Falconet: a sculptor’s quest for influence

Portrait of Falconet

Portrait of Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716–1791) (Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne the Younger, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Etienne Maurice Falconet came out of nowhere. We have no record of the years he is reported to have spent as an apprentice in a master’s shop. Although Parisian by birth, he did not belong to any of the established artistic dynasties. At eighteen, he is said to have worked at a chair-maker’s shop, heralding the type of artisanal livelihood that so many now unknown sculptors embraced in the burgeoning luxury trade of early eighteenth-century Paris. But soon enough he managed to ease his way out of chair-making and into the fortunate selection of young sculptors to compete for and achieve membership of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. What happened next, Falconet’s reinvention of himself as a modern philosophe, can be considered a singular achievement by any standards.

Contemporary apocrypha of course reinforce the idea of the hypnotic charm exuded by his works, and leave the man out of the picture. Chance discoveries in the gardens of Versailles and furtive work in the studio of his master Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne are all part of the legend: Lemoyne is reported to have barged in on Falconet during waged hours, catching him red-handed modelling an independent work, his Milo of Croton. Lemoyne then cheered him on. ‘The young Falconet offered himself to Lemoyne as servant, valet, anything he liked’, is how Denis Diderot, one of his closest friends and allies, recalls a decisive encounter between the two. Falconet’s mode of introduction to Lemoyne was a selling point, and it would have involved intricacies of parentage, speech, demeanour and manner.

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l'Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l’Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

The remainder of Falconet’s life story, now less apocryphal, shows that the man was unusually adept at winning over the well-connected and powerful. No other artist of his time seemed better able to tap into the wishes and convictions of his beneficiaries or contemporaries: to his Parisian masters, he was a renegade with an admiration for the Provençal sculptor Pierre Puget, while at the Académie royale, he was a social riser, author of a lecture on the art of sculpture written with a clarity and forcefulness worthy of a literate amateur member. He was a sumptuously decorative artist to Madame de Pompadour, who appointed him to the post of modeller for the recently created Sèvres National Porcelain Manufactory. He was the Boucher of sculpture to fashionable Parisian art collectors, and the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of sculpture to Diderot, his friend at the radical Salon d’Holbach. A bibliophile who, by the early 1760s, had accumulated a stunning facility with classical literature, Falconet culled from the stoics a persona of utter restraint, with living and dressing habits to match.

This was all before 1766, when, aged fifty, he emigrated to St Petersburg where he played a French homme d’esprit and confidant to Catherine II of Russia, who commissioned him with what would be his magnum opus as a sculptor: the landmark equestrian statue of Peter I in St Petersburg, known in street parlance as the ‘Bronze horseman’. Was this all really because his sculptures were so well done? As Diderot quipped in his Jacques le fataliste, we may believe it to be true, or decide it is a falsehood, and we would not be wrong in either case.

Inauguration of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great

Inauguration of the Monument to Peter the Great, A. K. Melnikov, A. P. Davydov, 1782

1 December 2016 marked three centuries since the birth of this remarkable actor of the Enlightenment stage. Art history, the discipline that through the twentieth century rediscovered him as a proto-romantic rebel, seems of late to have ignored his sculpture. He was not one to sympathize with those men of letters who reviewed works at the Salons where he exhibited his marble sculptures, even though these men were inventing modern art criticism. Conversely, their parliamentary reformism did not inform his manicured, seductive sculpture by any perceivable or logical rationale. Perhaps one day more will come of comparing his work to Diderot’s materialism and complex rethinking of the links between artistic activity and moral realities, illusion and artifice in art.

