Launching and celebrating the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini

Round table and Italian launch

Sala Azurra of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Piazza dei Cavalieri. From left to right: Professor Vincenzo Ferrone (University of Turin), Professor Andrea Giardina (SNS) in the chair, and Professor Marcello Verga (University of Florence).

The Italian launch of the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini, edited by myself and Mireille Gille, took the form of a one-day round table on 12 April in the beautiful Sala Azzura of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. The late Renaissance surroundings of Vasari’s building in the Piazza dei Cavalieri lent themselves perfectly to the evocation of two aristocatic eighteenth-century scholars whose wide-ranging culture was in itself a continuation of that very spirit of the Renaissance.

The incontro was organized by Professor Andrea Giardina, who holds the chair of Roman History and is Director of the Laboratory of History, Archaeology, Epigraphy and Tradition of Antiquity. He is also the current President of the International Committee of Historical Sciences. After paying a handsome tribute to us for our work, he invited Professor Vincenzo Ferrone of the University of Turin, and Professor Marcello Verga of the University of Florence and also director of the Istituto di Storia dell’Europa Mediterranea du Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Rome, to open the discussion.

Professor Vincenzo Ferrone dwelled largely on the influence of Newton on Antonio Niccolini’s thinking, and he suggested that the abate may have been a freemason. He regretted the absence of references to the publication of the Encyclopédie in his correspondence with De Brosses. Professor Marcello Verga then picked up the references in the correspondence to Niccolini’s belief that his beloved Tuscany was in decline, an idea that also lay at the heart of the debates of Muratori and Tiraboschi. Moreover, if Niccolini said little about the politics of Tuscany, his views of European events are shown to have been particularly striking. Niccolini’s admiration for Montesquieu, whom he saw as serious critic of despotism, led Professor Verga to speak of the political role of the Florentine academies, such as the Crusca, where the scholarship of the elite also served to rein back despotism. He drew attention to Niccolini’s final belief that the Church was, indeed, the strongest bulwark against despotism.

Villa at Camugliano (from left to right): Marchese Lorenzo Niccolini, Dr Mireille Gille, and Professor John Rogister, taken the day before, 11 April.

In response to these stimulating points of discussion, Mireille Gille began by stressing the fortunate circumstances that had made possible the publication of both sides of the correspondence, while lamenting the loss of several letters which deprived us of any knowledge of Niccolini’s reaction to the news given to him by De Brosses of the publication of the Encyclopédie. She also described the rules adopted in the presentation of the texts that had enabled the correspondence to fully reflect the grammatical and spelling quirks of the two writers, one of whom was not writing in his native language.

I then took up some of the points raised by the speakers. I questioned whether Niccolini was a freemason, saying that there was no formal evidence for the claim and that what got him into trouble was his initial hostility to the exclusion of the natural heir of the Medicis from the succession to the grand-ducal throne by the major European powers. Indeed I emphasised Niccolini’s ‘soft’ Jansenism, an approach similar to that of his friend Benedict XIV, and his secret role as a diplomat. Although an admirer of Newton, Niccolini sided with the view that ‘cento Newton non farebbero un Montesquieu’. After questions from a large audience of scholars, Professor Giardina thanked the participants and concluded the session by inviting those present to a reception.

A congenial lunch hosted by Professor Giardina for the participants later took place at an osteria. Marchese and Marchesa Niccolini, who had made possible the publication of one half of the correspondence with documents from their family archives, were present at the session. The previous day Mireille Gille and I had been to their Medicean villa at Camugliano to present them with a copy of the volume, and we were shown the splendid estate. After a delightful lunch, we were taken on a tour of the villa from which Antonio Niccolini had written at least one of his letters to President de Brosses. Being in the very place that the abbé had put pen to paper was a very fitting start to the launch.

Celebrating the Correspondance with the De Brosses family

The lunch: Alec de Brosses introducing Count Dorick de Brosses (left), John Rogister is on the right.

