Never the twain shall meet: the correspondence of Pietro and Alessandro Verri (1766-1797)


Pietro Verri, by Giuseppe Benaglia / Image Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli, Milan

When, in October 1766, Alessandro Verri left Milan to go to Paris with Cesare Beccaria at the invitation of André Morellet (the translator of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments) and of the encyclopédistes, he concluded an epistolary pact with his brother Pietro. Pietro, who was thirteen years Alessandro’s senior, remained in Lombardy and ensured the preservation of the correspondence by having the letters carefully and systematically copied into large in-folio registers.

After his trip to Paris and London, Alessandro settled in Rome in 1767 and he continued his correspondence with his brother until Pietro’s death in 1797. The time span it covers and its candid take on private and public matters make it the richest correspondence in eighteenth-century Italy. It extends over three decades, from the age of Reforms in Lombardy under the rule of Maria Theresa to the eve of the proclamation of the Roman republic in 1798, and encompasses the French Revolution, the invasions of Piedmont and Lombardy by General Bonaparte, and the creation of the Cisalpine republic.

At first, the brothers’ dialogue preserved the harmony that characterised the discussions held at the Accademia dei Pugni (the ‘Academy of Punches’), the learned society that they had founded in Milan in 1761, and which had been the incubator for two seminal works of the Lombard Enlightenment, namely Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and the Caffè periodical (1764-1766). Yet, the brothers’ apparent convergence of views in the first months of their correspondence could hardly conceal the fact that they were growing apart intellectually.

Pietro’s letters reveal his strong belief in intellectual passions as drivers of historical change, and in the necessity to work towards the happiness of the masses. Throughout his life he remained an ardent reformist and never gave up on his ambition to ‘electrify minds’ through his writings. [1]

Alessandro’s letters, by contrast, show his individualistic conception of happiness and his wariness of any developments that might upset society’s order and stability (free thought, popular passions), as well as his conviction that attempting to create and shape public opinion was a dangerous endeavour. His refusal to envision a society made up of free individuals – and above all a secular society – alienated him from the spirit of modernity that was emerging at the end of the century.

In 1782, a dispute cropped up between the brothers over the interpretation of Pope Pius VI’s trip to Vienna. The Pontiff had decided to take this unprecedented step to try and dissuade Emperor Joseph II from carrying out a series of religious reforms which would lead to the closure of a number of convents and monasteries, and to the abolition of regular religious orders. Pietro praised the Emperor, whom he saw as an enlightened monarch: ‘To make his people more virtuous, humane, industrious and felicitous, he’s declaring war on superstition, he inspires and commands tolerance, and leads the way towards a time when vice will be stripped of the treacherous veil which gives it the appearance of virtue.’ [2] As for Alessandro, he regarded the Pope’s failure as a humiliation inflicted on the Holy See, but expressed pride at the ‘veneration’ and ‘infinite demonstrations of respect’ displayed by Italian and Austrian crowds towards the Pope during his journey. Those who ‘claim[ed] that their pens commanded public opinion have been proven wrong’, he thought. [3]

Pietro strove to demonstrate that the political victory of the Emperor was a harbinger of religious regeneration, of the restoration of religion’s social import and public efficacy: ‘Religion is saved, evil is rooted out.’ Above all, he saw this as the outcome of the ‘enduring battle’ waged by a few superior, isolated but victorious minds, in favour of liberties and science. While he clung to Bayle’s belief that ‘no religious opinion is essential to civilian government’, [4] Alessandro, for his part, regarded religion as part of ‘the arcane foundations of the State […] essential to restrain human passions and refrain the multitude, as we have seen men become fierce and mad when the yoke is broken.’ [5]

After the French Revolution the epistolary dialogue between the two brothers evolved into overt antagonism, as clearly summed up by Pietro in March 1796: ‘You hate modern philosophers, who have demonstrated that vigorous passions trigger great actions, while I agree with them.’ [6] For Pietro, the 1790s were an exaltated time in an era of political frustration. While he had been disappointed by the reforms carried out by Joseph II in Lombardy, he was filled with enthusiasm for the ideals of liberty and equality proclaimed by the French National Assembly in 1789. However, he understood that the fear awakened by the French Revolution had dealt a lethal blow to the cause of the advancement of reason in Italy: ‘Now that we rightly consider that the dissemination of culture among the people sparked off the events in France, we regard the excess of thought, books, thinkers, advocates of all sorts of doctrines as highly suspicious and we cordially hate them all,’ he remarked in 1794, adding: ‘we live at a time when fierce ignorance is all the rage […]. Reason is losing ground everywhere in Europe.’ [7]


Alessandro Verri, by Pietro Beceni / Image Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli, Milan.

