Chance discoveries in French and Italian archives

Le président de Brosses

Le président de Brosses, buste par J. B. Lemoyne. Cliché © Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.

Chance plays as much of a part in the discovery of new material as it does in history itself. This is certainly the case with the epistolary exchanges of two figures who were at the centre of the Republic of Letters, the president de Brosses and the abbé marquis Niccolini. Had it not been that one of my students happened to be a descendant of president de Brosses, this edition of his correspondence might never have seen the light of day.

In 1982-1984, when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris X Nanterre, Alec de Brosses came to see me about undertaking a Master’s thesis based on his family’s papers. At the start of his work on the president’s relations with the British geographer Alexander Dalrymple, Alec de Brosses had also photocopied for me letters written to the president by a friend, the abate Antonio Niccolini. Because their content covered travel, literature, politics, diplomacy, antiquity, philosophy and religion, these letters were, in themselves, well worthy of publication, but where were the president’s own letters to his Florentine friend? He had kept only a few copies.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Niccolini family still lived in Florence, and locating the president’s letters would become a matter of enlisting their support. During my period in Paris, I had met Emanuela Kretzulesco, the author of an excellent book on the dream of Polyphilus. Through Princess Kretzulesco, I had an introduction to the remarkable Marchesa Gilberte Serlupi Crescenzi in Florence, to whom I explained my quest. She knew the Niccolini family, and I was soon admitted to their extensive family archives. The lady of the house, who knew the archives well, soon found the president’s letters. She and I photocopied them together at a neighbouring café. I now had both sides of a truly fascinating and extensive correspondence that spanned over thirty years from 1740 to 1770. I could envisage editing and publishing them with my collaborator from the University of Pisa, Mireille Gille, whom I had met at the Florence ISECS Congress of 1979, and who was herself an expert on the form of the eighteenth-century letter.

The process would be a lengthy one and there were a number of amusing incidents over the following years. In Florence, where some other privately held papers were then in restauro, Mireille Gille and I were allowed to work on them at the restorer’s workshop to the sound of loud rock music. With a deep sigh, the restorer told me that Britain was a great country because there, archive restoration was treated as an academic discipline in which one could get a degree.

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

On another occasion, I was extremely fortunate to have Alec de Brosses with me because the archives were in a cubby-hole high up on the wall of a room, almost by the ceiling. Unlike me, he was able to leap up and pass the papers down. All these efforts and incidents were not in vain, and Mireille Gille and I are very pleased that the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini is now available to the public, with an extensive introduction and notes. We are left with a great sense of gratitude to all those who helped us to produce an edition of a truly enriching correspondence.

– John Rogister

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

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