How to tell a king he writes bad verse

Frederick II

The only portrait Frederick ever personally sat for (by Ziesenis, 1763).

In 1750, Voltaire travelled to the court of the Prussian king, Frederick II. There, one of his official duties would be to correct the king’s writings in French, in particular his poetry: to ‘bleach his dirty linen’, as Voltaire would later write in his epistolary half-fiction, Paméla, never published in his lifetime. However, at the outset, very willing, Voltaire wrote to the king around August of that year:

‘Si vous aimez des critiques libres, si vous souffrez des éloges sincères, si vous voulez perfectionner un ouvrage que vous seul dans l’Europe êtes capable de faire, votre majesté n’a qu’à ordonner à un solitaire de monter.
Ce solitaire est aux ordres de votre majesté pour toutte sa vie.’

The French poet knew how to be tactful, and though he sent back pages of corrections, he balanced them with flattery. Referring to Frederick’s Art de la guerre, he wrote the following summer: ‘Tout l’ouvrage est digne de vous, et quand je n’aurais fait le voyage que pour voir quelque chose d’aussi singulier, je ne devrais pas regretter ma patrie’. The corrected manuscript of l’Art de la guerre still exists and can be seen in Berlin at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Unfortunately, the heavily marked up volumes of the king’s Poésies have disappeared, following the Allied bombing of the Monbijou Palace in Berlin during the Second World War. The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire attempts to reconstruct those corrections, however, as part of its complement to the Russian-led publication of Voltaire’s marginalia, the Corpus des notes marginales, a final volume that assembles the known marginal notes housed outside the main collection of the writer’s library in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

This volume, Notes et écrits marginaux conservés hors de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie (OCV, vol.145), brings together a motley collection of such documents. Some, such as Frederick’s poetry, were intended for use by friends and were never part of Voltaire’s own collection. Another such case is that of the annotated copy of a work by Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (also discussed by Sam Bailey), or the manuscript on the rights of French Protestants to marry by the future statesman Joseph-Marie Portalis. Other books, such as a volume of Rousseau’s Emile, or a volume of Le Vrai Sens du système de la nature, by pseudo-Helvétius, seem to have been distributed as gifts by Voltaire, and the notes within give hints of having been conceived for that very purpose. Others still may in fact have parted ways with Voltaire’s personal collection, either before it left France, or in Russia (two works, the first Fénelon’s Œuvres philosophiques, and the second an Essai général de tactique by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, were borrowed from the Hermitage library by Tsar Alexander I, and never returned).

But the largest component of the lot remains Voltaire’s corrections and comments on Frederick’s poetry. Given the absence of the original volumes, it is gratifying to see how much it has been possible to reconstruct. Of the two printed volumes from 1750, a copy with notes turned up in Belgium in 1979 thanks to the Voltaire Foundation’s longstanding contributor Jeroom Vercruysse. It turned out to be very literally a copy, that is, a painstaking piece of work in which Voltaire’s corrections, including those to his own comments, were reproduced by hand. While they have every characteristic of Voltaire’s style, there might have been doubts about the authenticity of the notes, had a German scholar, Hans Droysen, not published a couple of photographs in 1904 that exactly match the text and layout of the Belgium copy.

Œuvres du philosophe de Sans-Souci, vol.3 (1750), p.250, with corrections in the hands of Voltaire and Frederick II (reproduced by Hans Droysen, ‘Friedrichs des Großen Druckerei im Berliner Schlosse’, Hohenzollern Jahrbuch 8, 1904, p.84).

Excitingly, one photograph shows a page with writing by both Voltaire and Frederick, thanks to which it was possible to tell which of the hand-copied notes were by which man, since the copyist went to the extreme of doing a passable imitation of the handwriting of each. But what of the second volume? In this case, another German scholar, Reinhold Koser, had published, two years after Droysen, a large number of Voltaire’s notes, though frustratingly in a thematic order of his own devising, and with precious little context for some of the comments. Thanks to a considerable team effort and a lot of patience (and special thanks go to my colleague Martin Smith), it was possible to identify the location of most of Voltaire’s corrections and remarks (sometimes relying on discussion of rhymes to pinpoint particular verses). Only a few notes remain unattached to a specific place in Frederick’s text.