Alessandro agreed that the revolutionary crisis had been sparked off by the works of enlightened thinkers and he saw this as a vindication of the misgivings he had experienced during his visit to Parisian coteries in the winter of 1766. He was concerned about the way some of the propositions from d’Holbach’s Système de la nature were freely debated in Italy, and he accused the ‘assassin-philosophers’ of undermining the moral and religious principles underpinning civil society: ‘As long as this form of thinking is limited to a few silent men, human society won’t be affected: but as soon as alleged philosophers take their ideas to the streets and ramble freely, human passions will be unleashed, à la française.’ ‘The tyranny of the multitude, the emancipated mob is a monster that I dread much more than Tiberius,’ he added. [8]

By contrast, the strength in Pietro’s thinking – which was quite original in the intellectual landscape of late eighteenth-century Italy – was to distance himself from the anti-Jacobin zeal of the Lombard élite and to understand that the transition from ‘error’ to ‘enlightenment,’ from tyranny to liberty, could be effected by violent means. For Pietro Verri, the violence in France in 1792 and 1793 could be justified and productive as long as the people managed to put together a constitution. His views echoed those of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, a work to which Pietro had contributed years earlier: ‘Whoever reflects on the various histories of nations, which after a certain lapse of time come to resemble each other in their main outlines, will repeatedly find a whole generation sacrificed to the happiness of succeeding generations in the hard-fought but necessary transition from the shadows of ignorance to the light of philosophy and, as a corollary, in the passage from tyranny to freedom.’ [9]

– Pierre Musitelli, École normale supérieure, Paris

[1] Carteggio di Pietro e Alessandro Verri, 12 vol. (Milan, 1910-1942), vol.10 (1939), p. 237 (my translation).

[2] 2 March 1782.

[3] 17 April 1782; 10 April 1782.

[4] 20 April 1782; 4 May 1782; 22 May 1793.

[5] 13 May 1793.

[6] 5 March 1796.

[7] 1 March 1794; 29 march 1794.

[8] 25 August 1794; 15 December 1792.

[9] C. Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments (Cambridge, 1995), p. 106-107.

Journey to the end of the river, with La Condamine

It is now official: according to an article recently published in Le Figaro, the highest point on Earth is… Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador. Although there are dozens – if not hundreds – of peaks that are considerably taller than Chimborazo when measured as elevations above sea level, the top of the Ecuadorian volcano is the point furthest away from the centre of the Earth (outranking Mount Everest by some 1,800 metres) due to the fact that our planet is not a perfect sphere: rotation has slightly flattened it at the poles and made it bulge at the Equator.

Although the exact measurement of Chimborazo (‘to the nearest centimetre’, says Le Figaro) was only made possible by state-of-the-art technology, the fact that our terrestrial globe is flatter at the extremities and plumper in the middle did not exactly come as news. Newton had figured it out mathematically long ago, and the experimental evidence was provided by the twin expeditions of Maupertuis in Lapland and of La Condamine in modern-day Ecuador (then Peru) from the mid-1730s to the mid-1740s.

Reading the story about Mount Chimborazo, and with one thing leading to another, I felt compelled to look up works by Charles Marie de La Condamine on the Internet, and I started reading his Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale […] lue à l’assemblée publique de l’Académie des Sciences le 28 avril 1745 on For, as well as measuring his arc of meridian in Ecuador in order to settle the question of the shape of the Earth once and for all, La Condamine was also the first scientist to explore, describe and map the Amazon basin and its intricate network of tributaries in detail. His Relation abrégée was published in 1745, the same year he came back to Paris (via Amsterdam, as he sailed back to Europe from the Dutch colony of Suriname), having left the port of La Rochelle bound for the Americas ten years before, in 1735.


