BOOK DETAILS

When The World Spoke French (New York Review Books Classics)

When The World Spoke French (New York Review Books Classics)

by Marc Fumaroli

ISBN: 9781590173756

Publisher NYRB Classics

Published in Calendars/History, Calendars/Foreign Language

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

Paris at the Dawn of the Enlightenment: The Abbé Conti and the Comte de Caylus

The seventeenth century dwindles and dies in the War of the Spanish Succession. From 1701 to 1714, the forces of the Hapsburg emperor, united with those of England and Holland, opposed Louis XIV's powerful war machine on several fronts, in Europe and overseas. The eighteenth century dawns once the rumors of secret peace negotiations between France and England, made possible by the new Tory government, begin to spread in Paris in 1712. A certain lassitude appears as a consequence of the terrible sacrifices and the permanent tension imposed on his realm for more than a decade by the Great King, who was himself failing, overcome by terrible winters, the defeats of his generals, and the deaths of his son and grandsons. The sole heir of the senior branch of the family is a delicate orphan born in 1710; this child, who in 1715 assumes the name Louis XV, is the eighteenth century.

Paris Awakes

An irresistible appetite for civil life, for relaxation and felicity, seizes the city of Paris; the energies awakened then will traverse every generation until 1789.

The French capital turns its back on Versailles and becomes a city of festivity once the Treaty of Utrecht is signed with London in 1713, soon followed in 1714 by the Treaty of Rastadt with Holland and the Hapsburg emperor. Old Louis XIV has saved the honor and the frontiers of the realm. His grandson Philippe d'Anjou is recognized by Europe as the king of Spain. France's trump cards in the game established by the treaties of Westphalia in 1648 remain intact. Paris, never seriously threatened, even at the war's worst moments, has long believed itself secure. The city's reactions in 1792 to the Duke of Brunswick's provocative threats were all the more hysterical in that Paris had regarded itself since the reign of Louis XIV as a sanctuary immune to any foe.

Private life made up for public anxieties and disasters. The Duchesse du Maine, escaping from the ceremonials of Versailles and Marly, collecting men of letters, poets, and grands seigneurs, gave the impetus and the example at the Chateau de Sceaux: around the capital, country residences suddenly multiplied. Even in the last wartime months, the pleasures of society hummed in the parks of great estates and in mansions whose tall windows opened onto gardens and pools: conversations, theatricals, and rustic diversions reinvented joie de vivre. An amazed Europe, eager to do likewise, observed the sudden transformation of the vale of tears into a sunny setting for fétes galantes, the tone set by private persons and no longer by the court of the Great King.

The secret negotiations for the Peace of Utrecht between 1711 and 1713, necessarily conducted by indirect channels, in themselves afforded a special savor to Parisian parties, into which melted, incognito at first, such British emissaries as Matthew Prior and Henry St. John, officially unknown to Versailles, as Benjamin Franklin would be until Vergennes officially recognized his ambassadorial status. These were the first foreigners to be seen for a long while. Mme de Tencin's worldly career formally began in 1712, upon her liberation from the convent of the Cloistered Dominicans, in her sister Mme de Ferriol's mansion in the rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin. She entered society by becoming Matthew Prior's mistress and by imposing her wit upon the guests in the rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin: the Maréchal d'Uxelles, titular lover of the lady of the house; Vauban; Arthur Dillon, one of the handsomest men of his era; St. John; and especially the writer Fontenelle, who assiduously frequented the house, though he was the particular oracle of the company the Marquise de Lambert gathered twice weekly in her house in the rue de Richelieu. In 1715 Mme de Tencin is at the Palais-Royal, the maîtresse de maison of the regent's former tutor, Guillaume Dubois, who will be made a cardinal in 1721 and appointed prime minister in 1722; she then took as her lover a man of letters, the Chevalier Destouches. The child he gave her, immediately abandoned on church steps, will become Jean Le Rond d'Alembert.

Gradually there emerge and take the stage the star performers of that comedy of the Enlightenment, Paris of the Lumières. In the rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, the lovely Circassian Mlle Aïssé, brought from his embassy in Constantinople by the Comte de Ferriol and the eventual heroine of a love story over which all Europe shed tears, is in 1712–1715 still playing with the two sons of the house, the young Comte d'Argental and his brother, Pont-de-Veyle: both remain for the rest of their lives devoted friends and assiduous correspondents of Voltaire, their classmate at the College Louis-le-Grand.

