Lighting the Enlightenment

Try googling ‘light and enlightenment’ and see what you find. Buddhism, new age religion, mindfulness, and spirituality top the list. Scroll down and you may come across a few fleeting references to 18th-century theology. But if you are hoping to find discussions of the Enlightenment in the context of lanterns, illumination, and light, you’ll need to search a little harder, or be prepared to be left in the dark.

Was there really no relationship at all between that great movement of 18th-century culture and actual illumination? Between the Enlightenment and light itself? To be sure, scholars have long probed the question in metaphorical terms, showing how a master Christian metaphor was wrested from the hands of those who had once proclaimed Jesus as the exclusive light and way. But to search for some connection between the material practice of lighting and the Enlightenment of the mind appears to have struck many as too basic, or too banal, to spark reflection.

And yet it is clear that light in the age of Enlightenment was more than just a metaphor. We know from the pioneering work of social and urban historians of the night such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, A. Roger Ekirch, Craig Koslofksy, and Alain Cabantous that the long 18th century was, quite literally, a century of lights in the sense that it witnessed an unprecedented conquest of the dark. Marked by a concerted effort to publicly illuminate cities, this conquest took the form of hundreds of thousands of lanterns that were erected in urban centers from Paris to Potsdam. Whereas in 1660, not a single city in Europe possessed regularly illuminated streets, a century later that situation had changed. Voltaire, for one, took note of the transformation, observing ruefully in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) that while ‘five thousand lamps lighted up Paris every night,’ Rome itself was not lighted at all. The symbolism was perfect. Paris had become the true beacon of the world, at once illuminated and enlightened. Rome, not so much.

Although scholars of the Enlightenment have been slow to register these developments, and to ask what impact they may have had on the light of the times, that is beginning to change. Social and urban historians such as Marco Cicchini and Sophie Reculin have been mapping the topography of the 18th-century lighting revolution with ever-greater precision, showing how light moved from a luxury to a necessity in the 18th century, and how new urban spaces around theatres, public promenades, and squares were transformed by illumination. Meanwhile, literary scholars such as Marine Ganofsky have analyzed (in this very blog) the ways in which illumination transformed the night into an erotic adventure-zone, a space free of fear and open to pleasure, where libertines could frolic. And in my own work I have sought to explore the relationship between illumination and Enlightenment in a number of ways.

An enlightened history of the lantern by a society of men of letters, by Jean-François Dreux du Radier. Although the work was written as a satire, it effectively contributed to what was a new Enlightenment genre: the cultural and technical history of lighting practices. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

For one thing, a surprising number of Enlightenment figures were themselves directly interested in lighting and illumination. Benjamin Franklin, the son of a tallow chandler, took a keen interest in lantern design and helped to organize the public lighting of the city of Philadelphia. Lavoisier penned a treatise on the best means to light a great city like Paris, and experimented constantly with fuels, wicks, and the angles of reflection and refraction in the light emitted from lanterns. Voltaire, too, like Marat and Madame Du Châtelet, experimented with flames. Diderot wrote about the history of candles. Jefferson studied whale oil, among the 18th-century’s most important lighting fuels. Goethe not only studied optics, but also concerned himself with the intricacies of stage lighting.

Just as importantly, a host of lesser lights pursued Enlightenment through illumination. Some, like the inventor and engineer Bourgeois de Chateaublanc, devoted their energy to technical matters, like perfecting the new reflector lamps, the réverbères. Others, such as Jean-Francois Dreux du Radier and his ‘society of men of letters’, wrote satirical histories of lanterns, mocking the pretensions of a new genre, the comparative history of light. Still others, like Pierre Tourtille-Sangrain or Charles de Rabiqueau, pursued the business of illumination as the counterpart to the business of Enlightenment. As the latter declared on his calling card, advertising his services as an entrepreneur de l’illumination, Rabiqueau could ‘enlighten the mind as well as matter.’

‘He enlightens and illuminates, both matter and the mind’! The calling card of the inventor, scientist and entrepreneur de l’illumination Charles de Rabiqueau, advertising his services and spectacles at his shop on the rue St. Jacques in Paris. © Archives Nantes.

And that is precisely the point. Enlightenment and illumination went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, public lighting created the conditions for a vastly expanded urban sociability that was central to the emergence of the public sphere. Shops stayed open longer, theatre curtain times were pushed back, and restaurants and cafés served long after dark, later than ever before. Salons and visiting hours were also extended into the night, meaning that enlightened discussion was very often conducted after the sun went down. Street lighting led the way, creating the appearance (if not always the reality) of greater safety and rational control over the environment, combatting not just crime but superstition and fear.