‘Carte du cours du Maragnon ou de la Grande Rivière des Amazones’, in Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale, by Charles Marie de La Condamine (Paris, chez la veuve Pissot, 1745). Image gallica/BnF.

The sense of immediacy afforded by La Condamine’s account of his journey, committed to the page so soon after its completion, is enhanced by the quality of the reading experience one gets thanks to the remarkable clarity of the scans of the first edition of the book (Paris, Chez la veuve Pissot, 1745) on Perusing the original edition, the reader feels transported back in time and space into a new world, huge swathes of which were then still largely unknown to Europeans, a world where the existence of a tribe of real-life Amazons could not be entirely dismissed (even though La Condamine himself was highly sceptical) and where echoes of stories about a land of gold – El Dorado – still resonated.

The book contains descriptions of many strange and mysterious animals – including the coati and the manatee – as well as what is quite possibly the first description of rubber by a European (La Condamine introduced the substance to Europe): ‘la résine appelée Cahuchu (prononcez Cahout-chou) […] est aussi fort commune sur les bords du Marañon […] Quand elle est fraîche, on lui donne avec des moules la forme qu’on veut; elle est impénétrable à la pluie, mais ce qui la rend plus remarquable, c’est sa grande élasticité. On en fait des bouteilles qui ne sont pas fragiles, des bottes […]’ (p.78-79).

La Condamine’s account of the character of the native Americans he encountered would undoubtedly make it quite difficult for him to find a publisher were he to submit his manuscript today, and would probably get him expelled from most universities’ Anthropology departments: ‘j’ai cru reconnaître dans tous [les Indiens Américains] un même fond de caractère. L’insensibilité en fait la base. […] Elle naît sans doute du petit nombre de leurs idées […] pusillanimes et poltrons à l’excès si l’ivresse ne les transporte pas […] ennemis du travail […] incapables de prévoyance et de réflexion […] ils passent leur vie sans penser, et ils vieillissent sans sortir de l’enfance dont ils conservent tous les défauts’ (p.52-53).

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Having said that, he is not unaware of his own biases as an external observer: describing how Indians inhale a crushed plant’s powder as snuff through a Y-shaped reed that they insert into their nostrils, he writes ‘cette opération […] leur fait faire une grimace fort ridicule aux yeux d’un Européen, qui veut tout rapporter à ses usages’ (p.73-74).

And his own commentary on what he perceives as the unenviable condition of native American women (offered as a theory concerning the possible origin of the Amazons) reveals his humane and compassionate side: ‘Je me contenterais de faire remarquer qui si jamais il y a pu avoir des Amazones dans le monde, c’est en Amérique, où la vie errante des femmes qui suivent souvent leurs maris à la guerre, et qui n’en sont pas plus heureuses dans leur domestique, a dû leur faire naître l’idée et leur fournir des occasions fréquentes de se dérober au joug de leurs tyrans, en cherchant à se faire un établisssement où elles pussent vivre dans l’indépendance, et du moins n’être pas réduites à la condition d’esclaves et de bêtes de somme. Une pareille résolution prise et exécutée n’aurait rien de plus extraordinaire ni de plus difficile que tout ce qui arrive tous les jours dans toutes les colonies européennes d’Amérique, où il n’est que trop ordinaire que des esclaves maltraités ou mécontents fuient par troupes dans les bois, et quelquefois seuls’ (p.110-111).

Although a bit dry (ironically) when describing the drainage basin of the Amazon river, the sheer variety of the observations and reflections contained in this slim volume and the author’s superb style make it a compelling and rejuvenating read, a first-hand account of an endlessly fascinating world, full of mysteries and wonders, by one of the great explorers and scientists of his time.

– Georges Pilard


Voltaire’s De la paix perpétuelle

Charles-Irénée Castel

Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre; portrait published in Un contemporain égaré au XVIIIe siècle: Les projets de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, 1658-1743, by S. Siégler-Pascal (Paris, 1900).