Already as the new century begins, a more gracious manner than the grand style of Versailles is apparent at the banker Pierre Crozat's, whose brand-new mansion and vast gardens, completed in 1706, occupy the upper end of the rue de Richelieu, not far from Mme de Lambert's and the Palais-Royal. The concerts offered in his Montmorency country house by this financier so knowledgeable about works of art gather a crowd of men of fashion and lovely women, the painters Charles de La Fosse and Antoine Watteau, the arbiter of artistic elegance Roger de Piles, the young expert in drawings and prints Pierre-Jean Mariette, and certain learned and refined antiquaries from the new Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, such as the Abbé Fraguier.

The Age of Enlightenment thus dawned well before the Sun King had vanished over the horizon in 1715. The regent, his nephew Philippe d'Orléans, for whom Crozat had assembled a collection of paintings and drawings, had long shared this Parisian aspiration to the pleasures of civil life and the arts of peace. One of the first gestures of this new master of France after the death of Louis XIV was to shift the seat of government to the Palais-Royal in the heart of Paris, one of the two city residences, along with the Palais du Luxembourg, of the dynasty's junior branch.

Once the Treaty of Rastadt was signed, the young Colonel de Caylus, who had been given his rank at the age of fifteen and who had rapidly risen from it during several brilliant campaigns in Catalonia and Germany, informed his mother that, having more than adequately paid his share of the blood he owed his king, he was leaving the army. "My son informs me," the comtesse wrote to her aunt, the Marquise de Maintenon, "that he would rather leave his head on the scaffold than continue to serve." In the intervals between his campaigns he had frequented the Hotel Crozat, formed friendships with its habitués, notably Watteau, and had studied with that painter the fabulous collection of paintings and drawings the banker had amassed along with those he was choosing for the regent. The young colonel's vocation as a "virtuoso," which he would combine with the frequentation of polite and frivolous society as well as the assiduous cultivation of arts and letters, had been determined.

His first impulse as a free gentleman returning to civilian life was to set off for Italy to complete his artistic education, remaining for almost a year; he would have remained even longer had not the news of Louis XIV's death recalled him to his mother's side in Paris. In 1717, the family situation having been stabilized, he set off again, this time intending to begin his education as an antiquary, for Greece and Turkey where he studied architecture, sculpture, inscriptions, and the topography of the Greco-Roman world. On his return in 1718, he encountered in his mother's house the Venetian Abbé Antonio Conti, philosopher, mathematician, poetaster, and essayist, a universal savant who corresponded with Newton and Leibniz but also frequented Luigi Riccoboni, director of the theatrical troupe that the regent had invited to Paris in 1716 to reopen the Théatre des Italiens closed by Louis XIV in 1696, as well as such Venetian painters and virtuosi as Rosalba Carriera, Sebastiano Ricci, and Antonio-Maria Zanetti, all called to Paris under the Regency at the invitation of the wealthy conoisseur Pierre Crozat. After the English, it was the Italians who returned to the city. In a very few years, Paris quite naturally became the incontestable cosmopolitan capital of the Enlightenment.

Telemachus and Mentor

The Comtesse de Caylus, amazed and delighted by her new Venetian friend's conversation, sensibility, and total absence of bigotry, and eager to provide proper sustenance for her son's studious and inquiring mind, writes to the latter in 1718: "Make yourself the disciple of the Abbé Conti." And forthwith the Italian Mentor initiates the French Telemachus into the systems of Leibniz and Newton and so widens this neophyte's philosophical and scientific horizon that in 1724, armed with the abbé's letters of introduction, he makes a third journey that will consecrate him a citizen of the Republic of Letters and lead him to Amsterdam and London. And even as he visits, in the cities he passes through, the collections and cabinets of curiosities, he is welcomed by several European princes of intellect: in London by Dr. Robert Mead, in Amsterdam by the famous Calvinist refugees Basnage de Beauval and Jean Leclerc. Young Caylus henceforth becomes the Enlightenment Frenchman par excellence, preparing himself for the independent career that by midcentury will win him great fame.

In order to become not only an honnéte homme in the seventeenth-century manner but an expert of international standing in several arts, an antiquary enjoying European authority, and a Maecenas and guide for many young artists, this sword-bearing nobleman of agreeable presence and lively conversation quietly engaged in a continuing process of ascesis; without ever aspiring to the notoriety of an author, he mastered several literary genres, from the most entertaining and fugitive to the most erudite and severe.

"To live nobly," that aristocratic mode whose superiority was established by the ancient Greeks and that in France remains, in peacetime, the only ideal comparable to a monk's contemplative life, would offer the Comte de Caylus the vie de château enjoyments of metropolitan company as well as the disinterested practice of intellectual disciplines borrowed from scholars and men of letters. Leisure, the scholé of the Greeks, the otium of the Romans, is the shared ideal of men of letters and gentlemen, studious for the former, nonchalant and galant for the latter.