For now, the way one understands the socio-cultural and aesthetic modernity breaking through in eighteenth-century France is more Chardin or David than Falconet. By contrast, Falconet’s writings, which were recuperated from oblivion by Yves Benot and Anne Betty Weinshenker (Falconet: his writings and his friend Diderot, published in 1966), continue to represent a challenge, almost a missing link to fledging Enlightenment cultural battles. But theory too seems to have represented for Falconet a means of bending and refashioning his circumstances for the better. After starting on his Russian mission in 1766, Falconet practically gave up sculpture in order to devote himself to his written polemics. This new obsession led to his falling out with Diderot, who was wary of Falconet’s plans to publish a series of letters they had exchanged since 1765.

macsotay-bookcover

After this, Falconet set out to extract from the letters a body of critical commentary that, in 1781, became published simply as a collection of polemical pieces. Only in these pieces does Falconet deploy a more strident persona: an iconoclast that attacks false privilege and the condescension of literary luminaries writing inanely on art. It is left to the discerning connoisseur and the critical art historian to quarrel over how to credit Falconet’s successes. Was it a result of his sheer vocation for modelling and carving marble figures, or should we also see other factors at work? Power-grabbing is one thing to consider, as Jacques-Louis David made clear in his commentary on a heated argument from 1793 on power abuses at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In David’s report, he recalled how a young former student of Falconet committed suicide after a falling-out with the sculptor. Whatever this may say to us, Falconet had a tenacious way of making sure he stayed on the winning side.

For a deeper analysis of the sculptor’s life at the famous Académie, see my book The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.

– Tomas Macsotay

Voltaire and the Jacobites

Battle of Culloden

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (The Battle of Culloden), by David Morier, 1746, image Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire had long-running and complicated relationships with the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, the Catholic dynasty which was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange in 1688. Towards the largest Jacobite émigré community in France, the Irish, he showed the same lack of sympathy that he extended to Ireland in general.  He was much better disposed towards the Scots Jacobites, as shown in the description of the ’45 rebellion included in his Précis du Siècle de Louis XV.  In the course of that famous uprising, Voltaire had gone so far as to write a manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed James II), although his motives had more to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the French government than with affection for the Stuarts.  He later befriended the Scottish Jacobite exile Field Marshall Keith, whose eulogy he wrote in 1758.  He was less positive towards the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scots convert to Catholicism and follower of Fénelon who once tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’).  Voltaire sniffed at Ramsay as a plagiarist.

Whatever his reactions to individual Jacobite exiles, Voltaire never dismissed Jacobitism as backward or despotic.  His positive attitude may have been shaped by his early friendships with Viscount Bolingbroke, an exiled Tory minister who was attracted to Jacobitism at various phases of his long career, and bishop Atterbury of Rochester.  Bolingbroke welcomed Voltaire to his house at La Source near Orléans in December 1722.  The Viscount admired the young French poet, but warned him to restrain the influence of his imagination.  Bolingbroke also consulted Alexander Pope on the merits of Voltaire’s pirated epic, La Ligue, the first version of La Henriade.  The image of King Henry IV of France presented in that poem may have appealed to Bolingbroke, who had tried in vain to persuade the Stuart claimant, James III, to change his religion in order to gain a throne.

Voltaire may not have met Atterbury before 1728, but he knew of him through his close correspondent Thieriot, who was friendly with the exiled Tory bishop and Jacobite conspirator.  In spite of his orthodox Anglican piety Atterbury was fascinated by Voltaire.  Two of Atterbury’s French literary associates, the abbé Granet and the abbé Desfontaines, translated into French works that Voltaire wrote while living in England.  Desfontaines included a brief tribute to Atterbury in his translation.

Henry St John (1678–1751), 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, by Jonathan Richardson the elder, image Lydiard House.

Voltaire’s English friends did him little good during his sojourn in England from 1726 to 1728.  Bolingbroke had already returned to his homeland, and to opposition politics.  Through the newspaper The Craftsman he became the chief critic of ‘ministerial despotism’.  For his part, Pope was about to publish the Dunciad, a stinging attack on the Walpole administration.  Although Voltaire tried to work his way into governing Whig circles, and received a grant of £200 from George II’s personal revenues in 1727, he kept making the wrong political connections.  Much of his last year in England was spent in the houses of the Tory Earl Bathurst, an associate of Atterbury, and the Earl of Peterborough, a retired general who was disdained by the Whig establishment. Peterborough introduced Voltaire to Dr John Freind, a Jacobite physician who had participated in the Atterbury Plot of 1722.  These were not men who could do Voltaire much good with the government.  Although he was able to publish La Henriade by subscription, Voltaire had little success in finding wider patronage in England.  Tellingly, although he met the Duke of Richmond, a leading Whig Freemason, he was not initiated into the Masonic brotherhood, unlike Montesquieu and the Chevalier Ramsay.

