Clementi and the woman at the piano

Erin Helyard’s Clementi and the woman at the piano is the June volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book explores how Clementi afforded female pianists a new and radical style of performance. In this blog post, Erin Helyard discusses this new publication, Clementi’s career, and the impact Clementi had in creating a new kind of keyboard music. 

Clementi and the woman at the piano: virtuosity and the marketing of music in eighteenth-century London looks at the works and activities of a composer you probably know. If you’re a pianist, you’ve probably played him. If you’re the parent of an aspiring pianist, you’ve probably heard him. If you’ve ever waited on a telephone line to be connected, you’ve probably experienced him as background music. He is arguably one of the most played and popular composers for the piano ever: Muzio Clementi. But it is only his Progressive Sonatinas (Op. 36, 1797) that have remained in the repertoire, choice pieces for beginners and ‘heard’ widely as hold music on the telephone.

Few non-musicians today would know his name, however, despite Clementi receiving widespread and international fame during his lifetime as a composer, performer, and entrepreneur of considerable repute. Previously quite rare, the piano only began to grow in popularity in Clementi’s youth in the 1770s. It was widespread and considerably more technically advanced at the height of Clementi’s career in the 1780s and 1790s. Clementi thus started out as a harpsichordist but ended up being lauded as the ‘Father of the Pianoforte’. His piano and music publishing company, Clementi & Co, was one of the largest music businesses in the world and was at the forefront of a rapidly changing piano technology.

His career not only straddles the emergence and dominance of the piano but also other important changes in musical culture. Most notably among these is a rise in female pianism. The market for keyboard music was overwhelmingly female, and Clementi’s music presents them with new – and controversial – challenges. Another feature arises during Clementi’s career: the so-called ‘work-concept’. After 1800, composers write works destined for repeat performance, and musical notation and performance practice emphasise that the performer should play ‘as if from the soul of the composer’, to quote a contemporary, and not improvise or otherwise alter the text, as had been commonplace for centuries when notation was less prescriptive.

Aleksander Orlowski, ‘Portrait of an Italian Composer Muzio Clementi’, black chalk and sanguine (1810).

Together with the rise of the work-concept and the conceptual separation of composer and performer, we also witness a consequent rupture of musical and commercial aesthetics. In Enlightenment culture, commercial success was often equated with artistic success, but in the Romantic era commercial success was increasingly viewed with suspicion. Clementi’s career is thus in many respects a perfect case study for the tensions between Enlightenment thinking and new Romantic ideologies.

Before Clementi the ideology of domestic Enlightenment keyboard culture in England was essentially one of galant ease, gracefulness, and pleasantness. This music was ideally meant to be sight-readable (or at least performable after a couple of lessons) and difficulty was disdained as pretentious, unnecessary and – for some conservative, religious-minded writers – dangerous. Professional keyboard players working in the 1770s and before were for the most part male composer/performers whose virtuosity (sanctioned in this case by their gender and profession) goes generally unrecorded in works that were printed for the keyboard (and overwhelmingly female) market.

Clementi’s 6 Sonatas for Piano Forte or Harpsichord (Op. 2, 1779) is a springboard for discussion in this monograph. Op. 2 goes against all the established norms. This was the work that secured him the title ‘Father of the Pianoforte’, and commentators regularly mentioned it in their assessments of Clementi’s achievements. Clementi dramatically interposes three accompanied sonatas that conform to prevailing notions of taste (easy, sight-readable, and galant) with three solo sonatas, ‘crammed … [with] passages so peculiar and difficult’, as a contemporary noted. Any compelling performance of these sonatas demands a level of dedicated practice that far exceeds traditional standards. In one bold stroke, Clementi has created a new kind of keyboard music.

Furthermore, he does so in a set of six sonatas that calls attention to the difference between a prevailing printed keyboard culture and another more revolutionary one. The difficult sonatas allow other, mostly female, performers to partake in a virtuosity that had previously remained an undocumented (and hence unrepeatable) affair, practised amongst a small class of male specialists. Importantly, it affords female players a new kind of musical expression and experience, radically different from the deliberately simple, beautiful, and artless music that had up to this point dominated publications destined for their consumption.

Clementi and the woman at the piano maps the social, musical, and gendered implications of technically difficult music, and attempts to underline and discuss important changes in Enlightenment culture and keyboard practice. Along the way, we re-assess Clementi’s reputation, discuss Clementi’s influence on the emerging idea of the autonomous work-concept, and attempt to reassess Clementi’s ‘virtuosity’ in a way that might help us understand its widespread popularity, currency, and agency.

Clementi’s ‘virtuosity’ and career as a businessman have dogged him in particularly unfair ways. These attitudes generally feed off Mozart’s jealous and racially charged commentary about Clementi, slights that emanated from Mozart when he came off rather bruised from an unexpectedly competitive musical encounter with Clementi in Vienna in 1781. This monograph reviews Mozart’s assessment of Clementi and shows that not all in the Mozart family shared Mozart’s negative assessment of Clementi’s works and playing style.

The book is complemented by a website with complete world premiere recordings by the author of the Op. 2 sonatas, both in their original 1779 format on a Kirckman harpsichord of the period, and then in their revised 1807 version from Vienna, on a replica of a Graf piano from the early nineteenth century. All the musical examples have also been recorded on period instruments.

– Erin Helyard (Artistic Director of the award-winning Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Australia)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Britain’s eighteenth-century meritocrats on the march

Meritocracy is a major theme in my new book, The Georgians: the deeds and misdeeds of eighteenth-century Britain (Yale UP, January 2022). In this era, individuals from relatively modest backgrounds were winning national fame and influence in greater numbers than ever before.