When I mentioned to Alec de Brosses that there was to be a launch in Pisa of his ancestor’s epistolary exchanges with Niccolini, he was keen that there should also be one in France. For some years now, he had hosted occasional gatherings of the De Brosses family at his château d’Ailly near Parigny (Loire). As this year also marked the 240th anniversary of the death of président de Brosses in May 1777, it seemed appropriate to hold both events at the same time.

The date was fixed for 3 June, near enough to the anniversary, and there would be a buffet lunch at which I would give a presentation of the volume. After travelling down from Paris the day before, Alec met me for the short journey in bright sunshine to the beautiful eighteenth-century château d’Ailly, where I was to stay. On either side of my bed were large prints of the comte de Saint-Florentin and cardinal de Tencin, not men who had been close to the président’s heart, one suspects. The next day, about sixty members of the De Brosses clan arrived in family groups bearing exquisitely prepared food for the lunch, and Count Dorick de Brosses, the owner of the président’s papers, came over from Saint-Trys with bottles of his chateau’s wine.

A group photograph of the De Brosses family on the terrace of the chateau after the lunch, including: (in front, on the right) John Rogister; (on the step behind him) Dorick and Alec de Brosses; (top left at the back) Count de Brosses, head of the family.

There was a convivial partie de campagne atmosphere to the reunion, and sadly I was the only one dressed in city clothes, having just attended a very formal event at the Mazarine two days previously. This discrepancy did not seem to matter as the weather changed and rain forced us all to go indoors for the lunch. I gave my short speech, and concluded by presenting a copy of the Correspondance to Dorick de Brosses, who seemed to me to bear a striking resemblance to portraits of his ancestor. I could not help reflecting that the président had two wives and several daughters before he finally produced the son and heir from whom all present-day members of the family are descended.

After lunch the sun came out again and group photographs were taken on the terrace of the chateau facing the lake. During the late afternoon most of those present departed, and those staying at Ailly had a final dinner there. The next day Alec drove me to Roanne to catch the train to Lyon, where I boarded a very crowded Whit-Sunday TGV back to Paris full of pleasant memories of the hospitality and wit of a remarkable family.

– John Rogister

Catherine II et Friedrich Melchior Grimm : les clés d’une correspondance cryptique

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

On comprendrait difficilement l’intense relation d’échanges et de transferts culturels qui s’est établie entre l’Europe occidentale et la Russie dans le dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle sans étudier la correspondance, entre 1764 et 1796, de Catherine II, Impératrice de Toutes les Russies, et de son principal agent d’influence, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, natif de Ratisbonne établi à Paris qui fut longtemps le directeur de la Correspondance littéraire destinée aux têtes couronnées du continent. Cette correspondance ne comporte pas moins de « 430 lettres », ce chiffre étant cependant « donné à titre approximatif parce que les limites entre les lettres ne sont pas toujours très nettes », les épistoliers pouvant inclure dans une énorme « pancarte » plusieurs lettres écrites à des dates successives. Elle n’était jusqu’alors connue que par les éditions données par Iakov Karlovitch Grot dans le Recueil de la Société impériale russe d’histoire en 1878 (lettres de Catherine II à Grimm, t. 23) et 1885 (lettres de Grimm à Catherine II, t. 44). Quelque utiles qu’aient pu être ces éditions à des générations de chercheurs, force est de reconnaître qu’elles ont fait leur temps. Outre le fait que la séparation des correspondance active et passive en deux volumes rendait difficile de suivre le fil de l’échange, Grot ignorait plusieurs manuscrits, commit certaines erreurs et retrancha des lettres certains passages qu’il jugeait malséants.

Aussi attendait-on avec impatience l’édition de cette correspondance par Sergueï Karp, directeur de recherche à l’Institut d’histoire universelle de l’Académie des sciences de Russie, qui travaille depuis longtemps sur Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm et leurs relations avec la Russie. Il a fait paraître en juillet 2016 le premier volume d’une édition qui devrait en comporter au moins cinq autres[1]. Il couvre les années 1763-1778 qui virent Grimm passer du statut de simple commissionnaire à celui de principal agent de l’Impératrice. Faute de disposer de ce volume au format papier, on pourra le consulter au format électronique sur le site de l’éditeur moscovite.