We learn a lot about the minutiae of what was and was not admissible in eighteenth-century versification, but Voltaire makes other stylistic comments and, as ever, he strives for wit and elegance. For example, he marks four instances of the word ‘plat’ within the space of two pages, numbers them, and next to the fourth, notes: ‘voila plus de plats icy que dans un bon souper’.

Frederick’s verse includes pieces that were written in an epistolary context addressed to Voltaire himself, and some of the latter’s notes provide glimpses into his own literary past. In the margin of a reference to his play Sémiramis, he writes ‘je ne hazarday cet ouvrage que pour feu madame la Dauphine qui m’avoit demandé une trajedie a machines.’ Who knew that the thunderclaps, opening tomb and ghost in that tragedy were of royal inspiration?

Voltaire eventually tired of this work (and who can blame him?) and for this and other reasons, attempted to leave Prussia. He was stopped and searched in Frankfurt and kept under arrest for some days by an envoy of the king, since the latter wanted to keep strict control over the copies of his book, and would not countenance Voltaire leaving the country with a copy. But that is a whole other story…

– Gillian Pink

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Sixty years on: the museum of the Institut et Musée Voltaire

From 1755 to 1760, Voltaire lived at Les Délices in Geneva, where he notably wrote the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, in reaction to the devastating earthquake that struck Lisbon on 1 November 1755, contributed articles to the Encyclopédie, and put the finishing touches to his most famous work, Candide, begun at his winter quarters at Montriond in Lausanne.

Geneva by Geissler

Christian-Gottlieb Geissler, Vue de Genève et du Salève depuis les Délices, watercolour, 1774

In the two and a half centuries since Voltaire left Les Délices, the land and views recorded by Geissler have been swallowed up by the town and the house has even been threatened with demolition to make way for high-rise buildings. How fortunate for us that, sixty years ago, Theodore Besterman managed to persuade the local authorities to let him set up the Institut et Musée Voltaire! The collection and the library that Besterman started and that his successors have actively developed make this a wholly fascinating place in which to immerse oneself in Voltaire’s world. Here is a quick overview of some of the latest developments in the museum.

The portrait gallery, to the right of the entrance hall, has been rehung to give a real sense of Voltaire’s far-flung circle of friends and relations during his time in Geneva. Favourite actors Lekain and Mlle Clairon, in her costume for L’Orphelin de la Chine, still share the space with, among others, Protestant pastor Moultou as a child, in a green brocade gown, a bird perched on his finger. They now also rub shoulders with two of Voltaire’s neighbours, Simon Bertrand and his wife, thanks to the recent Masset bequest, while Marie-Louise Denis, Voltaire’s niece who lived with him at Les Délices, is currently being restored and will soon reclaim her place as mistress of the house.

The latest acquisition is a pair of huge portraits of Louis XV et Marie Leczinska, which, along with the portrait of Louis XIV already in the collection, will enable visitors to explore the theme of Voltaire’s always ambiguous relationship with royalty.

Institut et Musée Voltaire, photograph by Matthias Thomann

Institut et Musée Voltaire, photograph by Matthias Thomann

In recent years, Les Délices has welcomed another inhabitant: Rousseau. A portrait by Robert Gardelle that had been lost for so long that some even doubted it had ever existed was rediscovered in the bequest mentioned earlier and now hangs in the small room to the left of the entrance. The library of the Société Jean-Jacques Rousseau is housed upstairs, while Houdon’s monumental terracotta statue of a seated Voltaire smiles on with surprising benevolence.

Once you have visited the Institut et Musée Voltaire, the logical next step is to follow Voltaire to the Château de Ferney, just over the border in France (but do check that it is not closed for restoration first).

