.C., but my flight back from South Africa brought me through JFK, and I decided to make a weekend of it.

New York City’s Federal Hall, our first Capitol.

Here’s the question I wanted to investigate: How much does the Big Apple celebrate its capital heritage?

Short answer: Not much.

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