Force est d’évoquer la qualité, la richesse et l’importance de l’échange épistolaire. Plus qu’un agent de premier plan, Catherine II a trouvé en Grimm un ami et un confident avec lequel elle pouvait plaisanter en toute liberté. Ne lui a-t-elle pas écrit : « avec vous je jase mais n’écris jamais […] je prefere de m’amusér et de laisser aller ma main », ou, mieux encore, « je n’ai jamais écrit à personne comme vous»? Si cette correspondance est en ce sens familière ou « privée », elle est aussi « artistique » et « politique » pour reprendre le titre de l’édition. Catherine II n’était pas une simple collectionneuse mais une collectionneuse de collections; c’est à Grimm qu’elle confia le soin d’acquérir les bibliothèques de Diderot, de Galiani et de Voltaire, les loges du Vatican, pour ne donner que ces quelques exemples de cette frénésie d’acquisitions, de sorte qu’il n’est pas exagéré d’écrire que la Russie est redevable à l’Impératrice de la richesse de certaines de ses plus grandes institutions culturelles, comme la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie et le Musée de l’Ermitage.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

On soulignera tout particulièrement la qualité des notes éditoriales de S. Karp. Elles sont requises pour éclairer la lecture de ces lettres qui, « dans la plupart des cas[,] sont strictement personnelles et volontairement obscures : c’est ainsi que Catherine a voulu les protéger contre la curiosité des tierces personnes ». S’adressant en 1801 à l’empereur Alexandre Ier, petit-fils de Catherine II, peu après son avènement, Grimm ne constatait-il pas « qu’il s’était établi entre l’immortelle et son pauvre correspondant, une espèce de dictionnaire qui a besoin d’une clef pour ne pas rester énigmatique »? Telle est cette clé que S. Karp offre au lecteur en faisant la lumière sur ce qui était destiné à rester obscur.

On s’attachera à l’« Introduction » pour au moins deux raisons : la première, due à l’éditeur général, consiste dans une étude précise de l’évolution du rôle joué par Grimm qui a su se rendre indispensable à l’Impératrice ; la seconde, œuvre de G. Dulac et de C. Scharf, étudie avec finesse les particularités de son maniement du français et de l’allemand. Surprenant est, en ce qui concerne la première de ces langues, le paradoxe d’une souveraine qui recourt tout à la fois à des néologismes éloquents et à des tournures archaïsantes, que l’Impératrice a parfois héritées de son institutrice huguenote, Mme Cardel, parfois du théâtre de la Foire et parfois aussi de la plume de Voltaire, qu’elle considérait comme son « maître » dans le domaine des belles-lettres. On sait en revanche qu’elle ne possédait que des rudiments d’anglais et qu’elle maîtrisait mal le russe.

S. Karp décrit admirablement l’arrière-plan de cette Correspondance. Suite au coup d’État par lequel son mari Pierre III fut renversé en 1762, Catherine II éprouva le besoin de justifier idéologiquement son règne tant au plan intérieur que sur la scène internationale, en sollicitant la plume des philosophes français qui façonnaient l’opinion publique. Grimm fut incontestablement le principal intermédiaire entre l’Impératrice et la scène philosophique occidentale. Mais contre l’opinion qui consiste à croire que les philosophes furent naïvement manipulés par une souveraine machiavélique, S. Karp considère fort justement, d’une part, que Catherine II a bien été la fille des Lumières, mettant en œuvre de nombreuses réformes qui ont permis une modernisation sans précédent de la Russie, et que, si instrumentalisation il y a eu, elle fut réciproque, les philosophes jouissant de l’actif soutien de cette puissante cour et ayant « utilisé l’exemple russe comme argument rhétorique pour critiquer les pratiques de la monarchie française » dont ils dénonçaient le despotisme.

