Keep up to date with the latest news by subscribing to our posts in a reader or by email.

Easter Term at the Whipple Museum: Programme

posted 25 Apr 2016, 09:19 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 25 Apr 2016, 09:24 ]

We are delighted to announce the Easter term programme of the early modern French seminar. 

We will be heading again to the Whipple Museum at the department of history and philosophy of science This time, celestial globes and armillary spheres will take us into argument uses of Copernicanism in Belleforest and Montaigne; optical tricks will help us make sense of an anamorphosis displayed to an audience of wondering satyrs in a print by Simon Vouet, and marginalia will disclose the observation practices of the early Académie des Sciences. 

The seminar will take place from 2 to 4pm in the seminar room of the Whipple Museum, where instruments and objects relating to the talk will also be on display. 

The termcard is attached below. More information on the programme and its speakers can be accessed here.

All warmly welcome! 

Late-medieval armillary sphere. 
Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.0336)

Compte Rendu: A Storehouse of Curiosities: Pierre de L'Estoile's Museum of the Wars of Religion (Tom Hamilton)

posted 26 Feb 2016, 04:40 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 13 Apr 2016, 08:00 ]

Spurred by the consideration of a refractory telescope by Giuseppe Campani (c.1680, acc. no. 1591) held at the Whipple Museum, Tom Hamilton dug out two accounts of L'Estoile's encounters with the telescope from the 19th century edition of his Cahiers journeaux. The first one supposedly recalls L'Estoile's discovery of a spy-glass on the Pont Marchand in Paris on 30th of April 1609, and provides an accurate description of 'des lunettes d'une nouvelle invention et usage' -- a crucial text as it would seem to be the first record of a telescope on the streets of a European city. The other fragment mentions L'Estoile's hasty reading of 'un livre fort curieux', Galileo's Sidereus nuncius, and his inability to understand it: 

'lequel j'ai lu assez à la haste et, pour n'en point mentir; sans y rien entendre'. 

Galileo Galilei, optical principle behind the telescope,
Sidereus Nuncius (1610)

Having checked the manuscripts of L'Estoile's diary, Tom Hamilton proved to the baffled and delighted audience that the Pont Marchand description, which assumes a L'Estoile flâneur recording his flânerie and knowledgeable about the latest astronomical instruments, was a fake which was inserted in the Registre journal in a much later 18th Century edition.

Yet early modernists, Tom Hamilton righfully remarked, have tended to use L'Estoile as a trustworthy eye-witness of the chaotic times of the Wars of Religion. A Gallican robin who spent his whole life between Saint Germain l'Auxerrois and Saint André des Arts and obstinately refused to leave Paris during the Ligue despite the fact that the Montholon family he belonged to was suspected of Protestant sympathies, Pierre de L'Estoile (1546-1611) kept a supposed 'mirror of his times' in his Cahiers journeaux du règne d'Henri III et d'Henri IV, used as a repository of 'choses vues' by early modernists.

L'Estoile did not see the telescope, this 'novel invention': he read a copy of the Sidereus nuncius, this 'curious book'. 
Hamilton magisterially demonstrated that L'Estoile did not record 'live' experience but collected printed and painted 'news'. Novelties made it to L'Estoile's diaries as printed texts and copies of manuscript letters; these also featured in his cabinet of curiosities -- a collection now lost, but whose inventory Hamilton has finely combed. L'Estoile gathered its content avidly and relied primarily on a local network of 'officiers de robes' in the Palais de Justice and of printers in the Rue Saint Jacques to do so. The collection had its logics: it was a Gallican plea for civil obedience, a condemnation of the catastrophic consequences brought forth by the Ligue in its violent challenge of royal authority, and a spiritual meditation on divine retribution and the vanity of the moribund body politics. L'Estoile's curiosity did not display the encyclopaedic features of elite antiquarianism: the collection barely contains any naturalia or exotic objects from the New World and remained anchored in European paintings, prints, and