Some became as well known as the monarchs who ruled over them. Just a few examples of people who became ‘names’ include: the pundit Dr Samuel Johnson (son of a Lichfield bookseller); the actor David Garrick (son of an army captain of French Huguenot descent); the physicist Isaac Newton (a posthumous son, reared in the household of a clerical step-father); the Irish actor Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington (daughter of a Dublin bricklayer); Captain James Cook (son of a farm labourer); and Emma, Lady Hamilton (daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith who died shortly after her birth).

Self-portrait of Swiss painter and writer on art, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), a meritocratic artist’s son, who made a successful career in Britain. His pose is intense and meditative, as though asking: ‘What does it all mean?’ (Henry Fuseli, Self-portrait (c.1780), in Victoria & Albert Museum, Prints, Drawings and Paintings Collection, accession number: E.1028-1918).

All these ‘names’ became renowned not for their lands, titles, and money but for their own deeds – those resulting, in the case of Emma Hamilton, from her mix of sexual and personal charisma, social notoriety, and successful social climbing. And there were plenty more Georgian meritocrats, in a great many walks of life. I’ve listed fully 300 leading names in my new website Georgian Witnesses (section 16), which has been devised as web-companion to my book.

To be sure, social ‘arrivistes’ like these were not an entirely new phenomenon. There were individual examples of successful meritocrats in earlier times. In particular, the church and the army had always recruited a certain number of ‘outsider’ men of talent. In a pitched battle, for example, it was a definite advantage to have commanders who knew how to fight (and, better still, to win).

Yet, in the commercialising and urbanising world of Georgian Britain, many more ‘outsider’ men – and a smaller number of women – were coming to the fore in a much expanded range of roles. They did not displace the power of the great landowners and plutocrats. Indeed, a number of able but impecunious meritocrats were protégés of the rich.

But individuals within the new ‘Aristocracy of Talent’, as they were termed in 1809 by the poet-turned-sage Samuel Taylor Coleridge (son of a clergyman), were not averse from singing their own praises. And, by extension, they were de facto challenging the socio-political claims of all talentless aristocrats.

By the mid-eighteenth century, a new literature was publicly lauding individuals from modest backgrounds who had made their own way in the world. These newcomers should be the real recipients of social honour, it was argued. Thus A Treatise on merit (London, 1748) observed pointedly that: ‘If it is advantageous to be born Noble, ’tis far more so to ennoble one’s self’.

This trenchant observation came in an anonymous text, allegedly translated from the French. Its full title was A Treatise on merit: calculated to correct the vain, improve the modest, and encourage the deserving. In that spirit, the anonymous author was less than polite about the British peerage. It was sufficiently unusual for such sharp criticisms to appear in respectable texts that the translator added (in brackets) an emollient apology: ‘(the reader will remember that the author was a foreigner)’.

Meanwhile, home-grown writers were also growing bold. ‘TITLES and that eye-catching pomp of state / May draw the mob, but can’t esteem create’, suggested a poet in 1746. He further added that ‘All men in merit are, or may be, great’ (Merit. A satire, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, Dublin, 1746).

Remarks such as these tended to come from educated members of the metropolitan intelligentsia. They wrote as much to boost their own morale as to challenge the social structure directly. They praised individuals with exceptional abilities who used them for social good. And while these ‘merit-boosting’ tracts were not calling for revolution, they were notably cool about external rank and inherited titles.

A particularly explicit statement of this credo was published in 1735 by an anonymous common lawyer. He declared firmly that: ‘Personal Merit is the only true Nobility; and the Lord who inherits the Dignities without the Virtues of his Ancestors, is but a despicable Creature.’ Interestingly, but not surprisingly, many of these early pronouncements in favour of personal merit were penned anonymously. Their message did not call for social revolution, but was liable to be feared as dangerously radical by traditionalists.

A range of laudatory terms were pressed into service. ‘Worth’ was initially popular. ‘Talent’ was another, being safer than pure ‘genius’ (which was generally acknowledged to be rare). And ‘merit’ too was becoming increasingly common in these eighteenth-century discussions. Notably, these terms were all gender-neutral. Those who expressed liberal views about the location of social value tended also to have liberal views about female abilities. In 1711, for example, The Spectator – the very new progressive-liberal magazine – referred to a ‘woman of merit’, without intending any controversy. It was true that, in context, the reference was to social as well as personal status.

Nevertheless, growing numbers were willing to make the case explicitly in favour of female brainpower. An anonymous feminist asserted confidently in 1780: ‘Good sense is of no gender.’ And the long title of her tract said it all: Female restoration, by a moral and physical vindication of female talents; in opposition to all dogmatical assertions relative to disparity in the sexes … by a Lady. Clearly, she recognised that not all agreed with her sentiments. But the expansion of female literacy and learning was giving educated women access to the eighteenth-century print media, where they could stake their claims. (But note that the author of this trumpet-blast also found it prudent to remain anonymous.)

In a related vein, a novel in 1784 provided a radical exhortation to social advancement across class barriers. It took the form of love letters between ‘a lady of quality’ and her suitor from an ‘inferior station’. The ‘lowly’ lover hesitates to press his suit. But in Letter 33 the lady encourages him, with a paean of praise for social mobility: ‘My ancestors may have quitted the plough-share and the pruning hook a century before yours – and there is all the mighty difference between us. In China, where superior learning and virtue procure nobility, you would have been a noble of the first class. There is no rank to which superior merit and great talents may not aspire.’