Frappant est le contraste de la Correspondance de Catherine II avec Voltaire, d’une part, et Grimm, d’autre part. Alors que la première est soigneusement relue et revue, empreinte de formalisme, la seconde est spontanée, souvent écrite à la diable et emplie de facéties. S. Karp montre clairement que leur liberté de ton « abolissait fictivement la distance sociale » qui les séparait. Il fait également justice de l’interprétation, notamment accréditée par Grot, consistant à dénoncer les « flatteries » obséquieuses dont les lettres de Grimm seraient farcies. Il remarque fort justement que « l’humour respectueux » des lettres de Grimm ne s’apparente pas à de la flatterie et que les « formes outrées de la politesse restaient traditionnelles au XVIIIe siècle, comme une composante obligatoire du dialogue entre un souveraine et un simple mortel » (à preuve, les lettres de Diderot ou de Voltaire). Catherine II ne se laissait pas prendre à ces éloges obligés, elle qui se moquait d’elle-même et de ses obligations de souveraine. Ce qui prime dans les lettres de Grimm, c’est leur humour : « ses plaisanteries et ses sarcasmes contribuaient largement à créer cette atmosphère de complicité et de gaieté dans laquelle purent se développer leurs relations ».

Tout spécialiste du siècle des Lumières en général, et de Voltaire en particulier, devra désormais se référer à l’édition des lettres de l’Impératrice et de Grimm qu’on ne nommera désormais plus que « l’édition Karp » et dont on attend avec impatience l’achèvement tant elle contribue à renouveler notre compréhension du dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle.

– Christophe Paillard

[1] Catherine II de Russie. Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Une correspondance privée, artistique et politique au siècle des Lumières. Tome I. 1764-1778, édition critique par Sergueï Karp, avec la collaboration de Georges Dulac, Christoph Frank, Sergueï Iskioul, Gérard Kahn, Ulla Kölving, Nadezda Plavinskaia, Vladislav Rjéoutski et Claus Scharf, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, Ferney-Voltaire, et Monuments de la pensée historique, Moscou, 2016, lxxxiv p., 341 p. et 3 p. non paginées, 26 illustrations.

Bayle against the Brexit Blues

Feeling hemmed in by narrow frontiers? Harassed by the ‘natives’ for being interested in the world outside? Feeling cut off from Europe, not to speak of bleak political circumstances and ominous financial predictions?

You are in urgent need of a slice of intellectual life from the 17th and 18th centuries – and Pierre Bayle can bring you a big slice of the Republic of Letters. You will find all you can comfortably handle in the 15 volumes of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle published by the Voltaire Foundation.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

In the 22,500 unusually erudite notes of this edition, discover Bayle’s international network of some 16,500 contacts (ideal for crowd-funding and name-dropping), his reference library of some 40,000 books (excellent for scholarly articles and cocktail conversation), his close relations with influential British politicians such as William Trumbull, the third earl of Shaftesbury, the duke of Sunderland, James Vernon – and even with the notorious Antoine de Guiscard, shortly before his attempt to assassinate Robert Harley. Discover with horror Shaftesbury’s feeble arguments against the “infestation” [sic] of our fair Isles by hordes of Huguenot refugees Letter 1751]! Accompany Fatio de Duillier on his travels between London and Cambridge to visit Newton [Letter 1300,
n.5]. Follow the two fellows named Alexander Cunningham [Letter 1359, n.1], who both wander around Europe and visit Leibniz, and see if you can tell them apart.

Was Bayle a sceptical historian of philosophy who kept out of mischief by never adopting a definitive position himself ? Was he a covert Epicurean atheist, denouncing religious fanaticism and bigotry ? Or was he a sincere believer with a very modern form of fragile faith? You must read between the lines and make up your own mind! Immerse yourself in the 15 volumes of his correspondence and gain an insight into the real goings-on at the heart of the Republic of Letters, precursor of a much-maligned modern Europe.