After his return to France in 1728 Voltaire’s friendship with Atterbury became closer.  In 1731 he placed a glowing reference to ‘the learned bishop of Rochester’ into his play Brutus, which was dedicated to Bolingbroke.  Atterbury’s former secretary, the Nonjuror Thomas Carte, smuggled copies of La Henriade into France in 1728-1729, which he distributed through Desfontaines.  Carte, a friend of Ramsay and admirer of the abbé de St Pierre, was engaged on a Latin edition of Jacques Auguste de Thou’s history of the French religious wars.  Voltaire idolized de Thou.  Jacobites like Carte and Atterbury, and ex-Jacobites like Bolingbroke, were beginning to see themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty against the rule of tyrannical ministers and greedy ‘moneyed men’.  Voltaire may have appealed to them as a champion of free expression and an enemy of despotism.

Voltaire’s own account of England in his Lettres sur les Anglais (later known as Lettres Philosophiques), published in English in 1733 as Letters concerning the English Nation, rejects the anger of his Tory and Jacobite friends by praising the freedom, tolerance and prosperity of the Whig regime.  Doubtless Voltaire was trying to gain the favour of the pro-Whig administration of Cardinal Fleury.  He may also have been encouraging his disgruntled English acquaintances to accept the changes that had happened in their own country.  Yet he also gave the only truly political voice in the book to a Jacobite Member of Parliament, William Shippen.  In evoking a speech by Shippen praising ‘the Majesty of the English People’, Voltaire may have rendered a small gesture of respect to the principles of those alienated Tories and Jacobites from whom he would never entirely disassociate himself.

– Paul Monod, Middlebury College

 

Voltaire and the one-liner

To mark the publication at Oxford University Press of his new book ‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’, a contribution to their Very Short Introductions series, Nicholas Cronk has written the following post about the wit and wisdom of Voltaire for the OUP Blog.

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cronk is published by Oxford University Press.

As we mark Voltaire’s 323rd birthday – though the date of 20 February is problematic, – what significance does the great Enlightenment writer have for us now? If I had to be very very short, I’d say that Voltaire lives on as a master of the one-liner. He presents us with a paradox. Voltaire wrote a huge amount – the definitive edition of his Complete works being produced by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford will soon be finished, in around 200 volumes. And yet he is really famous for his short sentences. He likes being brief, though as a critic once remarked, “Voltaire is interminably brief.”

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is full of telling phrases. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” asks Candide in Chapter 6. The expression “best of all possible worlds” comes originally from the philosopher Leibniz, but it is Voltaire’s repeated use of the phrase in Candide that has made it instantly familiar today. Another saying from the novel was an instant hit with French readers: in Chapter 16, Candide and his manservant Cacambo, travelling in the New World dressed as Jesuits, fall into the hands of cannibals who exclaim triumphantly: “Mangeons du jésuite” (“Let’s eat some Jesuit”): the Jesuits were highly unpopular in France at this time, and the expression instantly became a catch-phrase.

One French expression from Candide has even become proverbial in English. In 1756, the British lost Minorca to the French, as a result of which Admiral Byng was court-martialled and executed. Voltaire has fun with this in Chapter 23:

‘And why kill this admiral?’
‘Because he didn’t kill enough people,’ Candide was told. ‘He gave battle to a French admiral, and it has been found that he wasn’t close enough.’
‘But,’ said Candide, ‘the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral as he was from him!’
‘Unquestionably,’ came the reply. ‘But in this country it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.’

Painting of Voltaire by Bouchot.

Voltaire. After a painting, by Bouchot No. 539. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire’s other writings are equally full of pithy and memorable short sentences, which often help him drive home a point, such as this, from his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie: “L’espèce humaine est la seule qui sache qu’elle doit mourir” (“The human species is unique in knowing it must die”).

