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A New York Review Books Original
During the eighteenth century, from the death of Louis XIV until the Revolution, French culture set the standard for all of Europe. In Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, England, Russia, and Germany, among kings and queens, diplomats, military leaders, writers, aristocrats, and artists, French was the universal language of politics and intellectual life. In When the World Spoke French, Marc Fumaroli presents a gallery of portraits of Europeans and ...
A New York Review Books Original
During the eighteenth century, from the death of Louis XIV until the Revolution, French culture set the standard for all of Europe. In Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, England, Russia, and Germany, among kings and queens, diplomats, military leaders, writers, aristocrats, and artists, French was the universal language of politics and intellectual life. In When the World Spoke French, Marc Fumaroli presents a gallery of portraits of Europeans and Americans who conversed and corresponded in French, along with excerpts from their letters or other writings.
These men and women, despite their differences, were all irresistibly attracted to the ideal of human happiness inspired by the Enlightenment, whose capital was Paris and whose king was Voltaire. Whether they were in Paris or far away, speaking French connected them in spirit with all those who desired to emulate Parisian tastes, style of life, and social pleasures. Their stories are testaments to the appeal of that famous “sweetness of life” nourished by France and its language.
"When the World Spoke French is a magisterial compendium of biographical essays, written in an unhurried style and interleaved with an anthology of elegant, sometimes astringent, often effusive, antique verbiage. This grandiose elegy offers choice pleasure to readers who care to eavesdrop on the table- and pillow-talk among an impressive cast of aristocrats (local and foreign), philosophes, English expatriates, and quick-witted American arrivistes....[author Marc Fumaroli's] command of sources, his treasury of recondite detail and his narrative zest combine in a sustained celebration both of francophone intelligence and of the sexual intrigues that so often put desire and diplomacy in bed together." — Frederic Raphael, The Wall Street Journal
"In the 18th century, French was the language of culture and diplomacy, uniquely suited to express the wit and style of mainly European political, social, and literary luminaries, according to veteran French scholar Fumaroli. Letters and memoirs composed in French from major figures like Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia, along with relative unknowns like Neapolitan Abbé Galiani or American Gouverneur Morris, map a trail from the enlightened salons of Paris to the partition of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in the 18th century....The smooth translation by Pulitzer winner Howard facilitates appreciation of the witty writers....Whether randomly selecting a chapter or treating the book as a saga sweeping inexorably toward the Polish debacle and the French Reign of Terror, readers cannot fail to find their own enlightenment in these gems." — Publishers Weekly
“The names read like a Who’s Who: the Viscount Bolingbroke and Lord Chesterfield of England, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Frederick the Great and Frederick Melchoir Grimm of Prussia/Germany, Catherine the Great of Russia, Gustavus III of Sweden, Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris of the United States, Stanislas II of Poland, to mention only ten of them.”
—Freeman G. Henry, Language, Culture, and Hegemony in Modern France
"VERDICT This exceptional history of manners and letters should become an instant classic. Like Francis Steegmuller’s A Woman, A Man, and Two Kingdoms, it will enchant anyone interested in 18th-century literature or history."—David Keymer, Library Journal
Throughout the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of learning and international communication. But in the early modern period it was gradually displaced by French. By the eighteenth century, all the world—or at least all of Europe—aspired to be Parisian.
And with good reason: France's capital was the center of culture, wit, and fashion, the very source of savoir-faire and savoir-vivre, the dream palace where every Cunégonde could glitter and be gay and where every young man from the provinces—or from some minor duchy of the Holy Roman Empire—could make his fame and fortune. In the salons of Madame Geoffrin and Madame du Deffand, intrigues might be hatched, understandings reached, empires toppled.
If you were Frederick II of Prussia or the learned Abbé Galiani of Naples, an English aristocrat like Lord Chesterfield or even Catherine the Great of Russia, you might be compelled to live most of your life far from the galanterie of Paris, yet still you read French novels, French newspapers, French philosophers. When you wrote letters to friends, or scribbled in your journal, or chattered over dinner with a visiting dignitary or prelate, the words that flowed from your pen and the witticisms that accompanied the wine were all in the elegant tongue of Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire. French was no mere language, it was a state of mind. When I set off to college in the mid-1960s, la belle langue was still viewed as the language of high culture. To an Ohio boy it represented world-weary Gallic shrugs and Gauloises cigarettes, existentialist thinkers in berets and Catherine Deneuve in nothing at all; French was the language of intellectual power and effortless sex appeal. By contrast, Spanish seemed utterly plebeian, German mainly for scientists, Italian for voice majors. Much has changed since then, yet to this day French possesses one outstanding attraction that no other foreign language can match: its literature. Marc Fumaroli tells us that When the World Spoke French began as just a little anthology of Enlightenment prose, written by those "kings and queens, military leaders, ambassadors, great ladies, adventurers" whose Francophilia led them to express themselves with ease, grace, and precision in their adopted language. To introduce the various samplings (mainly from letters), Fumaroli needed to say a little about the lives and careers of such romantic figures as gothic-obsessed William Beckford, the urbane Prince de Ligne, and Stanislaw Poniatowski, king of Poland. As happens, though, the brief biographies often digressed into short essays on aspects of what Fumaroli calls "French Europe."