Antony McKenna

Pierre Bayle est mort. Vive la République des Lettres!

00_Bayle_frontis 1..9999

Enfant du Carla (aujourd’hui Carla-Bayle) dans le Midi-Pyrénées, fils et frère de pasteurs réformés, exilé peu avant la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre Bayle passa une grande partie de sa vie à Rotterdam, d’où il communiquait avec les philosophes et savants de toute l’Europe. Créateur d’un des premiers périodiques de critique littéraire, historique, philosophique et théologique, les Nouvelles de la république des lettres, il a défini une nouvelle conception de la liberté de conscience fondée sur le rationalisme moral. Dans son œuvre majeure, le Dictionnaire historique et critique, il recueille mille détails sur les événements historiques et cherche à démontrer, dans les articles philosophiques, que la religion chrétienne est incompatible avec une argumentation rationnelle. Dans ses toutes dernières œuvres, la Continuation des pensées diverses et la Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, il diffuse une version du spinozisme qui marquera tous les philosophes des Lumières. Bayle se représentait comme un simple citoyen de la République des Lettres et en est arrivé à incarner cet ‘Etat extrêmement libre’ où l’on ne reconnaît ‘que l’empire de la vérité et de la raison’. Il mourut, à l’âge de 59 ans, le 28 décembre 1706 vers 9 heures du matin, quasiment la plume à la main.


Lettre de Pierre Bayle à Hervé-Simon de Valhébert, écrite à Rotterdam le 22 octobre 1705.

Ce qui le marque au départ comme un marginal – l’éloignement du Carla des centres de la vie culturelle et la pauvreté de sa famille – nourrit une passion qui fait de lui un érudit aux lectures infinies, un lecteur critique hors pair, qui enregistre soigneusement, dans des recueils alphabétiques, toutes ses lectures et qui se plaît à affronter les récits, les interprétations et les systèmes philosophiques. Avec l’intelligence comme seule arme, il prend du recul par rapport aux controverses religieuses et aux débats philosophiques de son temps; il excelle à disséquer les systèmes philosophiques pour démontrer leurs conséquences absurdes: c’est un recul critique et souvent ironique qui fait de lui non pas un pyrrhonien mais un témoin privilégié de la crise qui marque son époque. Jacques Basnage décrit parfaitement sa passion philosophique:

‘Comme il s’était accoutumé à combattre les erreurs du vulgaire, il avait porté plus loin ce même esprit et un des plaisirs les plus doux qu’il goûtait était de faire sentir à une infinité de gens que les opinions qu’ils regardaient comme évidentes ne laissaient pas d’être environnées de difficultés insurmontables’ (Jacques Basnage au duc de Noailles, le 3 janvier 1707: Lettre 1743, Volume XIV).

Notre édition critique de sa vaste correspondance, qui comporte quinze volumes et près de de 1800 lettres échangées avec un très large cercle d’interlocuteurs, est désormais achevée. Le Volume XIV paraîtra en février 2017 et le Volume XV, comportant la bibliographie générale et l’index général des noms de personnes, paraîtra en été 2017.


Pierre Bayle is dead. Long live the Republic of Letters!

Born in Le Carla, a tiny village near Foix in the South of France, Pierre Bayle came from a family of Protestant ministers, and was exiled shortly before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Consequently, he spent most of his life in Rotterdam, from where he corresponded with philosophers and scholars throughout Europe. He launched one of the first literary and philosophical periodicals, the Nouvelles de la république des lettres and defined a new conception of religious tolerance based on moral rationalism.


His most famous work, the monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique, contains detailed historical articles and others concerning philosophers, in which he sought to demonstrate that Christian doctrine is incompatible with rational argument. In his last works, the Continuation des pensées diverses and the Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, he defined a version of Spinozism which greatly influenced Enlightenment philosophers. In his unassuming way, Bayle thought of himself as a simple citizen of the Republic of Letters and came to incarnate that ‘extremely free State’ in which no other law is recognised but ‘the rule of truth and right reason’. Bayle died at the age of 59 on the 28th December 1706 at about 9 a.m., virtually pen in hand.