The museum of the Institut et Musée Voltaire is open Monday to Saturday, 2–5pm, or for group visits by appointment in the morning. Entry is free.

If you can’t get there in person, we recommend this video and the more up-to-date A short history of Les Délices: from the property of Saint-Jean to the Institut et Musée Voltaire.

– Alice

A grand projet misfires

In 1770 a group of Voltaire’s friends decided over a boozy dinner that a subscription should be started to commission a monumental statue of France’s most famous living writer. The chosen sculptor was Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, the tercentenary of whose birth falls this coming January. Pigalle’s work was widely admired, and he was a favourite of Louis XV, who sent Frederick the Great a marble copy of the sculptor’s Mercure attachant ses talonnières, a work that may seem somewhat bland to modern eyes but was hugely popular at the time.

Musée du Louvre

Musée du Louvre

Pigalle was also known for conventional allegorical figures in neo-classical style, sometimes borrowing the features of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress.

Musée du Louvre

Musée du Louvre

But it was in his portraits that Pigalle showed his originality. Whereas his teacher Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne and Lemoyne’s other famous pupil Jean-Antoine Houdon produced idealised portraits,

Voltaire by Lemoyne

Voltaire by Lemoyne

Voltaire by Houdon (Musée Angers)

Voltaire by Houdon
Musée Angers

Pigalle offered a more modern realism. His self-portrait in terracotta is remarkable.

Musée du Louvre

Musée du Louvre

His statue of a naked Voltaire could have been equally striking. He chose to present his subject as a classical nude, but without any idealisation, and there is much to admire in the rendering of the dynamic pose and the naturalism of the anatomy. Voltaire approved the head that Pigalle modelled in the eight days he spent at Ferney (the body was created later using an old soldier as a model), but in the transfer from clay to marble, completed in 1776, the likeness was lost and the head sits awkwardly on the body. Moreover, the decision to depict Voltaire naked had drawn widespread condemnation almost from the start. In the end the work remained in Pigalle’s studio until the early nineteenth century.

<i>Voltaire nu</i> by Pigalle (Musée du Louvre)

Voltaire nu by Pigalle
Musée du Louvre

A sad outcome for a project that Voltaire, despite his many objections, was clearly flattered by, as is revealed in his correspondence and some works in volume 71c of the Œuvres complètes published this summer.

In a letter to Mme Necker, who organised the subscription, he feigned surprise but also couldn’t resist getting in a dig at his long-standing enemy Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

A moi chétif une statue!
Je serais d’orgueil enivré.
L’ami Jean Jaque a déclaré
Que c’était à lui qu’elle était due.
(D16289, 13 April 1770.)

A few days later he wrote to Marmontel expressing his unworthiness but also betraying his worry that other enemies would cause problems:

Vite, qu’on nous l’ébauche, allons, Pigal, dépèche,
Figure à ton plaisir ce très mauvais chrétien,
Mais en secret nous craignons bien
Qu’un bon chrétien ne t’en empêche.

The proposed inscription for the work was ‘A Voltaire vivant’, reflecting the fact that no similar monumental sculpture had ever been commissioned of a living subject, but Voltaire suggested, typically playing on the old story of his bad health, that it should read ‘A Voltaire mourant’ (D16318, 27 April 1770).

When the time came for Pigalle to visit Voltaire to begin the work of creation, he brought with him a letter from D’Alembert penned in high-flown language:

‘C’est mr Pigalle qui vous remettra lui-même cette lettre, mon cher et illustre maître. Vous savez déjà pourquoi il vient à Ferney, et vous le recevrez comme Virgile auroit reçu Phidias, si Phidias avoit vécu du temps de Virgile et qu’il eût été envoyé par les Romains pour leur conserver les traits du plus illustre de leurs compatriotes.’
(D16368, 30 May 1770.)