Light, in these respects, was a vivid symbol of progress, and contemporaries were highly aware that its implementation set the enlightened apart. As Anne-Louis Leclerc du Brillet observed typically in a draft history of street lighting written sometime in the 1730s, ‘The usage of public lighting in cities does not seem to have been established in any nation previously – even in those that passed for the most civilized (les plus policés).’ Public lighting, in short, was unique to the modern age, and it reflected perfectly the novel sense that contemporaries were living in a novel time, a singular epoch of progress and advancement. To illuminate the night was to begin to understand and control what had long been considered another realm, dispelling darkness and the superstitions it fostered.

Not all, to be sure, welcomed the light. A dialectic of illumination was the counterpart to the dialectic of Enlightenment, giving rise to protests and a European (and North American) wave of lantern smashing over the course of the 18th century. When viewed from this perspective, lanterns could seem a little bit like surveillance cameras; they were not always welcome. And yet by the last third of the 18th century, the evidence is strong that proponents of illumination were overcoming their less enlightened antagonists. It is telling that a good number of the cahiers de doléances written up in France before the convening of the Estates General in 1789 asked for more light, not less. Like Goethe on his deathbed, the Enlightened and illuminated citizens of the age desired mehr Licht.

– Darrin M. McMahon

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Dartmouth. His article, ‘Illuminating the Enlightenment: Public Lighting Practices and the Siècle des lumières’, appears in the August 2018 edition of ‘Past & Present’.


Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’ [1]

Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753), by François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard.

The French natural historian Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’ [2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better than, the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption, which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practice, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s in terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.

Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018).

The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in Western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one – but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.), vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th-century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

‘Une encyclopédie de ma façon’: le chef-d’œuvre méconnu de Voltaire

Voltaire a toujours soutenu la grande entreprise collective de l’Encyclopédie dirigée par D’Alembert et Diderot (consulter cet ouvrage en français ou en anglais). Il a rédigé une quarantaine d’articles pour le dictionnaire, mais avait toutefois quelques réserves sur certains articles: ‘La France fournissait à l’Europe un Dictionnaire encyclopédique dont l’utilité était reconnue. Une foule d’articles excellents rachetaient bien quelques endroits qui n’étaient pas des mains des maîtres,’ écrit-il à Francesco Albergati Capacelli le 23 décembre 1760. Une quinzaine d’années plus tard, il fera imprimer le charmant conte De l’Encyclopédie, qui fera encore l’éloge de cet ouvrage tout en lui reconnaissant certains défauts. Voltaire trouvait notamment que les articles avaient tendance à être trop longs ou trop subjectifs: ‘Je suis encore fâché qu’on fasse des dissertations, qu’on donne des opinions particulières pour des vérités reconnues. Je voudrais partout la définition, et l’origine du mot avec des exemples’ (à D’Alembert, le 9 octobre [1756]).

Après l’achèvement de ce grand dictionnaire, l’éditeur Charles-Joseph Panckoucke forme le projet de publier une réédition avec des corrections. Cela donne à Voltaire l’occasion de proposer des réductions et des réécritures du texte. Un certain nombre de manuscrits trouvés parmi ses papiers après sa mort semblent témoigner de ses efforts dans ce sens, textes déjà publiés dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Cependant, cette entreprise ne sera pas menée à terme.

Voltaire se décide alors à faire un dictionnaire ‘de sa façon’, où il se sert peut-être de certains articles écrits pour Panckoucke, et où il redéploie quelques-uns des textes qu’il a rédigés pour l’Encyclopédie. On retrouve donc dans ses Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772) des thèmes et des sujets qui lui sont chers et omniprésents dans son œuvre (tolérance, critique biblique, questions juridiques, superstition…). Mais étant donné que ce n’est plus un ouvrage de référence, l’auteur ne suit pas les consignes qu’il avait préconisées pour le dictionnaire collectif. Le caractère plus personnel de ses Questions lui permet d’adopter par moments un ton ludique: il invente la fiction plus ou moins transparente du Mont Krapack, où une petite société de gens de lettres est censée vivre et travailler aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. De nombreux articles jouent l’effet de surprise. Le titre ‘Montagne’ annonce un très court article (de 120 mots seulement) qui évoque la fable de La Fontaine où la montagne met au monde une souris, afin de railler les matérialistes de l’époque, qui voulaient que la matière ait produit le vivant. Sous le mot ‘Rare’, l’auteur congédie la signification du mot en physique pour proposer une méditation sur le sens moral et esthétique: ‘on n’admire jamais ce qui est commun’, affirme-t-il avant de considérer l’émotion que nous éprouvons face aux livres rares, aux trésors architecturaux, à un rhinocéros à Paris. La fine satire ‘Gargantua’, enfin, évoque bel et bien le personnage de Rabelais, mais constitue une sorte d’allégorie où l’auteur, en disputant ‘des esprits téméraires qui ont osé nier les prodiges de ce grand homme’, vise en fait les miracles vécus par et attribués à maints personnages des Saintes Ecritures (Moïse, Josué, Jésus…).