The Comte de Caylus participated fully in both versions, which makes him an archetypal hero of the French Enlightenment. This man of the world will never be a worldling: he has an indubitable social spirit, attends the theater, is seen at pleasure parties, frequents several agreeable intellectual circles, and presides over Mme Geoffrin's Mondays; when in Paris he lives as a Parisian, but he also makes a fetish of friendship and never shrinks from the assiduous and active expenditure of his time in the service of beauty and truth. This descendant on the paternal side of a distinguished family from the Rouergue resembles Montaigne in his jealous consciousness of the meditative self and the requirements of intimacy. Invariably cheerful in society, he reserves the right to be a melancholic in his own company. Yielding to the "diversions" condemned by Pascal, he yet knows how to remain at peace in a small room.

Intercourse between this young officer released from armed service and the extremely learned Venetian abbé will extend, thanks to their correspondence, long after Antonio Conti's return to Venice in 1726, where Montesquieu will be his guest in 1728. Such companionship, and the easy manners and disinterested passion for things of the mind it supposes, are characteristic at once of the cosmopolitanism, the encyclopedism, and the sociability of the French eighteenth century. The Enlightenment had no need to wait for the generation of the encylopedists to spread in Paris and to radiate throughout Europe. Indeed the movement was never so felicitous and fecund as at its inception. On the threshold of this book, which gathers a portrait gallery of foreigners conquered by Enlightenment France, the portrait of this French Telemachus and his Mentor commands our attention.

Anne-Claude Philippe de Tubières, de Grimoard, de Pestel, de Lévis, Comte de Caylus (1692–1765), of whom we have a portrait by Watteau painted in 1719, as well as a profile drawing engraved by Cochin much later, had nothing of the elegant leanness bestowed by his painter friend upon the male personages of his conversations galantes. Powerfully built, his face broad, his jaw heavy, an indefatigable walker, the comte might well have passed, at a distance, for a stevedore if, at closer range, the delicate contour of his nose and lips, his long sensitive fingers, and a gaze capable of authority as well as melancholy and ennui had not betrayed the grand seigneur. But this grand seigneur in early youth had shared the life of camps with his troops and was quite as much at ease with the people of the Paris streets and fairs as with the cheerful company of witty women and men. He still enjoyed exchanging his court garments for a twill jacket and duck trousers, mingling like the Saladin of the Thousand and One Nights with the swarming life of workaday Paris, engaging with his "characters"—the idler, the coachman, the milliner, the cobbler—savoring their easy ways, remarking their curious turns of speech, just as Montaigne took lessons from the patois of Gascon peasants.

Diderot's outspoken hatred of the comte (all the more murderous since the author of the Salons of the Correspondance littéraire owed a good deal to the Comte de Caylus's taste and ideas about art) has managed to erase from French memories this original figure who was in his way a prince of intellect: his mistake was to have been wellborn, to loathe the charlatanry of the philosophies, and to lead according to his own notions the apparently unconstrained and indefatigably fecund life of one of the Enlightenment's busiest bees.

A Fénelonian Trinity

The Abbé Antonio Conti—born in Padua in 1677, to an ancient family of the Venetian patriciate, and dying in the city of his birth in 1749—belonged to the preceding generation. In 1699 he had entered the Congregation of the Oratorio della Fava, where he completed his training as a humanist with intensive studies in philosophy and theology of a Platonist and Augustinian tinge. In 1709, without leaving the priesthood, he obtained leave from the congregation in order to gain a better acquaintance with novelties arriving from the north: Bacon and Descartes, Malebranche and Locke, Newton and Leibniz, innovations in mathematics, physics, and philosophy, all of which fascinated the best professors of the University of Padua. In 1713, the year of the Treaty of Utrecht, duly initiated in his homeland into the new science and the new doctrines, he made his way to Paris where he sufficiently impressed Malebranche for the latter to agree to discuss his metaphysical system with him, and where he frequented several eminent members of the Academy of Sciences. Far from being a dazzled innocent, Conti espoused no specific school of thought or new scientific theory, though he was careful to familiarize himself with all of them. To gain a better idea of the British counterpart of the Cartesianism dominant in France, he visited London where he met the astronomer Halley and the mathematician Newton. His mastery of the new science won him election to the Royal Society. He extended his peregrinations to Holland and Germany, where he met Newton's great rival Leibniz, with whom he remained in correspondence. His curiosity, his powers of assimilation and comparison, and his irenicism made this enlightened ecclesiastic an ideal audience and interlocutor for the greatest contemporary minds of the Republic of Letters.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "When The World Spoke French (New York Review Books Classics)" by Marc Fumaroli. Copyright © 0 by Marc Fumaroli. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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