Voltaire wrote a poem, which he called Lettre à Monsieur Pigalle (published in OCV, vol.71c, p.437-39), in which he addresses Pigalle as Phidias and, with unconscious prescience, asks the sculptor:

Que ferez-vous d’un pauvre auteur
Dont la taille et le cou de grue,
Et la mine très peu joufflue
Feront rire le connaisseur?

On Pigalle’s arrival at Ferney Voltaire composed another poem, for Mme Necker, in which he continued the theme:

Vous saurez que dans ma retraite
Est venu Phidias Pigal
Pour dessiner l’original
De mon vieux et petit squelette.
(OCV, vol.71c, p.444-45.)

The project drew contributions from royalty and the stars of the world of literature, including even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose two louis Voltaire spitefully refused to accept until his objections were finally worn down by his friends. But it was all in vain. It is not clear if Voltaire ultimately recognised that the sculpture was an artistic failure, but he was certainly aware of the outcry against it at the time. In a letter to Feriol of 24 November 1770 (D16781) he wrote of his play Le Dépositaire (also published in OCV, vol.71c) and the condemnation of it by his perennial enemy Fréron:

‘A l’égard du dépositaire, je pense qu’il faut aussi mettre ce drame au cabinet. La caballe fréronique est trop forte, le dépit contre la statue trop amer, l’envie de la casser trop grande.’
The sculpture was preserved, first at the library of the Institut de France, and then, from 1962, at the Louvre.

On a more positive note, the time that Voltaire spent with Pigalle at Ferney gave the writer the technical information he needed to write his essay Fonte (OCV vol.72), an important stage in his Biblical criticism.

–MS

Visite virtuelle de la Bibliothèque de Voltaire

L’histoire des négociations entourant la bibliothèque de Voltaire après la mort de l’auteur et qui ont culminé dans le transfert de tous les livres de Ferney à Saint-Pétersbourg a souvent été racontée.[1] Loin d’être la seule bibliothèque d’écrivain à avoir survécu à la mort de son propriétaire, elle est cependant peut-être la plus grande (avec presque sept mille volumes) et la plus célèbre. Sa particularité est celle, bien sûr, des nombreuses notes marginales et autres traces de lecture dont les volumes sont remplis. Nous savons que les livres de Diderot ont pris, eux aussi, le chemin de la Russie, mais aujourd’hui l’identité de cette collection a été dissoute au sein du fonds des imprimés de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie et demande à être reconstituée. La bibliothèque de Montesquieu a connu un sort plus heureux et une partie des volumes du philosophe de La Brède constitue un ‘fonds Montesquieu’ à la Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. Plus éloignés, dans l’espace et dans le temps, des livres ayant appartenu à Alexander Pope et à William Warburton sont conservés à la Hurd Library à Hartlebury Castle en Angleterre, et la presque intégralité de la bibliothèque de Flaubert peut encore être visitée à la Mairie de Canteleu.

St_PetersburgTant qu’on ne s’est pas rendu sur place, le concept d’une bibliothèque d’auteur pourrait sembler abstrait, bien qu’il s’agisse avant tout d’une collection d’objets matériels. Tout change après une visite: la bibliothèque de Voltaire ne peut qu’impressionner le visiteur. Elle fait aujourd’hui partie de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie à Saint-Pétersbourg qui, comme on le voit sur la bannière de son site web, est encore située dans le bâtiment du dix-huitième siècle commandité par Catherine II à l’angle de la rue Sadovaya et de la Perspective Nevsky, bien qu’il existe également de nos jours un nouveau site plus éloigné du centre-ville. L’entrée des lecteurs a été modernisée, avec vestiaire et tourniquet actionné par les cartes de lecteurs. Pour accéder à la bibliothèque de Voltaire, on prend à droite et on traverse un long couloir aux murs couverts de boiseries, qui donne une impression d’étroitesse grâce à sa hauteur et aux vitrines où sont exposées livres et documents présentant les riches collections de la Bibliothèque, y compris celle de Voltaire. On monte deux marches et on est dans un hall spacieux. En prenant la porte à droite et en descendant quelques marches le lecteur se retrouve devant la plaque commémorant l’inauguration officielle du ‘Centre d’Etude du Siècle des Lumières “Bibliothèque de Voltaire” ’ par les premiers ministres russe et français le 28 juin 2003.