La collection complète des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation.

L’ouvrage des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie a disparu dans les éditions posthumes de ses œuvres. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation, composée de huit volumes (2007-2018) sous la direction de Nicholas Cronk et de Christiane Mervaud, dont l’introduction de Christiane Mervaud vient de paraître, permet de redécouvrir ce texte, le plus long et sans doute le plus varié de Voltaire. L’introduction est la première monographie à être consacrée à ce grand ouvrage, et rend compte de sa genèse, des réactions d’époque, de sa relation complexe avec l’Encyclopédie, et des stratégies d’écriture développées par l’auteur.

Nous remercions tous les collaborateurs de cette édition, qui ont participé à l’annotation des articles, à la préparation des index, aux vérifications bibliographiques. J’ai eu personnellement l’honneur et le grand plaisir d’être associée aux huit volumes de la collection, et d’être secrétaire de l’édition pour six d’entre eux. L’édition critique d’un ouvrage de cette envergure ne peut être qu’un travail d’équipe, en l’occurrence mené sur une période de plus de dix ans, et qui représente en miniature l’entreprise des Œuvres complètes, elle aussi sur le point d’être achevée.

– Gillian Pink

Digitizing Enlightenment III

The Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with the Cultures of Knowledge project, the Maison Française d’Oxford, the Oxford Centre for European History and the Centre for Early Modern Studies, was pleased to host the third instalment of the Digitizing Enlightenment conference series on the 19th and 20th of July. This was the first academic event organised under the auspices of the Voltaire Lab, and was made possible by further support from the John Fell Fund.

Digitizing Enlightenment (DE) is a conference series that is establishing its domain as a major area of innovation in the Digital Humanities. The first convening of DE was in Sydney in 2016, hosted by Simon Burrows at Western Sydney University. This first meeting launched a set of discussions around a common set of problems and identified topics for collaboration in pursuit of interoperability among six distinguished, and in some cases, long-standing DH projects in the field of Enlightenment Studies:

  1. The ARTFL Project (Chicago);
  2. Mapping the Republic of Letters (Stanford);
  3. The Comédie Française Registres Project (MIT/Paris-Sorbonne/Nanterre);
  4. The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (Western Sydney);
  5. Electronic Enlightenment (Oxford); and
  6. MEDIATE (Radboud).

The second gathering in Nijmegen in June of 2017, hosted by Alicia Montoya at Radboud University, continued these discussions and opened up more lines of communication and possible collaborative research across Europe and expanded our working notion of ‘Enlightenment’ as an historical period. These meetings thus established an international network of major digital humanities projects working on 17th- and 18th-century European intellectual and literary history. As a group, these projects have sought to identify and work collaboratively on shared research problems, solutions, and resources generated by their respective research programs in order to facilitate more comprehensive approaches to some of the major problems in the field today.

Greg Brown and conference attendees, Maison française d’Oxford.

Digitizing Enlightenment III was, by design, more focused than the prior meetings: it was aimed more narrowly at the hot topic of historical prosopography and network analysis, an area in which we felt the DE network can potentially provide leadership, and which could provide technical solutions that might allow for the integration of a whole range of ambitious projects in this field. The first two conferences were modest in size and quite international: 15-20 papers over two days, with 30-40 people in attendance. With our narrower focus, the third meeting was somewhat smaller but even more international, with participants from Australia, Austria, France, Germany, the US, and the UK. Accordingly, its format was more concentrated, in the form of six thematic round-tables, each dedicated to proposal and discussion of functional solutions to real-world problems already encountered in network analysis and prosopography of this period.

These roundtables were organized around a set of basic questions that allowed participants to engage with the overall thematic of the conference, without necessarily being experts in the domain. Participants spoke briefly on each proposed question, which allowed for ample discussion and question time afterwards. These questions included:

  • Why prosopography? Why networks?
  • What are historical or intellectual networks?
  • What is social network analysis?
  • How to re-construct a social network?
  • Who or what is excluded from networks?
  • What lies beyond networks, beyond prosopography?
  • How to link, sustain, and maintain networks?