With neat historical irony, the author of this bold novel, William Combe, was himself downwardly socially mobile. He had become burdened by debts, after living beyond his means. Combe’s general message, however, was clear. And his reference to China was highly significant. Fuelled by travellers’ reports, scholars were fascinated by the meritocratic reputation of the Chinese mandarinate. This body provided the nation’s civil service, as founded by the tenth-century Song Emperor Taizu. The Mandarins were scholar-bureaucrats, chosen by competitive examination to provide rational rule, replacing the old militarised aristocracy. In fact, the Western interpretation of China’s system was highly idealised. Wily Chinese landowners found various ingenious ways of getting their sons through the examinations and into office. Yet the concept of rational authority and the rule of brainpower struck a strongly sympathetic chord with Western liberals.

Furthermore, the Chinese case gave British advocates of advancement by merit the great support of being able to cite a real-life example. In that way, they could escape accusations of unrealism. An appeal to ‘China’ invoked the status of a distant but historic power in support of change. And, while they took a considerable time to succeed, these liberal voices were harbingers of later campaigns for universal education (including for women), for extending the franchise, and for career advancement by merit, rather than by blue-blood, title, lands, or money.

One visible pledge of changing social attitudes in eighteenth-century Britain was the gradual spread of the handshake. Initially adopted between men in commercial circles – and by the socially radical Quakers – this egalitarian greeting was becoming more commonplace. By 1800 women might also shake hands in certain specific circumstances. (Reread Jane Austen.) This behavioural change was, moreover, spreading outwards and upwards from ‘middling’ commercial circles, rather than starting from the ‘top’ and trickling downwards. Changes were in hand (literally).

Britons in the eighteenth century were living in an era of invention, exploration, creativity and learning (including learning about things which went wrong). All very exciting. However, before painting too rosy a picture, it is worth reflecting that open and competitive societies, which encourage advancement by merit, also generate disappointment on the part of those who have high hopes but fail to ‘make it’.

Meritocratic pathways were not open to all. Those who were chronically impoverished and illiterate had little serious chance of competing. Indeed, that point was stressed in 1751 in the famous Elegy by the poet Thomas Gray (the son of a scrivener, or professional letter-writer for the illiterate). Unnumbered masses were unable to develop their full potential. Talents were unfairly muzzled. Some who might have become great poets were thus consigned to live, in Gray’s memorably vivid phrase, as ‘mute inglorious Miltons’.

Numerous educated women also faced obstacles. A powerful and traditional conservatism persisted alongside liberal hopes. Hence, within the optimism of advancing meritocracy, there was some bitterness from individuals with thwarted hopes – many of them being women. The rising tide did not lift all equally. To take one example, in 1759 the poet and novelist Clara Reeve (daughter of a clergyman) lamented that her ambitions had been crushed. Like too many clever women, then and later, she found it socially advisable to pretend to be silly. ‘These talents, that were once my pride, / I find it requisite to hide; / For what in man is most respected, / In woman’s form shall be rejected.’ And the title of her bitter poem explained that she was writing to warn a female friend who had argued ‘In Favour of the natural equality of both the sexes …’.

Voices such as these – happy, sad, optimistic, pessimistic – survive in abundance from this period of spreading literacy. They contributed to the open and argumentative society that impressed the young Voltaire, during his stay in 1726-28. Substantive change, with its paradoxical achievements of signal deeds and unpalatable misdeeds, is the motif of the era. Hence both the sub-title and the core theme of my study of The Georgians – as the eighteenth-century meritocrats set out on the march.

Penelope J. Corfield

Discovering Voltaire and Rousseau in song

The Voltaire Foundation is co-sponsoring an event in Oxford next month, ‘Voltaire, Rousseau and the Enlightenment’ – nothing surprising about the title, but for the fact that this event will take place as part of the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival (broadcast this year online).

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is of course famous for his interest in music, though not for song in particular; and Voltaire is famous for his complete indifference to music. So how did these two celebrated antagonists end up side by side in a song festival…?

In this portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that hangs at the Voltaire Foundation, we can discern on the left-hand side a sheet of manuscript music. This is not surprising: the philosophe not only wrote about music, he was the composer of a number of operas, the most successful of which, Le Devin du village, remains well-known today and has been often recorded. First performed before the French court at Fontainebleau in 1752, it enjoyed great success in London in 1762, in an English translation, The Cunning Man, by Charles Burney. The piece was performed again in London in January 1766, in the presence of Rousseau himself, just after he had arrived in the English capital as the guest of David Hume. The portrait of Rousseau was painted in England, quite possibly during his stay in this country (1766-67) or soon thereafter. So the sheet of music on the left might be a reference to the fact that at one point in his life Rousseau earned money by copying music; more likely, however, it is an allusion to Le Devin du village that was so popular among English audiences.

Far less well known are Rousseau’s songs. Unpublished in his lifetime, they were none the less an important part of his activities as a composer. Three years after his death there appeared a handsome volume, Les Consolations des misères de ma vie, ou recueil d’airs, romances et duos (Paris, 1781), bringing together the songs that Rousseau had left in manuscript – here is a copy at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The preface to the edition points out that Rousseau liked setting words from the best poets, and the authors of the verses set to music in this collection indeed include many prominent names, such as Metastasio and Petrarch. This song collection has been little studied, and we will hear some of Rousseau’s songs in this recital.