If nothing more, When the World Spoke French gives substance to those glamorous names that recur throughout memoirs and letters of this period: the Comte de Caylus, the Maréchal de Saxe, the Countess of Albany, EugÕne, Prince of Savoy-Carignan. For instance, I somehow own an (unread) copy of Anthony Hamilton's Mémoires du Comte de Gramont, which Fumaroli informs me the aphorist Chamfort dubbed the "breviary of the young nobility." In this account of his brother-in-law's life, Hamilton describes Gramont's overall joie de vivre, especially "his disdain for economy, his passion for gambling, his sumptuous expenditures, his appetite for galant intrigues, his charm and his gifts as a lover, his wit, his valor, and even his impalpable touch of cynicism." Anthony Hamilton may have been a Scot by birth, yet his French was impeccable, even "quasi-Mozartian" in its charm, and won the praise of Voltaire: "Of all the books of this age, this is the one in which the slenderest matter is embellished with the gayest, the liveliest, and the most agreeable style."
Intimately familiar with the literature and history of the eighteenth century, Fumaroli regularly pauses to reflect on various aspects of French esprit. For instance, in discussing theater, he notes how much Marivaux learned about comic drama from Italian commedia dell'arte, which emphasized irony, fantasy, physical action, quick repartee, singing and dancing. "Each actor was a complete artist who invented for herself or himself the ever-growing text of the role she or he interpreted, in intimate cooperation with all the others during rehearsal as well as onstage all'improviso." From these Italians Marivaux discovered "the coincidence of contraries," of "lyricism and irony, life and dream, the magic sweetness of love and the harshness of reality as calculated by vanity." The lasting result would be such vivacious plays as Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard (The Game of Love and Chance).
While Frederick II of Prussia never consented to speak any language but French, his courtly prose probably seems a bit too calculated and contrived for modern tastes. Not so that of his sister Frederica Sophia Wilhelmina, who displays a sparkle and frankness that her brother's friend Voltaire might have envied. In her memoirs, she writes of a visit of the Russian tsar Peter and his wife:
The tsarina was short and squat, very dark- complexioned, and had neither grace nor bearing. One had only to look at her to perceive her low birth. She might have been taken, in the outfit she was wearing, for some sort of German actress. Her gown appeared to have been purchased at some secondhand emporium; it was in the old style and covered with silver trinkets. The front of her skirt was embroidered with all kinds of semiprecious stones, in a strange design: a two-headed eagle, its feathers embellished with tiny pieces of gold and crystal. She was also wearing some dozen medals and as many portraits of saints and relics attached to the entire length of her cloak, so that, with each step she took, one seemed to be hearing a pack mule: all those medals rattled against one another, making a considerable racket.An ardent Francophile, Lord Chesterfield addressed a series of didactic letters to his son, emphasizing the boy's need to acquire a Parisian-style urbanity and complete mastery of "the supreme art of pleasing." Samuel Johnson famously dismissed the letters as teaching "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master." Fumaroli addresses this moral issue head on. Courtly conduct, he notes, raises the question of "dissimulation, and more precisely the delicate difference of degree separating this art of secrecy from simulation and lies." In essence,
dissimulation is a political and social necessity that can and must remain invisible; simulation and lying are conspicuous vices of the heart. Dissimulation is the general index of social relations: it is inseparable from propriety, which is a penetrating attention to another person and to his singularities as much as a sort of self-protection. Simulation and lying are violent means, symptoms of a flawed mind and a weakened soul. They break the social pact and render odious those who stoop to them.For even the ordinary well-read person, the French Enlightenment is largely restricted to the three big-name philosophes: Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire. Fumaroli refers frequently to the author of Candide, in part because of Voltaire's overwhelming dominance of intellectual Europe and partly because of his close intimacy with Frederick II. But several Francophile foreigners deserve to be known outside the halls of university French departments. The Abbé Galiani was, according to both the philosopher Nietzsche and the literary critic Sainte-Beuve, "one of the most brilliant minds of the eighteenth century and perhaps the most electrifying." At the age of twenty-three "he published a treatise, De la Monnaie, which Marx cites in Das Kapital as a classic of the theory of commercial value." Following a brief sojourn in Paris during his youth, the abbé was obliged to return to Naples, where he "became for correspondence in French what Casanova was...for French mémoires: the supreme master in his genre, besides Voltaire." Fumaroli includes several of his delicious letters to his favorite correspondent, Madame d'Épinay.