A final roundtable was dedicated to discussion of next and future steps in this collaborative work, and where it was decided that we should aim to hold another event either during or around next year’s ISECS International Congress on the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.

Greg Brown (standing) and Howard Hotson.

Participants were also treated to a reception and dinner at Balliol College, generously sponsored by the Bodleian Libraries.

Between roundtables, we invited participants to present some of the current projects that are underway in the broad field of digital Enlightenment studies. These short presentations included already established projects, such as Early Modern Letters Online, the Quill Project, and Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, as well as new projects, such as the sequel to Simon Burrow’s FBTEE project, Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment, and projects not yet fully developed on an early modern digital gazetteer, a new prosopographical model for natural law academics, and a project underway at Stanford on 18th-century salons as ‘networks’.

Our hope is that the Digitizing Enlightenment brand will continue on into the future, both in the form of future meetings – at ISECS in 2019 and perhaps Chicago in 2020 – and in a volume currently being edited for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, which draws its content from the first two meetings. Should you have any questions about these projects, or our vision for future Digitizing Enlightenment events, please feel free to contact us at:

– Gregory Brown and Glenn Roe

The ‘Beccaria moment’: revisiting the origins of the modern penal system

Published anonymously in Livorno in July 1764, Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments is at the origin of a remarkable moment in European culture. Translations and commentaries appeared instantly in several languages, and this brief work of some 100 pages gave rise to what Michel Porret has called the ‘Beccaria moment’,[1] referring to the period of intense debate that led to the whole European tradition of penal law being called into question, culminating less than fifty years later in France with the promulgation in 1810 of the Napoleonic Code pénal.

A new book, Le moment Beccaria: naissance du droit pénal moderne, 1764-1810, edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018) allows us to revisit this ‘moment’.

The shock wave caused by On Crimes and Punishments

Persuaded that ‘knowledge is the pre-condition of enlightened consent to the laws, that itself is the condition of liberty’ (Audegean[2]), Beccaria makes his text accessible to a wide readership. He rejects the use of Latin, and emphasises clarity and concision. He brings together, to quote his first French translator André Morellet, ‘the strength of reason and the warmth of feeling’.[3] In so doing, criminal law – which had hitherto remained the private and confidential domain of the legal profession – becomes a public affair. The ‘Milan school’ and the group around the journal Il Caffé (1764-1766) that includes Beccaria have as their declared aim, to quote Pietro Verri, to dispel ‘the fog and mystery that allowed the select few to act with impunity while the greater number remained in misery’.[4]

Allegory of Justice refusing to receive some heads from the hand of a man with a sword, illustration from C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene. Edizione sesta di nuovo corretta ed accresciuta, Harlem [Paris?], 1766. Public domain. Source:

The aim of On Crimes and Punishments is to modernise penal law by establishing it on clear, secular, moderate foundations, so as to fight against the abuses of justice: torture, the scaffold, extreme corporal punishment, the confusion between crime and sin, the arbitrariness of the judiciary, the slowness and secrecy of trials. Penal law is to be brought in line with a sense of legality as defined by the social contract, liberty and the equality of man. This revolution, which established the foundations of the constitutional state, causes a shock wave in Europe of unseen proportions.

To speak of the ‘Beccaria moment’ is therefore to recognise that the origins of modern criminal law are to be found not just in the modest pages of the Milanese thinker but in the hundreds of texts and speeches that his pages inspired in the following decades, from Voltaire’s Commentaire and the issuing of the Nakaz by Catherine the Great (1767) to the abolition of the death penalty in Tuscany (1786) and the criminal laws of the young American nation drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams, from the first French penal code of 1791, the product of debates among the Constituants in which the name most often cited was Beccaria’s, to the Napoleonic code and the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). But the ‘Beccaria moment’ continues in Victor Hugo’s campaign of 1848 to abolish the death penalty, or, closer to our times, in 1981, in the actions of Robert Badinter.

To understand the sources of modern criminal law means taking into account both Beccaria’s book and its interpretations – in Germany, England, France and Italy – thanks to which a new legal structure gradually emerged, and new principles of punishment meant that the legality of punishments replaced the arbitrary power of the courts.

A ‘moment’ that remains modern

Beccaria’s modernity lies in his having reconceived the problem of punishment in the framework of a new conception of politics born in the Enlightenment period and which is still our own: a framework in which the state’s authority is subjugated to the laws protecting individuals. Criminal law is no longer the royal instrument used by the sovereign to guarantee his strength and establish social order, but rather the instrument of citizens to protect and uphold their liberty and safety against public or private violence.