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770. (Yale Collection of Musical Instruments)

The one author you will not find in Rousseau’s song collection is the most famous French poet of the 18th century, Voltaire. In general terms, evidence for Voltaire’s interest in music is scanty – even unreliable. The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments contains a fine 18th-century harpsichord with images inside the lid of Emilie Du Châtelet and the Château de Cirey – an instrument that Voltaire must have listened to! Alas, a recent director of the collection has exposed the paintings inside the harpsichord as ‘fakes’, showing that they were added to the instrument at a later date to make it more valuable.

Voltaire may not have liked music, but he did collaborate with one of the greatest composers of the century. In the 1730s he had composed an opera libretto Samson for Rameau, but following objections from the censors the work was never performed, and the music is now lost. (See the critical edition of Samson by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.18C, 2008.) Their second period of collaboration was more successful. Despite the fact that Louis XV mistrusted him, Voltaire enjoyed a brief period of favour at court in 1745-1746. This was a good time to be a courtier at Versailles: the Dauphin Louis was to marry the Infanta of Spain, an alliance of huge dynastic importance for the Bourbons, and a three-act comédie-ballet was commissioned as part of the celebrations.

Cochin, La Princesse de Navarre at Versailles

Cochin, La Princesse de Navarre at Versailles, in the presence of Louis XV, 1745. (Wikimedia commons)

Voltaire composed a libretto about a Spanish princess, La Princesse de Navarre, and Rameau composed the music. Then a few months later the maréchal de Saxe led French troops to victory against the British-led coalition at Fontenoy, and Voltaire and Rameau were back in business, this time with an opera, Le Temple de la gloire, celebrating the nature of kingship. (See the critical editions of these two works by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006.) Voltaire’s period of favour at Versailles was brief and ended unhappily, but the one positive outcome was his collaboration with Rameau on two major musical works for the court.

Given Voltaire’s extraordinary pre-eminence as a poet, it is perhaps surprising that there are not more musical settings of his verse. But, even in his brilliant light verse, Voltaire never indulges in the easy romantic gesture, and perhaps his concise and ironical voice does not easily lend itself to musical setting. There are exceptions, of course, such as the three salon pieces set to music by Jacques Chailley (1910-1999), in a collection Trois madrigaux galants (1982). And from Voltaire’s lifetime there is a fine song “Le dernier parti à prendre” by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, published in his Choix de chansons (1773). This magnificent publication, dedicated to Marie-Antoinette, is currently being edited in an ambitious digital format that will include all the music.

You can hear Laborde’s setting of Voltaire here.

Voltaire did write one poem that became an unexpected hit, a madrigal composed for Princess Ulrica when he was in Berlin in 1743. The poem, ‘A Mme la Princesse Ulrique de Prusse’, also known as ‘Songe’, is an example of Voltaire’s light verse at its most attractive and charming – so much so that it was reworked in German by Goethe, and in Russian by Pushkin:

Souvent un peu de vérité
Se mêle au plus grossier mensonge;
Cette nuit, dans l’erreur d’un songe,
Au rang des rois j’étois monté.
Je vous aimais, princesse, et j’osais vous le dire!
Les Dieux à mon réveil ne m’ont pas tout ôté:
Je n’ai perdu que mon empire.

(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006, p.434-38)

The poem has become an anthology piece and was set in the 20th century by a member of “Les Six”, Germaine Tailleferre (Six Chansons françaises, 1929, op.41, no. 2). More interestingly, these verses were set to music at least twice in Voltaire’s lifetime, first by Antoine Légat de Furcy (c.1740-c.1790), and then again by Adrien Leemans (1741-1771), whose score (Le Songe, ariette nouvelle, Paris, Mme Bérault, 1769) you can find online.

It’s interesting that the setting by Légat de Furcy was first published in 1761 in a women’s magazine, the Journal des dames: eighteenth-century songs such as these were designed for performance by amateur musicians, often women, in a domestic setting – as we saw in a recent blog, music was an occupation for a lady of leisure in lockdown.

Eighteenth-century novels sometimes appeal to women readers precisely by including songs within the fiction – a famous example would be the engraved score in Richardson’s Clarissa, and there are many comparable examples in French novels of the period (discussed by Martin Wåhlberg in La Scène de musique dans le roman du XVIIIe siècle, 2015).

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695)

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695).

This all seems a far cry from the more ‘sophisticated’ songs usually performed at the Oxford Lieder Festival. Yet by a delightful quirk, it is in Russia that Voltaire’s “Dream” has acquired a permanent place in the song repertoire. Pushkin’s reworking of the Voltaire poem, “Snovidenie” (Dream), caught the attention of no fewer than four Russian composers, so we can compare the settings of the same poem by Cui, Arensky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Rousseau was the musician, not Voltaire. Yet it is Voltaire who has left the greater mark in the great song tradition of the nineteenth century.

We will have a unique opportunity to enjoy some of this little-heard music in the recital programme on 13 October 2020, 15:00-16:00, when I will be in discussion with the musicologist Suzanne Aspenden. The programme will be introduced from the Voltaire Foundation, and the recital will then continue in the magnificent Upper Library of The Queen’s College. This event will be streamed live and remain available online for two weeks: please do come and listen to Voltaire and Rousseau in song!

Charlotte La Thrope (soprano) | Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord)
Oliver Johnston (tenor) | Natalie Burch (piano)

Tickets are available here.

This Oxford Lieder event is presented in association with TORCH, and with support from the Humanities Cultural Programme, the Voltaire Foundation, and The Queen’s College.