One particularly delightful chapter of When the World Spoke French outlines the work of Christian apologist Louis-Antoine Caraccioli, who printed one of his books in green ink, another in pink, and one, Le Livre des Quatre Couleurs (The Book of Four Colors), in a surrealist "green, pink, blue and beige." Of this last volume, a send-up of the trivial and disposable "pocket book" then fashionable, Caraccioli wrote: "I do not offer this book to posterity, for beyond the fact that it would not reach its addressee, it would then be 'the old Gothic Book' and no longer correspond to its title." Instead, he hopes that his little volume will serve as the pastime for a lady's dog, which would result in its being "elegantly dismembered page by page." Alternately, it might provide hair- curling papers for the lady herself. "Such is the most brilliant success to which it might aspire. Would to Heaven that the majority of our writers might form no other ambition!"
America is represented in When the World Spoke French by Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris. Franklin, we are reminded, managed to conquer Paris by careful stage management of his image, presenting himself as "authentic," homespun in his garb, Quaker-like in his appearance. He proposed marriage to two handsome French ladies, and when he was refused answered them in letters with the mock desolation of a practiced courtier. American ambassador Morris was a genuine ladies' man and even stole a mistress away from Talleyrand. He provides one of the best eyewitness accounts of the Reign of Terror, which brought a centuries-old douceur de vivre to a bloody end.
Yet violent death didn't always originate from the mob: Gustav II, of Sweden, who founded the Swedish Academy after the French original he admired, was assassinated at a masked ball, which later provided Verdi with the inspiration for his opera Un Ballo in Maschera. Fumaroli quotes a charming letter from a Count Scheffer instructing one of Gustav's sons in the art of letter writing:
If your Highness wishes to know just what epistolary style is, you have merely to read the letters of Mme de Sévigné; you will have the sense of hearing a conversation, that of a mother speaking to her daughter as if they were together, face to face. If you find a good deal of wit in these letters, it is because Mme de Sévigné had a great deal of that characteristic, and because one speaks wittily when one has wit. But those letters to which I allude were never praised because they were witty; those of Voiture and Rabutin were quite as much so; rather they have been praised, admired, even adopted as models for letters because they were simple and natural, not because wit was artfully inserted within them, but as it would be found in the mouth of person to whom it has not even occurred to possess such a thing. From this you may conclude, Monseigneur, that with regard to letters, it is no more difficult to write them than to speak. All that resembles conversation is good, all that has a more prepared and affected quality good taste will infallibly condemn.Throughout his grab-bag of a book, Fumaroli regularly praises that special quality of French culture, the art of living, "the art of rendering earth and our passage upon it more spiritual, that is to say, less ponderous, more enlightened." In discussing the urbane Prince de Ligne, he describes this friend of Casanova's particular spirit and wit, his exceptionally winning ways:
Esprit is a casual improvisation, free of all the stigmata of effort on which the pedant prides himself. It has everything to do with charm, vivacity, the lovable ease that becomes as irresistible in love affairs as in the great world. Epigram, pun, the quick turn of phrase, the telling characterization, the racy story—everything that adds salt to dialogue and fire to life in society enters into the felicity of the oral expression of the man or woman of wit.Notwithstanding the overall excellence of When the World Spoke French, I should add one warning: at times Fumaroli's prose—at least as translated by Richard Howard—sounds slightly overblown, its syntax unnatural. I presume this is an accurate transmission of Fumaroli's highly rhetorical French, since the various extracts from letters and memoirs, also translated by Howard, can be quite different in style. That said, there's so much to enjoy in these pages that this is a minor cavil rather than a major complaint.
Let me end with one of Fumaroli's typical mini-essays, this one in praise of the late-life memoir, which he associates in its style—"the sinewy art of dialogue and narrative, the talent of portraiture and anecdote"—with letter writing and salon conversation. French, after all, is the great language of intimacy as well as worldliness:
The superiority of mémoires over the best historiography is that they show instead of trying to explain. And they show in that secondary state of a witness who knows he is going to die, leafing through his still-searing memories of what he has seen, what he has done, what he has heard, what he has felt, illuminated one last time in the gathering darkness by the light of a sun that will not rise again.... One does not forget what has made one tremble with fear or pleasure.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays, including Classics for Pleasure.
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.
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.
Excerpted from WHEN THE WORLD SPOKE FRENCH by MARC FUMAROLI Copyright © 2001 by Marc Fumaroli. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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