Other lines, like this one from his poem about luxury, Le Mondain, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“The superfluous, a very necessary thing”) are all the more memorable for being in verse. Voltaire’s facility for producing snappy phrases is even there in his private correspondence, as this letter to his friend Damilaville (1 April 1766): “Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (“When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost”).

And one phrase that still resonates with us comes from a private notebook that Voltaire surely never intended to publish: “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux” (“God is on the side not of the heavy battalions, but of the best shots”).

Then there are the ones that got away, the one-liners he never actually said – ‘misquotations’ in the parlance of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Hardly a week passes without a newspaper quoting “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire’s rallying cry of free speech is central to our modern liberal agenda, so it’s a bit awkward that he never actually said it. The expression was made up in 1906 by an English woman, biographer E. B. Hall. But she meant well, and we have collectively decided that Voltaire should have said it. Another advantage of Voltaire’s one-liners is that they provide great marketing copy, and a quick search on the web reveals that many of them are for sale, on t-shirts, shopping-bags, and mugs. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is especially popular, in French as well as English – which explains my favourite t-shirt: “Je me battrai jusqu’à ma mort pour que vous puissiez citer erronément Voltaire” (“I will fight to my death so that you can quote Voltaire incorrectly”).

Luckily, wit is contagious. There is a famous one-liner in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, when the servant Figaro imagines addressing his aristocratic master: “Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus” (“You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more”). This has become so celebrated that we have forgotten that Beaumarchais was only improving on a less snappy one-liner he had found in one of Voltaire’s more obscure comedies. George Bernard Shaw, a self-styled follower of Voltaire, has fun with misattributed sayings in Man and Superman:

Tanner: Let me remind you that Voltaire said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Straker: It wasn’t Voltaire. It was Bow Mar Shay.
Tanner: I stand corrected: Beaumarchais of course.

And so we go on inventing Voltaire. Another dictum that has recently gained wide currency on the web is this: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Now regularly attributed to Voltaire, this saying seems to originate with something written in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, and not a man who obviously exudes Voltairean wit and irony. But once you become an authority, it seems, all sides have a claim on you.

The one-liner can seem a good way of encapsulating a truth: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).

Voltaire knew he was on to a winner with this line, from a poem of 1768 (the Epître à l’auteur du livre des trois imposteurs), and he re-used it often in later works. Another much-repeated phrase occurs at the end of Candide. When the characters finally come together, after umpteen trials and tribulations, all argument is silenced with the words “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”). Is this a precious nugget of wisdom, neatly encapsulated? Or is it just another “Brexit means Brexit”, a trite phrase meaning anything and nothing? But that, of course, is another use of the one-liner: to maintain suspense, while bringing down the curtain at the end….

– Nicholas Cronk

This post first appeared on the OUP Blog.

Françoise de Graffigny, gouvernante et observatrice de l’éducation des femmes

Mme de Graffigny

Françoise de Graffigny by Pierre-Augustin Clavareau. Lunéville, musée du château des Lumières. Photo: T. Franz, Conseil départemental 54.

Pour marquer la Journée internationale des femmes nous nous tournons vers Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758), femme de lettres dont le talent était reconnu dans toute l’Europe. Sa Correspondance montre son indépendance, son dévouement à sa pratique de romancière et de dramaturge, son esprit critique, son langage franc et réaliste.

Fille d’un militaire attaché à la cour de Lorraine, et admise au cercle qui entourait la duchesse Elisabeth-Charlotte et ses enfants, elle n’étudiait ni le latin ni l’orthographe, mais elle chantait, dansait, jouait de la vielle, brodait, plaisait par sa façon de parler et de raconter, et montait sur les planches dans les comédies de la cour. Veuve à l’âge de 30 ans, et ayant perdu trois enfants en bas âge, elle s’occupa de l’éducation d’au moins une des ses jeunes parentes, Anne-Catherine de Ligniville. Elle aida la marquise de Grandville lorsque celle-ci donna naissance à un enfant en 1735, et elle avait plusieurs filleules pour qui elle gardait de l’affection.

La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny.

La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, 15 vol. (Oxford, 1985-2016).