Procession de la Ligue (1599)                                                                                                                         Medal of Pope Gregory XIII (Saint Bartholomew Massacre)
© Musée Carnavalet

L'Estoile's paintings, engravings, and medals were not so much artistic masterpieces and prized antiques as documentary evidence of troubled times -- portraits of the dignitaries involved in the wars of religion (the Guise, Bourbon and Condé families), the medals of the League celebrating Charles de Bourbon as Charles X or the papal medal commemorating the Saint Bartholomew massacres. Noteworthy among these is the Drôleries de la Ligue, an album of ephemeral prints and pamphlets documenting and denouncing the superstitious bigotry and violence of the Ligue.

Through his companionship of several years with L'Estoile -- his journaux, the remnants and analogues of his collection, his paper trail at the Palais, the print shops he knew, and even the layout of his house -- Tom Hamilton sketched a wonderfully precise depiction of one very specific cultural physiognomy of Gallicanism, carefully constructed over decades within the tightly-knit community of robins living and working within the limits of  Saint Germain l'Auxerrois, the Palais de Justice, the Rue Saint Jacques and the Rue Saint André des Arts. In this little corner of Paris, this community puts up a fight for the legitimacy of royal absolutism against religious sectarianism and a revolted nobility, which decisively shaped the political landscape of the seventeenth-century France. But that story is Tom's next dig.

Termcard Lent 2016: Early Modern French Seminar at the Whipple Museum

posted 7 Jan 2016, 07:24 by Cambridge EMS

We are delighted to announce the programme of the Early Modern French Seminar for Lent 2016. Our seminar series will explore textual echoes of the rich early modern French culture of scientific instruments as it features in the Republic of Letters, in the diaries of an avid Renaissance collector, and in the Rabelaisian narrative. You can find the programme by clicking on the Termcards 2015-2016 link on your left, or by downloading the PDF below. 

Bonne année 2016! 

Compte Rendu: Tragedy and the Return of the Dead (John D Lyons)

posted 7 Jan 2016, 07:09 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 13 Apr 2016, 07:53 ]

As is often the case when one attends a paper by John D Lyons, a joyful flurry of literary reminiscences and anecdotes ensues from both the speaker and his audience, leading us through a meandering path from Euripides to Racine, the Gothic novel and Fun Homes (for Funeral Homes, a graphic novel brought to people's attention by Katherine Ibbett). His ability to make a shared love of literature flare up in his listeners in a most contagious fashion makes his presentations a treat -- the sweeping rethinking of foundational categories of literary criticism and literature often makes them a feat too.

This one was no exception. Giving us a snapshot of his forthcoming book on the subject, John Lyons situated it within a recent efflorescence of critical re-imaginings of what the French classical tragedy actually stood for. Casting away the elitist view of tragedy which defines it as 'the rarest of flowers' (Camus -- Albert, not Jean-Pierre), Lyons reminded us that 'the sublime is smelly' (Burke -- Edmund, not Peter). Tragedy is not so much the flawless and perfectly ruled unfolding of fate among 'the most beautiful and the best' of ancient aristocratic families put on stage for the pleasure of more contemporary ones. Rather, John Lyons argued from an anthropological perspective, the fuel of tragedy was the unleashing of gory violence from within the family, because the separation between the dead and the living had not properly -- ritually -- taken place.

In this anthropological take on what constitutes a tragedy, the rule according to which the aim of the family is to keep its members who are alive, alive, and its dead members, dead, does not apply anymore. The dead returns as a ghost (Hamlet); the living are buried alive (Romeo and Juliet);  the dead are not buried as they should be (Antigone); or, finally, the family murders its own members (Phèdre). The tragic home is a dangerous home.What constitutes tragedy, or rather, the tragic, according to this view, is an aesthetics characterised by extreme violence (gore, in fact, fits in well here) and a copious recourse to the gruesome, to the point of excess sometimes: the speaking wound of Le Cid is more a comic than a tragic moment.

