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

Round table and Italian launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Correspondance with the De Brosses family

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

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

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

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

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

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

– John Rogister

Chance discoveries in French and Italian archives

Le président de Brosses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– John Rogister

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

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