Après avoir quitté la Lorraine, elle s’installa à Paris en octobre 1739 comme dame de compagnie de la duchesse de Richelieu, et après la mort de celle-ci, devint en 1740 dame de compagnie de la princesse de Ligne. Elle se lia d’amitié avec plusieurs gouvernantes des enfants Richelieu, notamment Mme Copineau, pour qui elle trouva un emploi de gouvernante à la cour de Vienne. Plus tard, reconnue comme un auteur célèbre et un modèle de sagesse, Graffigny composa des lettres édifiantes qu’elle envoya aux archiduchesses Marie-Anne et Marie-Elisabeth de Habsbourg-Lorraine, et à Marie-Thérèse de Cobenzl.

Graffigny critique l’éducation traditionnelle des femmes françaises dans son roman Lettres d’une Péruvienne (éditions de 1747 et 1752), et elle examine ailleurs dans son œuvre le rôle de la gouvernante, sa situation ambiguë entre dame et servante, et les inconvénients de son état: dépendance financière et sociale, soumission aux caprices des maîtres, la tâche (poignante pour Graffigny) de soigner les enfants d’autrui. Dans Cénie (1750), la pièce sentimentale qu’elle appela d’abord ‘La Gouvernante’, Orphise, la gouvernante vertueuse de l’héroïne Cénie, découvre dans une scène qui fit pleurer tous les spectateurs qu’elle est la mère biologique de sa pupille. En 1749, Graffigny écrit à Devaux: ‘J’ai encore un peu retouché “La Gouvernante” ce matin, et tout en corrigeant les phrases, j’ai pleuré moi-même.’

La Fille d'Aristide, title pages.

Two variant title pages of the original edition of La Fille d’Aristide (Paris, 1759).

Dans une autre pièce datant de la même époque, ‘La Brioche’, forme primitive de La Fille d’Aristide (1758), elle dépeint la gouvernante Lisette, qui dépasse les autres personnages de la pièce par son esprit, son sens de l’honneur et sa générosité; bénéficiaire d’une éducation exceptionnelle, elle gère les affaires du maître Géronte, arrange le mariage de sa fille et assure la fortune de son fils. Lisette explique ses ‘sentiments’ ainsi:

‘Je les dois tous aux bontés de ma défunte maîtresse; elle les étendit jusqu’à donner à une pauvre orpheline la même éducation qu’à sa propre fille.’

Mme de Graffigny manuscript.

Portion of ‘La Brioche’ manuscript (Yale University, Beinecke Library, Graffigny Papers, vol.79, p.17).

Comme Cénie et Orphise, Lisette est une étrangère au sein de la famille; à la fin elle refuse le mariage et reste maîtresse de sa vie. Ce personnage roturier, considéré trop osé par les amis de Graffigny, est remplacé par la fille adoptive Théonise dans La Fille d’Aristide.

Pendant toute sa vie, Graffigny compta parmi ses amies des femmes indépendantes, très différentes les unes des autres par leur niveau d’éducation et leur rang social. Elles participaient aux débats de l’époque, jugeaient les personnages avec lucidité, et ajoutaient sans doute du poids aux observations relatives à l’éducation des femmes et à l’exploration honnête des sentiments qui marquent l’œuvre de Graffigny. On trouve un excellent exemple de cette force de personnalité dans sa protégée Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, qui fit un effort extraordinaire pour rendre possible son mariage d’amour avec Helvétius, et qui prit la défense de son mari en 1758 lors de la condamnation de son livre De l’Esprit.

– Dorothy P. Arthur

The Scottish Enlightenment four stages theory: a (re-)introduction

There are few paradigms more tightly connected with the Scottish Enlightenment than the four stages theory. Yet it arguably remains one of the least understood.