It follows, as the authors show here, that ‘the power to punish is revealed in all its tragic ambiguity’,[5] since it may be necessary, in order to protect citizens from violations that threaten them, to violate the liberty of others and to threaten their dignity and their physical integrity. How to protect ourselves against the excesses and extremes of the laws that protect us? This book demonstrates, if it were necessary, that the ‘Beccaria moment’ remains relevant, and it reminds us of the need today to rethink the principles of the Milanese writer so as to better understand in particular the modern tension between the principles of security and liberal values. It invites us to think about the problems raised by the widespread preventive surveillance of individuals in the name of the ‘security of the state’ at a time when new radical forms of criminality are emerging.

Title page of the original edition of the Napoleonic code of 1810. Public domain.

The ‘Beccaria moment’ of 1764 has clearly passed, yet its aspirations represent unfinished business. In the same way that between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, public debate opened up to problems that had not been envisaged by the author of On Crimes and Punishments – in particular the emergence of a new prison regime – his book throws a light today on the present evolution of criminal law, which since the Enlightenment has been a founding and defining element of social order and our institutions. In 2015, Michel Porret elegantly summed up the problem:

As an Enlightened Utopian, Beccaria dreamed of a just city, regulated by constrained force, since excessive punishments encourage brutality in social behaviour […]. Speaking in the language and culture of his times, Beccaria paves the way for the eventual abolition of capital punishment. Today this humane project is enshrined in European democracies. So at a time when certain European gaols resemble more and more the prison hell deplored by John Howard at the end of the eighteenth century, and when populism sees an ethnic element in criminality, fosters social vindictiveness, and in general questions the Enlightenment legal heritage, condemning the State’s role to heal and urging punitive excess in response to problems of security, the generous words of the Italian thinker remain immensely relevant. As if we were still living in the Beccaria moment inaugurated in 1764.[6]

On Friday 12 October 2018, I am pleased to be organising at the École normale supérieure in Paris a round table debate devoted to the book edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia, in the presence of the authors/editors. Also participating in the discussion are Italo Birocchi (professor of the history of medieval and modern law at the University of  Rome La Sapienza), Manuela Albertone (professor of modern history at the University of Turin), and Denis Baranger (professor of public law at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas and deputy director of the Institut Michel Villey).

– Pierre Musitelli, École normale supérieure, Paris
Translated by Nicholas Cronk

[1] Michel Porret, Beccaria: le droit de punir, Paris, Michalon, 2003, p. 116; and Michel Porret and Élisabeth Salvi (eds.), Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, XVIIIe-XXIe siècle, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015, ‘Introduction. Le moment Beccaria’, p.15-38.

[2] C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, translation by Philippe Audegean, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2009, p.398.

[3] [C. Beccaria], Traité des délits et des peines, traduit de l’italien [1765], ‘Préface du traducteur’, p.VIII.

[4] Il Caffè, t.I, foglio V, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, p.56.

[5] Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (eds.), Le moment Beccaria. Naissance du droit pénal moderne (1764-1810), Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018, introduction, p.4.

[6] Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, p.37-38.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Voltaire: a life in letters

Commentaire historique

Title page of the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

In the late summer of 1776 there appeared an anonymous Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. On the face of it, this biography of the 82-year-old Voltaire was written by a ‘man of letters’, not in his first youth either, with access to the great man and to the ‘chaos of his papers’. The work is indeed heavily reliant on Voltaire’s correspondence, both in the opening narrative and in the collection of letters that follows, but early readers were in no doubt that Voltaire had played an active part in its composition. As the reviewer of the Mémoires secrets put it in September 1776: ‘It is a third party who is supposed to be speaking; but from the style and favourable manner in which all the facts are presented, and from a multitude of secret and specific details besides, there can be no doubt that he supplied the materials and put in the colour’.

Letter from Commentaire historique

Manuscript of Voltaire’s letter to Dmitriy Alekseevich Golitsyn of 19 June 1773 in the hand of Durey de Morsan, corrected by Voltaire. With kind permission from the Royal Library of Belgium: Collection Launoit MS 315.

Not unusually, Voltaire denied being the author, arguing that he could not possibly have written something so self-indulgent. Word was that a certain Durey de Morsan had penned it, with Voltaire supplying the ‘anecdotes’ and the ‘style’ (according to Moultou writing to Meister on 4 November 1776). Durey de Morsan was perpetually in debt and lived at Ferney on and off between 1769 and 1774. He was certainly involved to some degree, but this may have been limited to copying letters (there are several in his hand) and signing a chit dated 1 May 1776 stating that he had seen the original documents and handed them over to Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière. (On Wagnière’s own later claims to be the author, see the ‘Révisions posthumes’ in volume 78B.)