For his polemics against the Church, Voltaire had an arsenal of facts and arguments that he used repeatedly in a variety of contexts. De la paix perpétuelle (1769) presents in a concise and forceful manner materials on bloodshed and strife caused by religious intolerance that appear in La Philosophie de l’histoire, Traité sur la tolérance, Dictionnaire philosophique, L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke, Des conspirations contre les peuples, Dieu et les hommes, and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme.

The work is framed by references to the ideas of Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre, who, under the title Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1712), proposed a peace plan that is a precursor of the current European Union. This plan stipulates that a lasting peace could be achieved by a permanent alliance of the Christian states of Europe. All princes would forgo war as a means of settling differences. Any prince who engaged in armed hostilities would be banned from the union. If any member state was attacked, it would be defended by all the other member states. National boundaries would be preserved, and the political system of each state would be protected. Once the alliance was formed, a uniform economic policy would be developed. Turkey would be excluded from the confederacy. Voltaire rejected the abbé’s peace plan because he found it utopian and did not believe that lasting peace could be achieved by legal machinery alone without changing the attitudes that lead to war.


Holograph dedication to the marquis de Torcy by the abbé de Saint-Pierre, in Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1712), copy BnF Rés. *E-534 / Image gallica/BnF

He furthermore foresaw that peace in Europe could not be maintained without taking into account the rest of the world. In Rescrit de l’empereur de la Chine, the emperor is surprised that, in the plan to establish lasting peace, countries outside of Europe such as Turkey, Persia, and Japan have wrongly been left out of the confederacy. He supposes that if Turkey, which was specifically excluded from the abbé’s alliance, attacked Hungary the European equilibrium could be broken. Convinced that Chinese membership is an absolute necessity, he decides to build in the center of the earth a city where the plenipotentiaries of the universe would assemble and where the representatives of all the major religions would come together to be preached into agreement by Portuguese Jesuits.

In De la paix perpétuelle, Voltaire celebrates the fact that war has become less cruel and religious persecutions less frequent, but he recapitulates a long series of atrocities caused by religious intolerance in the past. He emphasizes the fact that intolerance was brought to Rome by Christians. The most original part of the work is a debate between a Christian and a Jew moderated by a Roman senator before Marcus Aurelius. The Christian insists that Christianity is the only true religion and with naive confidence puts forth proofs based on the narrative of the Gospels. The senator invalidates with historical evidence the stories of the census and of the star that appeared upon the birth of Jesus. The Christian flaunts the genealogy of Jesus, the virgin birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Old Testament prophecies, and the miracles. Bored by the Christian demonstration, Marcus Aurelius orders the Jew to compare the two religions and the relationship between them.

In contrast with the arrogance and intolerance of the Christian, the Jew is respectful and pledges loyalty to the empire. He impersonates the Jewish apologists praised by Voltaire in the ninth of the Lettres à S. A. Mgr le prince de ***, and his arguments reflect those presented in the letter. He counters the miracles of Jesus with the more grandiose splitting of the Red Sea by Moses and stopping of the sun by Joshua. His well-informed analysis of the Scriptures mirrors the arguments of Orobio de Castro and Isaac of Troki. He challenges the alleged prophecies Christians found in the Old Testament and in sibylline verses. He explains the meaning of the term ‘Messiah’, wrongly associated with Jesus, and interprets the Hebrew expression ‘Son of God’ to mean a virtuous man. He finds proof in the Gospels that Jesus was a Jew preaching the Jewish law and was punished not for wanting to change the law but for fomenting disorder and insulting the magistrates. He mocks the end-of-the-world prophecies. Marcus Aurelius judges that both are equally insane, but while the empire has nothing to fear from the Jew it has everything to fear from the Christian.

The debate is followed by a summary of ecclesiastical history that traces the crimes of Christian emperors, bloodshed caused by controversies over absurd dogma, massacres, and persecutions. The narrative concludes with the belief that discord will end only through the elimination of divisive dogma and with the proclamation that tolerance has begun to spread through enlightenment. Voltaire rejected Saint-Pierre’s peace plan but fully agreed with his religious ideas. In the end, he joined the abbé by advocating the adoption of a universal religion that consists solely of the love of God and benevolence toward men. De la paix perpétuelle addresses problems and solutions that are still with us today.

– Pauline Kra