John Millar

James Tassie, Medallion of John Millar (1767). Courtesy of the University of Glasgow Archive Services, University collection, GB 248 UP3/26/1.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a whole host of famous Scottish thinkers – Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and John Millar – attempted to explain a range of social phenomena according to a single, universal narrative of the history of progress. The spirit of the paradigm was that the fundamental distinguishing components of societies lay not in accidents of climate, religion or race, but rather in the social, psychological, legal and cultural effects of the history of property and sustenance relations. While French thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot used three stages to achieve similar analyses, the Scots preferred four:

  1. Hunting, where property only extended to what one could carry on one person (savagery),
  2. Pastoralism, where shepherding witnessed the development of animal property (barbarism),
  3. Agriculture, where society became settled and landed property became pivotal in the production of sustenance (civilisation),
  4. Commercial society, defined by contemporary Europe.

The paradigm has, for good reason, been widely identified as a pioneering step in the development of various disciplines of the modern social sciences. At the same time, in taking the commercial society of eighteenth-century Britain as the pinnacle of the history of liberty, postcolonial scholars have, with validity, critiqued it as a blatant example of Eurocentric world historical narration.

John Millar, the protégé of Adam Smith and Regius professor of civil law at the University of Glasgow for nearly four decades at the end of the eighteenth century, is often cited as the most systematic articulator of the four stages theory. Attention has been paid particularly to his reflections on the history of family and gender, which constitute the great bulk of his stadial theory-infused magnus opus, the Origin of the Distinction of Ranks.

ose-2017-03-50pc

I began research for my book John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: family life and world history with the intention of revealing how Millar managed his oft-celebrated cohesion. In fact, I was quickly confronted with lacunae, gaps and contradictions with Millar’s stadial analysis. Digging deeper, I realised that these arose from his difficulties in overcoming a complex intellectual web of competing analytical frameworks using evidence and existing scholarship that defied any easy organisation. Moreover, it became clear that his intention was much less to innovate any coherent science of stage-based analysis than to set out his convictions about politics, the family and the nature of authority.

Too often, Millar’s lack of full coherence in his use of stadial analysis has been attributed to intellectual underperformance. In my book, I take a different approach, viewing Millar as a guide to the history of knowledge underpinning the pursuit of stadial history, with a particular focus on gender and the family. Millar used the stadial model as only one of several intersecting paradigms. His deployment and innovation of classic natural law structures, such as the history of household authority relations and the tripartite division of marriage struggle, reveals the importance of his professional setting as a professor of law in Glasgow. Additionally, in his retention of religion as a critical means for explaining differences in marriage practices, we see that even Millar had doubts about stadial analysis as a fully convincing alternative to paradigms such as sacred history.

The deeper we probe into Miller’s complex work, the more we discover his Enlightenment spirit of speculative curiosity. His legacy to modern disciplines of sociology and anthropology [1] lies not so much in the rigidity of his conviction in any single analytical framework, but rather his thirst for cross-cultural comparison and analysis. His extended discussion of topics ranging from matriarchal familial forms and the Amazon legend to national character and polygamy was not intended to tie up loose threads in stadial analysis, but rather to be an ambitious attempt at historicising all dimensions of authority.

– Nicholas B. Miller, University of Lisbon

[1] William Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow 1735-1801: his life and thought and his contributions to sociological analysis (Cambridge, 1960).

 

If Voltaire had used Wikipedia…

At the Voltaire Foundation we’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the University of Oxford’s Wikimedian in residence, Dr Martin Poulter. He has helped us to build some new content for our website as well as contributing to our mission to promote the work of Voltaire. In this blog post, he explains a bit more about the project.

Sharing open knowledge about Voltaire’s histories

To raise awareness of Voltaire as a historian, we used three tools:

  1. Histropedia: a free tool for creating engaging, interactive visualisations
  2. Wikidata: a free database and sister site of Wikipedia that drives Histropedia and other visualisations
  3. Wikipedia: the free multilingual encyclopedia.

As well as holding data about people, publications, and events, Wikidata acts as a cross-reference between the different language versions of Wikipedia, showing which concepts are represented in which languages. By querying Wikidata, we could count how many language versions of Wikipedia had an article on each work by Voltaire. This showed, as expected, a large imbalance: forty languages for Candide versus three for the Essai sur les mœurs, for example. The current number of articles for each work is shown by the size of the bubbles below.

poulter-fig1

Creating interactive timelines

The timelines are built from three things:

  1. Wikipedia articles (that open on double-clicking the entry in the timeline)
  2. Publication dates and titles from Wikidata
  3. Images (in the case of books, usually title pages) that are hosted in the Wikimedia Commons repository (another sister site of Wikipedia).