Nicholas Cronk

Obstinément Voltaire. La redécouverte en Suisse d’un portrait par Jean Huber

L’heureuse rencontre de deux personnalités tout à fait hors du commun est à l’origine d’une suite de portraits de Voltaire – silhouettes, dessins, gravures, aquarelles, conversation pieces à l’huile délicieuses – d’une remarquable modernité (la plupart de ces petits tableaux à l’huile ont été achetés par Catherine de Russie, du vivant de Voltaire, et ils sont conservés à l’Ermitage, à Saint-Pétersbourg). D’un côté nous avons le philosophe, désormais au seuil de la vieillesse et au faîte de sa célébrité, recherchant une demeure dans les alentours de Genève sur les rives du lac Léman, de l’autre Jean Huber (Chambésy 1721-1786 Lausanne) qui fait sa connaissance par hasard.

Issu de la meilleure société genevoise, d’origine huguenote, appartenant au milieu financier international, Jean Huber n’a rien du sérieux légèrement apprêté de ses concitoyens. Au contraire, il est d’un naturel vif, imprévisible, plein d’humour, aux multiples intérêts et à l’aise partout: il a tout pour séduire le philosophe. Jean Huber avait reçu l’éducation typique de son rang, séjour à l’étranger, d’abord à la cour du landgrave de Hesse-Kassel puis dans le Piémont chez Charles-Emmanuel III, roi de Sardaigne. Il aimait jouer de la musique, chasser au faucon, oiseau dont il étudiait scientifiquement le comportement; il se consacrait aussi à la peinture, sans avoir jamais pris de leçons.

L’amitié entre les deux hommes durera une vingtaine d’années, avec des hauts et des bas, exacerbés par leurs fortes personnalités. Ils arriveront à se voir presque quotidiennement: Huber est d’abord hôte aux Délices, la charmante propriété genevoise que Voltaire occupera pendant quatre ans, puis au château de Ferney.

Témoin de l’activité frénétique du patriarche s’adonnant à ses activités champêtres de ‘monarque sans couronne’, débordant de projets et recevant régulièrement des visiteurs venus de toute l’Europe, un observateur aussi fin que Huber ne pouvait manquer d’être frappé par la physionomie de Voltaire, par ses innombrables expressions faciales, et par l’énergie déployée par l’homme maigrissime et vieillissant, fragile et tremblotant, mais soutenu par une détermination hors du commun.

Il était inévitable que tôt ou tard Huber se mettrait au travail armé de papier et de ciseaux pour découper des silhouettes du philosophe, lui qui était passé maître dans cette forme artistique. Par la suite Jean Huber produisit aussi croquis, dessins, et de nombreuses gravures représentant son ami philosophe, toujours dans le but presque obsessionnel de s’approcher le plus possible de la vérité de ce visage aux mille expressions, tour à tour émerveillé, fâché, mort de fatigue, autoritaire, sarcastique, déçu, méprisant, pensif… et toujours théâtral.

Ses croquis sont loin des nombreuses représentations officielles du célèbre homme de lettres, les yeux investigateurs levés vers le ciel. Chez Huber, l’intention est diamétralement opposée. D’une façon inédite et très moderne, il veut nous restituer simplement l’être humain avec son sarcasme, ses défauts, ses mauvaises humeurs, ses peurs, sa mélancolie face au temps qui passe… Ce peintre détaille aussi scrupuleusement les mises très drôles de Voltaire, ‘à faire pouffer de rire’, et les perruques démodées à la Louis XIV que le patriarche adopte à Ferney, et dont lui-même est le premier à s’amuser.

Quand à Paris ces gravures très recherchées se diffusent, la patience de Voltaire est à bout, non pas parce qu’il aspire à la discrétion mais parce que, selon lui, Huber l’exploite en se moquant de lui, et en en tirant par-dessus le marché toute la gloire possible… et le philosophe le fait savoir publiquement, par exemple dans l’Epître CXIV: A Horace. Huber sent alors qu’il doit se défendre rapidement, notamment parce qu’il tient trop à cette amitié, qui, en effet, sera rétablie par la suite: ‘Ne concevrez-vous pas qu’il faut des ombres à votre portrait, qu’il faut des contrastes à une lumière que personne ne pourrait soutenir […] Je vous ai dit cent fois que je savais précisément la dose de ridicule qu’il fallait à votre gloire. Il est de fait que depuis quinze ans que selon vous, monsieur, je travaille à la ternir, elle n’a fait que croître et embellir […] Imitez le bon Dieu qui n’en fait que rire’ (Lettre de Huber à Voltaire, 30 octobre 1772).

Voltaire, par Jean Huber et Andrienne Cannac.

Voltaire, par Jean Huber et Andrienne Cannac. Collection particulière, Suisse.

A la rencontre de Voltaire et Huber, rencontre aussi passionnante qu’unique, se rattache la découverte d’un ‘nouveau’ portrait de Voltaire à l’aquarelle, découpé, dans une niche Louis XVI brodée (troisième quart du dix-huitième siècle), accroché depuis toujours dans le château d’Hauteville (sur Vevey), et vendu aux enchères du château en 2015.

Jean Huber a fréquenté à plusieurs reprises cette magnifique propriété de goût italien. Située sur les ravissantes collines du lac Léman, elle appartenait à Pierre-Philippe Cannac. Provenant d’une famille huguenote d’origine lyonnaise qui avait cherché refuge en Suisse à la suite de la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre-Philippe s’était marié avec la genevoise Andrienne Cannac née Huber, tante de Jean. Ils entretenaient des rapports affectueux avec leur neveu espiègle et hors du commun, en particulier pendant les vacances d’été à Hauteville, où d’autres découpages de Huber ont été trouvés.