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of Commentaire historique

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of the book sent to Catherine the Great after Voltaire’s death. With kind permission from the National Library of Russia: Bibliothèque de Voltaire 11-227.

The Commentaire historique continued to grow and change even after Durey de Morsan had returned the documents he had seen. Voltaire’s letter on the Ganganelli forgeries is dated 2 May, and the one to Faugères on the superiority of all things seventeenth-century seems to have been written the following day. No doubt some rewriting was necessary when Turgot, the Controller-General of Finances, fell from grace on 12 May. He still features in the Commentaire historique – not least in the poem Sésostris, addressed to the king in happier times and given particular prominence as the final item in the volume – but never by name.

Commentaire historique, declaration by Durey de Morsan

The Declarations by Durey de Morsan and Christin in the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

On 1 June, it was the lawyer Christin who signed a statement vouching that the documents had been copied accurately (in fact the letters were sometimes ‘improved’ for publication). And still the Commentaire historique kept growing. Voltaire’s letter to Spallanzani on slugs, tardigrades, and the nature of the soul is dated 6 June, and his letter ‘Sur le fameux cocher Gilbert’ must be later than the 24th, when he discovered that Gilbert, a witness against his protégé Morangiès, was apparently a pickpocket and a counterfeiter. In early July the disgraced lawyer Simon Linguet, who had helped to defend La Barre in 1766 and Morangiès in 1772, visited Ferney. Although his name is reduced to an initial, he can be associated with a disproportionate number of the letters included, raising interesting questions about the selection criteria.

This edition of the Commentaire historique, with all its letters included and annotated for the first time, finally allows us to properly consider the text as a whole. I hope it might also help to demonstrate the usefulness of further work on the rest of Voltaire’s vast correspondence.

The Commentaire historique is publishing in two volumes in September 2018. Volume 78B contains the introduction and a dossier on the text’s posthumous fate, and volume 78C contains the full text, including the ‘lettres véritables’ normally stripped from it, and annotation.

– Alice Breathe


‘Vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant’: portraits in Voltaire’s bedroom

Voltaire had many bedrooms during his long life, but the best documented is the one at the Château de Ferney, where he spent a considerable portion of his last twenty years, sleeping, working, or entertaining guests.[1]

The team recently restoring the château faced a quandary. Since Voltaire’s death, the pictures hanging in his bedroom have been changed and a cenotaph added, some of the room’s walls knocked down, and finally its contents transferred to a different room altogether. It was decided that, rather than recreating a room from the 1760s or 1770s that no longer exists, Voltaire’s ‘bedroom’ should be kept much as visitors have known it since the mid-nineteenth century.

Voltaire’s bedroom in his lifetime

Perhaps Voltaire’s bedroom at Ferney was originally hung with portraits of family members, including those done in pastel by his youngest niece, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine, of herself and of her son, as had been the case at Les Délices. Perhaps Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait was also there from the start.

By 1765, some friends in Paris had come up with the idea of getting Carmontelle’s gouache of the Calas family in prison engraved to raise money for the Calas family. On 17 January 1766, Voltaire wrote to Calas’s widow that he would keep the planned engraving at his bedside, even though he had never met her, ‘et le premier objet que je verrai en m’éveillant sera la vertu persécutée et respectée’. This in due course he did, writing on 9 May: ‘J’ai baisé votre estampe, Madame, je l’ai placée au chevet de mon lit. Vous et votre famille vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant. Monsieur votre fils Pierre est parfaitement ressemblant, je suis persuadé que vous l’êtes de même’.

Jean Huber was no doubt the first to depict Voltaire in his bedroom, in a painting (or three) that displeased its main subject. This irreverent image of him in his nightclothes proliferated in the form of engravings: there is one with a maid, one with verse designed to irritate Voltaire, even one with a portrait of his arch-enemy Fréron hanging on his wall. Grimm reported in his Correspondance littéraire of 1 November 1772 that Voltaire had not yet forgiven Huber for this loss of control over his public image. But how faithful was the depiction of his bedroom? The version in the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum has red curtains, while the one at the Musée Voltaire has blue. Musée Carnavalet also has blue, but shows an engraving of Carmontelle’s painting of the Calas family in prison hanging near the head of the bed.