We added articles, data and images to what was already present on these sites. Since Wikimedia sites are open and free, this content is available for reuse by other sites and applications. For instance, the images have been tagged by their year, language and subject so as to appear in searches and image galleries (for example for books in French or books from the eighteenth century).

A custom Wikidata query showed works by Voltaire with their publication dates, helping to identify works lacking a date. We added new entries for some works that were absent, including most of the historical works.

The timeline of Voltaire’s works uses a custom database query to bring all this content together. The timeline does not by any means include all of Voltaire’s works, but more will appear in future as their details are added to Wikidata. As well as each work’s title, publication date and image, the query returns the type of work; poems, plays, fiction and so on. This is used to colour-code the timeline. Clicking on the drop icon in the top left brings up a list of types. Readers can select the type they are interested in to filter the results shown in the timeline, for example to show only the histories. To make the histories especially visible, we added title page images from public domain sources or the Voltaire Foundation’s own collection.

As well as the timeline of works, we used Histropedia to create a companion timeline for ‘An explorer’s guide to the Siècle de Louis XIV ’. Instead of a database query, this one is driven by a fixed list of people and events, all of whom already had articles in English Wikipedia. The resulting timeline is the sort of thing that we like to imagine Voltaire might have produced, if he’d had access to Wikipedia while researching his monumental history of the reign of the Sun King. We’re sure he would have been unable to resist adding to Wikipedia a few articles of his own…

Creating and publicising Wikipedia articles

We created English articles on The Age of Louis XIV, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, Annals of the Empire and Précis du siècle de Louis XV. These are not intended to be comprehensive, but to give basic facts about each work, to indicate why each work is important and to cite printed editions and relevant online resources, such as the explorer’s guide.

One way we drew readers to these new articles was to make links from elsewhere in Wikipedia, naturally including the Voltaire article which gets 3670 hits per day. Another was to use the Did You Know (DYK) process: new articles, of sufficient length, can be submitted for review. If they pass a check of accuracy and quality, an interesting fact from the article, linked to the full article, appears on the front page of English Wikipedia for twelve hours, exposing it to potentially millions of people. The articles on Essai sur les mœurs and The Age of Louis XIV were both submitted to DYK, getting 1584 hits and 1070 hits respectively during their times on the front page. The attention inspired another Wikipedian to create a Turkish article on the Essai, bringing the total number of Wikipedia articles on the Essai to five.

The four new English articles get about fifty views per day, or 18,000 per year. They have been checked and approved by other Wikipedians, and the individual facts within them are cited, so can be expected to remain in Wikipedia from now on.

Someone who has just read an article is open to reading a related article. In usability research, the end of an article is termed a ‘seducible moment’ for this reason. Wikipedia uses navigational templates (blocks of related links) to take advantage of these moments and direct readers to articles on the same theme.

We expanded English Wikipedia’s navigational template for Voltaire works, and, since French Wikipedia lacked a template, we created one. This links to all articles about Voltaire works and the article about Voltaire, greatly increasing the number of incoming links to each. We left instructions for French Wikipedians on how to embed the block in future articles.

Comparing article hit rates before and after the change, we estimate that the French navigational template increased views of its articles by about 2,000 per month, or 24,000 per year.

– Martin Poulter

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Exploring an abandoned 18th-century encyclopedia: an academic detective story

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Eighteenth-century Paris was a vibrant centre of scholarly activity, publishing, and consumption. As the number of printed works multiplied, the demand for condensed up-to-date summaries of all fields of knowledge increased. In my book The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia I tell the story of a hitherto unknown encyclopedic project that was being developed in Paris at the same time as Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. While the latter became a controversial but successful bestseller – often considered to be the medium of Enlightenment thought par excellence – the former never reached the public. The compilers were Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur, also known as Maurists. After ten years of work, they abandoned their encyclopedic enterprise. Decades later, after the French Revolution and the dissolution of all religious orders, the surviving manuscript found its way to the new national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France. For the next 160 years, though, it escaped the attention of researchers.