The critical edition of his extensive correspondence, containing fifteen volumes and nearly 1800 letters exchanged with his vast network of friends and associates, is now complete. Volume XIV has just published (February 2017), and volume XV, containing the general index and bibliography, will publish in the summer of 2017.

– Antony McKenna


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).

‘je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ – delving into the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny


The Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, now available as a 15-volume set, is a rich account of eighteenth-century life detailing court events and intrigues, financial and social manoeuvres, theatre and cultural life, publishing activity and censorship, and anecdotes about the famous and near-famous with whom Mme de Graffigny was acquainted. Increasingly, scholars are exploring the Correspondance for data on urban life, the growth of trade and the consumer society, the practices of medicine and surgery, and the dimensions of a woman’s life: her home, work and social spheres.

Basic descriptions of all 2518 letters are given in the online database Early Modern Letters Online, and a selection of excerpts can now be enjoyed on the Voltaire Foundation website. The cumulative index, an indispensable tool for delving into the Correspondance, is also available online at the University of Toronto’s French Department website. Drawing upon all 15 volumes, it covers the two decades of the eighteenth century (1738-1758) spanned by the Correspondance. It allows the reader to trace locutions, surnoms, the genesis of literary works, and the actions of individuals and families over that period of time. It incorporates all updates that have been made to individual volume indexes as new research has filled in the details, especially concerning lesser-known figures.

Since the publication of the first volume in 1985, reviewers and scholars, dialect specialists, theatre buffs and other readers have generously provided biographical information and clues to the bits of verse, satirical songs, punchlines, and quotations which make Mme de Graffigny’s letters delightful to read but challenging to edit. The editors are grateful for all such comments and we encourage readers to keep us informed about new discoveries.

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

When the editors realise that an expression used in the letters is an idiom, a locution, they can search for its definition in an eighteenth-century source, such as the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (Paris, 1743). Thus, in September 1750, Mme de Graffigny, trying in vain to persuade her friend the actress Mlle Quinault that La Brioche, their early draft of La Fille d’Aristide, would not work, wrote: ‘Je ferai encore un effort aupres de Nicole pour la retenir et puis je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ (Letter 1599). In other words, it was all she could say or would say on the topic: ‘On dit ordinairement à la fin des contes et des fables que l’on fait aux enfans: “Je jettai mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais ce que tout devint”: ce qui se dit, ou lorsqu’on ne sait plus que dire sur quelque sujet, ou lorsqu’on ne veut pas dire tout ce que l’on en sait’ (Trévoux).

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

On another occasion, Mme de Graffigny wrote about the unhappy situation of Charles de Lorraine, comte d’Armagnac: ‘Eh, le pauvre prince Charle, il n’y a presque plus personne au logis, et son encien mal au pied est revenus. […] Il n’est plus au nombre des vivans et n’y sera probablement bientot plus phisiquement’ (Letter 1639). She did not mean that he had no one to take care of him, but rather that he had become senile. The expression she used was well known at the time: ‘On dit: il n’y a personne au logis, d’un […] mourant, qui n’a plus de connoissance’ (Trévoux).

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody, Graffigny Project office, University of Toronto

This rich index is being updated regularly as part of the ongoing work on Volume 16, a digital publication which will include corrections and additions to the print volumes, supplementary archival and manuscript materials, and new letters as they come to light. (English Showalter continues as general editor, and Dorothy P. Arthur is volume editor, aided by Diane Beelen Woody, Marion Filipiuk and Edward A. Heinemann, long-time members of the Toronto team.)

In April we spoke to CBC Radio One Fresh Air about the project and this week my colleague Diane Beelen Woody and I look forward to speaking about Mme de Graffigny’s use of codes and the art of writing under police surveillance at the upcoming meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

– Dorothy P. Arthur


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.