Comme divertissement estival, ce portrait singulier – on ne connaît qu’un autre portrait de Voltaire à l’aquarelle par Huber sur carton découpé[1] – a été réalisé à quatre mains, conjuguant ainsi le savoir-faire du neveu et celui de Mme Cannac, dans le domaine de la broderie des vêtements et de la niche. Le but aurait été de montrer leur adhésion à la pensée voltairienne, en exhibant aussi la parenté entre les Cannac et les Huber.

Ce tableau mérite toute notre attention parce que sa découverte et son attribution ajoutent un chaînon significatif au répertoire de l’œuvre de Jean Huber.

– Silvia Mazzoleni

[1] Grimm, Diderot et al., Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, éd. M. Tourneux, t.10 (Paris, 1879), p.98-99.


Writing the imagination

Jean Honoré Fragonard’s drawing L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773) shows us the artist in the act of conceiving an artwork. Before embarking on the material process of creation, he shuts his eyes to the outside world and unleashes the power of his imagination. Various fantastic figures, both sublime and grotesque, emerge from an amorphous background and gradually take shape. Whereas the artist is overwhelmed by his inner fancies and seems plunged into a state of ecstasy, the spectator of the image witnesses how the empirical world gradually gives way to the imagination. It seems as if we were observing the moment just before the eclipse of reality, and that a second later the emerging fantasies might continue to swallow up the island of sensory perception in the centre of the stage. Instead of seeing only the finished picture, we are made to see the very process of imagination that produces it.

L’inspiration de l’artiste, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

I would argue that this scene can help us to reconsider other eighteenth-century reflections on the imagination. Fragonard’s drawing is not only a product of the imagination, it simultaneously strives to stage the power of the imagination itself. The mode of representation and the represented object are made to converge. The imagination is used as a tool to explore its own workings.

Self-reflexive moves of this kind can also take place in texts that are engaged in one way or another with the imagination. A writer can explicitly say something about the imagination, but he or she also always does something with the imagination, be it explicitly by using a fictional mode of representation, or implicitly through the metaphorical underpinnings of his or her thought. Even though these two dimensions – theory and practice of the imagination – may be present to different degrees, they are usually inseparable. Diderot’s Le Rêve de d’Alembert is a case in point. The interlocutors of this dialogue repeatedly make statements concerning the imagination, but at the same time the reader becomes involved in an imaginative process: a flow of collective associations, stunning analogies and metaphors, fantastical creatures.

The eighteenth century has often been described as the crucial turning-point in the history of the imagination, as the pivotal moment in which an inferior faculty becomes an anthropological force of fundamental importance. It is also the period that puts into question the Cartesian idea that there is a purely rational standpoint beyond the imagination (the cogito). My recent book Die Kraft der Figuren (The Power of Figures) reassesses this process by focusing on the interaction between theoretical claims and practices of writing. This approach turns out to be most productive in the case of authors who explicitly take into account the power of the imagination as a part of their own writing, such as Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot, who are at the centre of the study.

One could say that the desk of these philosophers, like that of Fragonard’s inspired artist, is placed in the midst of the imagination, and not opposed to it. Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot conceive the imagination as a process they are always already involved in. As Fragonard teaches us, though, this also entails the risk of coming into touch with the imagination’s dangerous side, represented by the dark hybrid creature in the lower left-hand corner of the drawing…

– Manuel Mühlbacher

Exploring Parisian archives thanks to the BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award

Tabitha Baker is a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Warwick and V&A Museum. Her thesis is entitled ‘The Embroidery Trade in Eighteenth-Century France’ and is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project supervised jointly by Professor Giorgio Riello (Warwick) and Professor Lesley Miller (V&A).

On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1903, Beatrix Potter was shown an elaborately embroidered French velvet coat from the 1780s. Inspired by the sparkling embroidery which had retained its brilliance for over a century, an illustration of the coat was to appear on page 12 of her children’s story, The Tailor of Gloucester. The coat was later displayed in 1987-88 as part of the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Tate Gallery, and remains a stunning example of eighteenth-century court dress. Eighteenth-century French embroidered clothing in the collections of the V&A and museums around the world is displayed for its technical excellence and beauty. Yet these objects are also the products of a deeply hierarchical and complex luxury trade, the socio-economic intricacies of which have been little studied to date.


Ensemble (coat), France, 1780s. 1611&A-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

My research examines the relationship between the consumption and professional production of fashionable embroidery for clothing and furnishings in eighteenth-century France (c.1660-1791), with a particular focus on Paris and Lyon. By using archival sources alongside surviving embroidered objects from museums in the UK, France and the US, I investigate how embroidery techniques changed over time, how the trade functioned in different cities, and the nature of the professional embroiderers’ clientele.

Embroidery was a well-established trade in France by the time the ‘Beatrix Potter’ coat was produced, readily supplying the luxury clothing and furnishings market in the major cities of France and elsewhere in Europe. Due to their dealings with elite customers who were in a position to command long cycles of credit, it was not uncommon for professional embroiderers who ran large workshops to find themselves in precarious financial situations and succumb to bankruptcy.

The BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award enabled me to go to France in June 2017 to undertake detailed research on the bankruptcy records of the professional embroiderers of eighteenth-century Paris. At the Archives de Paris, I discovered more about their customers, orders, prices and delivery timeframes. This led me to analyse more fully the working practices of professional embroiderers during this period, including how long it took to produce and deliver to the client different types of embroidery, and how the cost of producing embroidery varied over the course of the eighteenth century.