Le lever du philosophe de Ferney

Le lever du philosophe de Ferney, one of many engravings based on a painting by Jean Huber. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

In 1774, a new portrait was given the distinction of being placed close to Voltaire’s bed. This time it was the actor Lekain as Nero drawn in pastel by Pierre Martin Barat: ‘Vous êtes à côté de mon lit, mon cher ami, et le souvenir de vos talents et de votre mérite sera toujours dans mon cœur’.

In June 1775, Amélie Suard mentioned two other images, Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait and a second Calas engraving, the one by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki entitled Les adieux de Calas à sa famille, again inside Voltaire’s bed: ‘dans l’intérieur de son lit il a les deux gravures de la famille des Calas. Je ne connaissais pas encore celle qui représente la femme et les enfants de cette victime du fanatisme, embrassant leur père au moment où on va le mener au supplice; elle me fit l’impression la plus douloureuse, et je reprochai à M. de Voltaire de l’avoir placée de manière à l’avoir sans cesse sous ses yeux’. Mme Suard nevertheless went on to heap praise on Voltaire for the good he had done the whole of humanity. No doubt the engraving was to Voltaire as much a reminder of success as of ‘la vertu persécutée’.

In January 1776, another flurry of engravings set in Voltaire’s bedroom incurred his displeasure. Vivant Denon had visited in early July 1775 and showed Voltaire sitting up in bed, surrounded by members of his household and a mutual friend, the composer Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (although he had not been present at the time). Only the first Calas engraving can be seen inside Voltaire’s bed curtains. Was it the invasion of a ‘private’ space that Voltaire objected to? Or the juxtaposition of the serious Calas image and a frivolous social one? In any case, he complained to Vivant Denon that ‘Un homme qui se tiendrait dans l’attitude qu’on me donne, et qui rirait comme on me fait rire, serait trop ridicule’.

Le déjeuner de Ferney

Le déjeuner de Ferney, based on a picture by Vivant Denon, and engraved as part of a set with the Lever de Voltaire (above). The ‘déjeuner’ seems to consist of just one hot drink between, from left to right, Père Adam, Laborde, Voltaire, the servant known as la ‘belle Agathe’ (Agathe Perrachon, née Frik), and Mme Denis. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

The inventory that was made of Voltaire’s property after his death lists ‘four medium paintings with gilded frames’ in his room, but only identifies one of his mother, Marie-Marguerite Arouet (possibly this painting), and one of his eldest niece and companion, Mme Denis (possibly the fourth image on this page, formerly attributed to Carle van Loo and now, tentatively, to François-Hubert Drouais,[2] and copied in pastel by Mme Denis’s sister, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine).

Voltaire’s bedroom after his death

The marquis de Villette soon bought the château and owned it until 1785. On 23 November 1779, the Mémoires secrets gave an extract from a letter stating that he had kept Voltaire’s room just as it was – while at the same time installing a cenotaph (later moved to the main salon) and assembling Voltaire’s favourite portraits there: apparently these included those of Catherine the Great, Frederick, one of Frederick’s sisters, Mme Du Châtelet, Lekain, D’Alembert, d’Argental, as well as Villette himself and his wife…

A 1781 engraving which seems to take artistic licence with the room’s layout shows the cenotaph and no fewer than forty easily identifiable portraits of illustrious contemporaries, men and women, lining the walls. A portrait of Mme Denis which looks very like a detail of the Vivant Denon engraving hangs in the place of honour at the head of the bed. No Calas engravings are visible.

Chambre du cœur de Voltaire

Chambre du cœur de Voltaire, drawn by Duché and engraved by François Denis Née, 1781. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

The room looks quite different in an engraving from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The bed curtains and cover have visibly shrunk as successive visitors cut small mementoes for themselves, and the portraits on show are limited to five: Catherine the Great’s portrait woven in silk by Philippe de Lasalle (given to Voltaire by Lasalle in 1771), Frederick the Great painted in oil by Anna Dorothea Liszewska Therbusch (sent by Frederick, at Voltaire’s request, in 1775), the previously mentioned pastel of Lekain by Barat (1774), a pastel of Voltaire attributed to Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1735?), and an oil painting of Mme Du Châtelet by Marie-Anne Loir (presumably before 1749).