Au-delà des portes sécurisées, on entre enfin dans les deux salles voûtées consacrées à la mémoire de Voltaire et à ses livres. Enjolivée par un parquet et des vitraux faits sur mesure qui incorporent les initiales ‘A.d.V.’ (Arouet de Voltaire), la première salle, disposée en forme de ‘T’ (l’entrée étant à la jonction de la verticale et de l’horizontale), contient les volumes du patriarche de Ferney. Mais c’est d’abord la statue qui frappe, face à la porte: le célèbre ‘Voltaire assis’ de Houdon, une copie de celle qui se trouve à deux kilomètres seulement de la Bibliothèque, à l’Ermitage. Les murs sont tapissés de livres, et les rayons sont protégés par des portes en verre dont seuls les conservateurs détiennent les clefs. Les cotes reflètent l’ordre des livres à l’époque où la bibliothèque était encore conservée à l’Ermitage, et ce classement est censé être celui de Ferney, respecté par Wagnière, le secrétaire de Voltaire qui accompagna et déballa les caisses de livres en Russie. Au milieu de chaque ‘aile’ de la salle se trouve une vitrine, avec des expositions temporaires. Actuellement l’une expose quelques volumes emblématiques de la collection, tel l’exemplaire du Contrat social de Rousseau annoté par Voltaire,[2] alors que l’autre montre le catalogue de la bibliothèque dressé par Wagnière, un plan dessiné au dix-huitième siècle du château de Ferney, et des échantillons de tissu apportés par Wagnière pour Catherine II, qui avait initialement projeté de construire une reproduction fidèle du château de Ferney pour y conserver les collections voltairiennes.

En passant dans la seconde salle on trouve  une copie de la maquette du château de Ferney (dont l’original se trouve, lui aussi, au musée de l’Ermitage), exécutée en 1777 par Morand, le menuisier de Voltaire. C’est dans la seconde salle, bien pourvue en outils de travail (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, catalogue de sa bibliothèque, etc.) que les lecteurs peuvent s’installer pour consulter les livres du grand écrivain. Là on peut feuilleter ses manuscrits, déchiffrer les ratures, parcourir les notes qu’il a laissées en marge des volumes imprimés. Toutes les traces de lecture de Voltaire ont été recensées et sont en cours de publication dans le Corpus des notes marginales. Nous regrettons le récent décès de Nikolai Kopanev, qui a joué un rôle important dans la continuation de cette publication essentielle par la Voltaire Foundation. C’est en partie grâce à lui que les voltairistes de tous les pays du monde sont si chaleureusement accueillis dans la bibliothèque de Voltaire pour étudier – et pour contempler aussi l’ampleur de la marque laissée par Voltaire sur le patrimoine mondial.

-Gillian Pink

[1] Notamment par Sergueï Karp, Quand Catherine II achetait la bibliothèque de Voltaire (Ferney-Voltaire, 1999); Christophe Paillard, De la “bibliothèque patriarcale” à la “bibliothèque impériale” – Grimm, Wagnière, Mme Denis et l’acquisition de la bibliothèque de Voltaire par Catherine IIGazette des Délices 14 (été 2007); Gillian Pink, ‘Voltaire in St Petersburg: the Voltaire Library and the marginalia project’ au colloque ‘Was there a Russian Enlightenment?’, Ertegun House, Oxford (novembre 2012).

[2] La reproduction en fac-similé a été publiée sous le titre Du contrat social. Edition originale commentée par Voltaire (Paris, 1998). L’annotation de Voltaire, ainsi que les autres marques de lecture, a été reproduite et commentée par Kelsey Rubin-Detlev dans Voltaire, Corpus des notes marginales, t.8 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, t.143, p.165-83 et p.493-515 pour le commentaire).