Waistcoat, France, 1730s

Waistcoat, France, 1730-1739. 252-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

An item such as this waistcoat (left), elaborately embroidered in coloured silk and silver threads and which can be seen today at the V&A, is one example of the fashion for luxuriously embroidered clothing at the royal court and the types of commissions taken on by the professional embroiderers of Paris. The order books that I have been working on at the Archives de Paris suggest that embroidery in gold and silver, popular amongst members of the French nobility, could have cost anything between 800 and 2500 livres to purchase, and such orders were placed with embroiderers at the top end of the occupational hierarchy, usually embroiderers to the king and court.

Due to their economic and social standing, customers of this calibre were able to purchase expensive luxury products such as these waistcoats on a long credit cycle, meaning that products would not be paid for in full until months or even years after the receipt of the product. Embroiderers who supplied the wealthy nobility were therefore caught up in a credit cycle, and were often owed great sums by their clients, as can be seen in many of the bankruptcy files.

Thanks to the generosity of BSECS and the Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment, my findings from this period of research have enabled me to make significant progress on my examination of the structure of the professional embroidery trade and how the embroiderers’ occupation reacted to a fluctuating consumer market. A close analysis of how embroidery was consumed in France during the eighteenth century, and the effects this consumption had on the structure of the French embroidery trade, will, I hope, contribute to a greater understanding of the relationship between elite consumption and the French luxury trades.

– Tabitha Baker

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.


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

Hunting in the shadows of the French Revolution

ose-2016-10-50pcResearching prints of the French Revolution can sometimes feel like ghost-hunting.

Unlike other forms of art, such as paintings, which are usually signed, the majority of etchings are authorless. Sometimes, sheer luck, or the right accumulation of clues, can lead you to an artist – a most satisfying conclusion.

This was the case with ‘Dupuis, peintre’, an artist commissioned twice by the Comité de Salut Public to create prints central to my book, Satire, prints and theatricality in the French Revolution. His identity evaded me for several years. I had several candidates for him, and my original thesis, the basis of my book, included this footnote:

Chûte en masse: ainsi l'étincelle electrique de la liberté, renversera tous les trônes des brigands couronnés (François Marie Isidore Queverdo).

‘Chûte en masse: ainsi l’étincelle electrique de la liberté, renversera tous les trônes des brigands couronnés’, by François Marie Isidore Queverdo (Stanford University Libraries).

‘The identity of Dupuis remains mysterious. He could be issued from an illustrious family of engravers, including Charles and Nicolas-Gabriel Dupuis. He could also be related to the painter Pierre Depuis. Yet again, he could be François-Nicolas Dupuis who exhibited at the Salon from 1795 to 1802. It is probably a coincidence that he is related by name to the scientist Charles François Dupuy, a deputy whose interests were more astronomical and sociological than artistic. The lack of a first name suggests that he was only known as Dupuis, which could be a nickname or a deformation of his original name. Without clear evidence on this matter, there is only speculation. Regardless, he is described as a painter, and that he was trained academically is apparent in the depiction of the Republican in the print “Chûte en Masse” with his anatomically precise legs, as if he’d been first sketched naked before clothes were added.’


‘Je suis comme le temps au gagne petit’, 1789-1792; etching and engraving on light blue paper, hand-coloured in watercolour and bodycolour; 260 × 185mm; Waddesdon Manor, Rothschild Collection (National Trust), bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957; accession number 4232.1.62.123. Photo: Imaging Services Bodleian Library © National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

I had however missed a crucial clue in the Comité de Salut Public documents: his physical address, ‘rue d’Orleans, porte St Martin’, which corresponds to the address of Pépin Dupuis, a genre painter who exhibited at the Salon of 1793.[1]

One ghost satisfyingly identified in time for the publication of my book.

There are also more literal ghosts to be found in prints of the French Revolution. In particular, a trend towards ‘hiding’ the profiles of the deceased in prints. A practice we, as twenty-first century viewers, have to train ourselves to look for, but which were quite the trend from the Terror onwards.

If you want to see one example of this, watch this video about Waddesdon Manor’s collection of French Revolutionary prints.

– Claire Trévien

[1] See the Comité de salut public: esprit public, arts, caricatures, costume national. 1793 an III, AF II 66 489 EXTRAIT 1 (ancien dossier 232), Fol.29 (24 June 1794); Description des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture et gravures, exposés au salon du Louvre (Paris : Imprimerie de la veuve Hérissant, 1793), p.87.

The Man Behind England’s Green and Pleasant Land – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in and around Oxfordshire

Bodleian Library Exhibition

Bodleian Library Exhibition (Oliver Cox)

This summer a small exhibition in the Blackwell Hall of the Weston Library on Broad Street, Oxford, will tell the story of The English Garden: Views and Visitors. It also marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the man behind England’s green and pleasant land, the landscape designer and entrepreneur Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

What Shakespeare has done for English letters, so Brown has done for English landscape. Yet we know what Shakespeare created was fiction; even if his fiction was so convincing that when we think of Richard III or Henry V, we think firstly of Shakespeare’s characters, rather than the historical record. With Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the story is slightly different as his landscapes look so natural that it is hard to see the hand of the artist at work at all. Perhaps Brown’s success has been such that he has almost damned himself to historical obscurity through creating a product so good, subsequent generations of visitors have given nature herself the credit.

2016 gives us the opportunity to re-assert the balance, and bring Brown into the popular pantheon of English artistic heroes.