Chambre de Voltaire à Ferney

Chambre de Voltaire à Ferney, by Charles Philibert Lasteyrie du Saillant, c.1820. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

This matches the description by a visitor published in The New Monthly Magazine in 1824, which also lists the prints ‘on each side of the window which faces the bed’, i.e. the fourth wall not on the engraving. The line-up is now thoroughly male: Diderot, Newton, Franklin, Racine, Milton, Washington, Corneille, and Marmontel on one side, and Thomas, Leibnitz, Mairan, D’Alembert, Helvétius, and the duc de Choiseul on the other. The first Calas engraving and a ‘sort of emblematical print of the tomb of Voltaire in Paris, dedicated to la marquise de Villette, dame de Ferney’ complete the set for this wall.

The visitor then mentions two more pictures somewhat at odds with the royals and intellectuals filling the walls: ‘In another part of the room are two very pretty pictures of a boy and a Madonna-looking girl, which our old Cicerone said were painted by order of Voltaire. The boy is a Savoyard, with a tattered cocked-hat, and the young woman, we were told, was ‘La blanchisseuse’ […] If it were really of the blanchisseuse, I can only say that Voltaire had a very pretty washerwoman’. Another engraving situates a ‘repasseuse’ and a ‘ramoneur’ (no doubt the same blanchisseuse and Savoyard) on the left-hand side of the room.

Intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire à Ferney

Intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire à Ferney, painted by Jean DuBois and engraved by Spengler & Cie, c.1840. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

Twenty years later, Jules Michelet’s guide must have had a more vivid imagination, since the historian noted in his journal for Monday 14 August 1843 that Voltaire had launched the career of the ‘savoyard’ who became an ironmonger on the corner of the rue de Beaune and that the ‘blanchisseuse’ was in fact a daughter he had had with one of Mme Denis’s chambermaids… In his Dictionary of pastellists, Neil Jeffares identifies her as the wife of Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière.[3] The Savoyard still hangs in Voltaire’s room and is sometimes identified as the pastel by Voltaire’s youngest niece of her son d’Hornoy that she sent him in 1755. It is clearly derived from Drouais’s Jeune garçon au tricorne and, since Mme Dompierre de Fontaine copied the Drouais painting of her sister, this doesn’t seem entirely implausible.

Flaubert left a soulful description of his visit to the château in 1845, carefully itemising the bed, the pictures, and the cenotaph, as so many had done before him, but also mentioning the wall hangings: ‘la tenture est de soie jaune à fleurs’ (the blue background having faded beyond recognition): ‘On voudrait y être enfermé pendant tout un jour à s’y promener seul. Triste et vide, le jour vert, livide du feuillage, pénétrait par les carreaux; on était pris d’une tristesse étrange, on regrettait cette belle vie remplie, cette existence si intellectuellement turbulente du dix-huitième siècle, et on se figurait l’homme passant de son salon dans sa chambre, ouvrant toutes ces portes…’

He must have been one of the last visitors to witness it in this state. Voltaire’s and his housekeeper’s rooms were soon knocked through and Voltaire’s room set up again in the now more appropriately sized ‘cabinet de tableaux et du billard’ on the other side of the central salon, where the large portrait of Queen Maria Theresa was presumably already set into the wall. Catherine the Great was hung at the head of the bed and Lekain under the little that was left of the canopy crown.

La chambre à coucher de Voltaire à Ferney

La chambre à coucher de Voltaire à Ferney, after a drawing by de Drée, 1869? Other drawings of Ferney by de Drée appeared in Le Monde illustré on 30 January 1869. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

Later changes, which I won’t go into, are documented by photographs, like this postcard for the early twentieth-century tourist.

Château de Ferney – Chambre à coucher de Voltaire

Château de Ferney – Chambre à coucher de Voltaire, postcard by Charnaux frères et Co., Geneva. Courtesy of ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv.

Voltaire’s bedroom today

Today Maria Teresa still dominates the room, but the silk wall hangings and bed curtains and cover have been beautifully restored and Carmontelle’s Malheureuse famille Calas reclaimed its place inside the bed curtains. The other four pictures retained to decorate the room, besides various prints, are Voltaire himself and Lekain on the one side and Mme Du Châtelet and the Savoyard on the other. But if, like Flaubert, you wish to imagine Voltaire passing from his salon to his bedroom, you might want to stand in what is now the ‘cabinet de tableaux’ (moved into the much larger space of the two bedrooms knocked together) to do so.

– Alice Breathe

[1] Christophe Paillard, ‘Entre tourisme et pèlerinage, voyage d’affaires et expérience littéraire: Jean-Louis Wagnière, acteur et témoin de la “visite à Ferney”’, Orages 8, March 2009, p.21-50.

[2] With thanks to Neil Jeffares for pointing out that the oil painting of Mme Denis is no longer at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

[3] Ref. J.9.2901.