Uncovering the history of the Maurist encyclopedia became something of an academic detective story. I first laid my hands on the manuscript in 2009 after coming across, two years earlier, a curious piece of information that eventually led me to the BnF. It was a congregational report briefly noting that two monks in the Parisian abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés had worked on a ‘dictionnaire universel des arts méchaniques et libéraux, des métiers et de toutes les sciences qui y ont quelque rapport’.[1] Their names were Dom Antoine-Joseph Pernety and Dom François de Brézillac, and the report was dated 1747. This was the same year in which Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert became editors of the embryonic Encyclopédie. Moreover, the monks’ abbey was located just a few hundred meters from the Café Procope, the favorite meeting place of the encyclopédistes. In other words, two large-scale encyclopedias were initiated at the same time, in the very same quarter in Paris, but only one of them would make it to the printing press and into the history books.

The Left Bank of Paris in the mid-eighteenth century: the location of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1) and the Café Procope (2).

The Left Bank of Paris in the mid-eighteenth century: the location of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1) and the Café Procope (2).

There was no record of a Maurist encyclopedia ever being published and I had not found a single mention of the project in earlier research on the Congregation. Therefore I initially suspected that the work had been abandoned at an early phase and had thus been too short-lived to produce any text. Two years later, when I traced down the surviving material at the BnF, I quickly revised my assumption. The collection amounted to six volumes in-folio. Clearly, this project had been in progress for quite some time before the writers put down their quills. So, what had happened? What kind of encyclopedia had these monks been making? And how had their vision compared to the contemporary work of Diderot and D’Alembert?

It took me four years following up on many clues to answer these questions.

The Maurist manuscript was uncharted territory. The collection had no title page or explanatory preface. There were no signatures stating the names of the compilers or any information on their number. The handwriting, however, suggested contributions from more than two individuals. Furthermore, some textual parts were elegantly rewritten while others were merely scribbled drafts. Indications of missing pieces cropped up here and there. One volume contained what seemed to be a discarded early version of the project; another consisted only of ‘working lists’, such as inventories of literature and illustrations. Then (as if things were not complicated enough), I discovered that the whole manuscript had been rearranged at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century. I also learned that as much as a third of the original material could have been lost. Thus, what I held in my hands was not a finished manuscript preserved in its original state, but rather the incomplete remains of a dictionary abandoned in the making, later ordered and altered by uninitiated hands.

A page from the Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia, showing a collage of articles rearranged by the conservators at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century.

A page from the Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia, showing a collage of articles rearranged by the conservators at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia is just as much about overcoming the methodological challenges of studying incomplete, unfinished texts as it is a history of an unrealized scholarly enterprise. By combining clues from handwriting analysis, codicological examination, extensive textual comparisons and archival work, I demonstrate that the Maurist enterprise began life in 1743 as an augmented translation of a foreign lexicon – a mathematical lexicon by the German philosopher Christian Wolff. Due to competition with the embryonic Encyclopédie in 1746, the conditions for the monks’ work changed and the scope of their project expanded. Like the encyclopédistes, the Maurists devoted great attention to the mechanical arts and they planned for a great number of illustrations. By excluding religion, politics and ethics, the monks created a secular, non-confrontational reference work that focused entirely on the productive and useful arts, crafts and sciences. In this respect, Diderot and d’Alembert were not alone in their encyclopedic innovations and secular Enlightenment endeavors, although they certainly were the most successful.

Abandoned in the mid-1750s – in the midst of the controversy surrounding the Encyclopédie – the Maurist enterprise may have made little difference to its contemporaries, but it does, however, make a difference for our present understanding of mid-eighteenth-century encyclopedism in France, the perceived novelty of the Encyclopédie, as well as the intellectual activities of the Congregation of Saint-Maur.

– Linn Holmberg

[1] Edmond Martène, Histoire de la Congrégation de Saint-Maur, ed. Gaston Charvin, 10 vol. (Paris, 1928–1954), vol.9 (1943), p.342.