The county of Oxfordshire is pretty much where it all started for Capability Brown. Thirteen miles north of Oxford lies Kiddington Hall. This is where Capability Brown appeared, aged 23 in 1739, with introductions from his former employer, the Northumbrian landowner Sir William Lorraine. Kiddington’s owner, Sir Charles Browne, gave this other Brown his first big break in the south of England. Lancelot was involved in the formation of the lawns and lake in front of the house. The lake’s source was the River Glyme, which he would return to some twenty years later in his career to create the magnificent lake at Blenheim Palace.

View from South Portico at Stowe

View from South Portico at Stowe (Oliver Cox)

Two years later, Brown found himself twenty-five miles north east of the city of dreaming spires as the new Head Gardener of Stowe. By 1741 this landscape was already one of the most famous in Europe. Jacques Rigaud’s fifteen engravings, published in July 1739, ensured that Stowe’s landscape was broadcast far beyond Buckinghamshire. In the far corner of Lord Cobham’s estate at Stowe, Brown started work on creating an ideal valley, through which Cobham’s visitors could walk and imagine themselves as the poets of Classical antiquity. Excavating approximately 24,000 cubic yards of earth, Brown’s male and female labourers were creating landscape on the largest scale.

Brown’s long career, stretching for the next forty-two years until his death in 1783, is significant for a huge range of factors. Most importantly he codified the idea of the ‘natural’ in landscape design. The new exhibition at Compton Verney, celebrating Brown’s work there for the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke from 1768, efficiently captures his style.

Compton Verney, viewed across Brown’s Lake

Compton Verney, viewed across Brown’s Lake (Oliver Cox)

Brown’s landscapes were typically simple, uncluttered and restrained, generally comprising sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screens of trees. He swept away the formal parterres and the classically-inspired allusions of the previous age, but also planted thousands of trees – predominantly oak, ash and elm. The resultant landscape was perfectly designed to encourage those 18th-century pursuits of hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.

In 2016, Brown’s image of England – appearing at the beginning of every episode of Downton Abbey thanks to his work at Highclere Castle – has achieved an unprecedented global reach.

– Oliver Cox

The Future of ruins past: Syria and Italy

At the beginning of his 1791 Les Ruines, Constantin-François de Volney describes himself sitting amidst the ruins of Palmyra, on the edge of the Syrian desert. As his gaze shifts back and forth between the ancient monuments and the open horizon, he sinks into a profound reverie. It is the beginning of a long meditation on the principles that govern the rise and fall of civilizations.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, before its destruction. (Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

A thriving cosmopolitan city in which the Persian and Greco-Roman worlds merged in complex ways, Palmyra was at its height between the first and second centuries AD. Its ruins, a destination for countless European travellers from the seventeenth century onward, bore witness to its greatness. Volney, like many others before him, was fascinated and at the same time dismayed by the sight. For him the ruins of Palmyra evoked not only the glorious past of an ancient Empire, but also a possible future for the great Western civilizations. They echoed the fragility itself of human society, and their shattered architecture was the material embodiment of the incessant cycles of history. By observing the rubble of the past, visitors were also stimulated to reflect on the causes that led a people to ruination. The knowledge of ruins past – for Volney – could help nations avert the eventual collapse of civilization.

ff N5740 .P49 v.1-4 Le Antichita Romane...

Figure 5: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the subterranean foundations of the Mausoleum built by the Emperor Hadrian, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.9. High Def image also available to view on line.

The ruins of Palmyra are today under attack. As the ancient city has become a battlefield in the war between the Syrian regime and ISIS, we have seen its architectural heritage disappear – razed to the ground with explosives. The latest to fall, after the temples of Baalshamin and of Bel, was the 2000-year-old Arch of Triumph. The eighteenth-century etcher Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose depictions of ruined landscapes are still so eloquent, was convinced that ruins had a voice and that they would continue to speak to our imaginations over the centuries. The ruins of Palmyra are powerful, stirring symbols and the fighters of ISIS must fear their collective voice if they are now trying to silence it once and for all. There is a sense of both disbelief and horror that seizes us at the thought of a piece of our collective history being ruthlessly destroyed.

In my book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836 I discuss the layered symbolism of ruins in Italy during its transition to modernity between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I explore how the multiple meanings assumed by ruins are inextricable from the way we think about history, the relationship between past, present, and future, and categories such as progress and change. Ruins are never neutral symbols. If their destruction is an act of war, it is one aimed at rewriting history.

ff N5740 .P49 v.1-4 Le Antichita Romane...

Figure 6: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View showing a part of the foundations of the Theater of Marcellus, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.32. HD image.

As George Orwell suggested, far more terrible than the power that desires to control the future is one that attempts to dominate the past as well [1]. By erasing ruins, historical memory is destroyed. There is no more effective way of delegitimizing the present in order to lay the ground for a new regime and its new historical narrative. While the preservation (and reinvention) of its ancient ruins was both a poetic and a political act in Italy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Syria today it is an imperative of salvation.

There is some hope on the horizon. In October 2015, a group of activists started #NEWPALMYRA, an online archive of 3-D models that reproduce Palmyra’s monuments with the aim of “rebuilding” the city. The Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology has also launched the Million Image Database project, whose goal is to construct a 3-D photographic record of objects from endangered sites across the Middle East and North Africa, including Palmyra. To save the ruins of the past is an act of resistance crucial to saving the future.

– Sabrina Ferri


Sabrina Ferri, Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, December 2015. ISBN 978-0-7294-1171-4.






[1] See George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ (1943), in Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays. See also Orwell, 1984 (1949).