The merit of this approach is to outline continuities between narrative forms which flourished in sixteenth-century France, such as Boistuau's Histoires tragiques, the seventeenth-century French classical tragedy, but also the gothic novels of the nineteenth century: a longue durée history of the tragic as a genre, plotted by following the recurrence of rotting corpses, dismembered bodies and ladies buried alive in coffins. 

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed (1609), public domain

Compte Rendu of 'An Anarchist Voyage Through Antiquity: Narrating Revolutionary Failure in Sylvain Maréchal' (Sanja Perovic)

posted 24 Nov 2015, 07:55 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 24 Nov 2015, 08:16 ]

'Gardes-toi des trois P: le Peuple, le Prince, le Prêtre.' 
Sylvain Maréchal, Le Voyage de Pythagore (1798-99), vol.6, p.279

Paying us a visit from King's College, London last Friday, Sanja Perovic did a brilliant job at putting Sylvain Maréchal back on the map of a 'modern early modern' temporal crossroad. The representation of revolutionary time was the focus of her presentation, which she opened with Maréchal's 1788 Almanach des honnêtes gens: a revolutionary almanach in which he promoted an entirely secular scansion of time by replacing the calendar saints with historical figures ranging from Henri IV to Ninon de Lenclos.
    Maréchal in himself was a paradox worthy of attention. Erudite librarian of the Mazarine for sometimes, adept at writing in the learned and (Perovic argues) abstruse genres of numismatics and antiquarian dictionaries, he was also one of the instigators of the Conspiration des égaux alongside Babeuf, and contributed to its manifesto, which advocated a cultural tabula rasa and called for the destruction of all the arts. His 1798 Dictionnaire des athées anciens et modernes epitomises this heady mix of humanist learning and revolutionary claims, as the dictionary is also a polemical plea in favour of the rationalist athées put under increased pressure by the Catholic revival at the eve of the 19th century -- a cultural war which, ultimately, the Catholic side headed by Chateaubriand won by associating themselves with a renewed efflorescence of good literature.
The pièce de résistance of the paper, however, was the uses of antiquity in Marechal's  1798-1799 Voyage de Pythagore, a serial publication which captures Maréchal's pessimistic take on the revolutionary rapture, and instantiates the clear slowing down of the revolutionary impetus in France under the Directory -- a slowing down which contrast with its explosive spread in the the rest of Europe at the same period. Like his Italian counterpart Vincenzo Cuoco, who wrote in 1806 a Platone in Italia while exiled after the failure of the Neapolitan revolution, Maréchal turns to the figure of Pythagoras and to the lapidary genre of the maxim (the Pyhagorean sayings) to express his political views. Thus the sixth volume of his Voyage de Pythagore is a collection of his own maxims, in the Pythagorean style.
The esotericism of the Pythagorean sayings, a genre which caught the early modern interest and imagination, and the ideal of small, secret societies of elects they stand for, fitted these political views well. In 1798-99, Marechal is looking for a state of manageable political stasis. He argues indeed that the revolution needs to become covert to carry on, and that the revolutionary state needs to be radically scaled down to remain true to its origins. These political demands determine the shape of his historical perspective. Not unlike humanist 'universal histories' -- only, devoid of their theological outlook -- and prefacing the Hegelian dialectic, Marechal's Antiquity in the Voyage de Pythagore is never past: it is always there, incessantly reenacted and striving towards its own realisation in revolutionary upheavals. Antiquity thus stands for the ideal, pre-historical moment in which human political organisation happens 'naturally', around the only viable political unit, the nuclear family. Small, self-organising federations of such families is Maréchal's solution and answer to the huge scale of the revolutionary state and its unredeemable and unavoidable evils of oppression of the minority by the majority, with its trail of ideological lies: 'Dis la vérité aux hommes, et des fables aux peuples'. 

Compte Rendu: Ronsard's poetic legislation and 19th Century poetry (Helen Abbott)

posted 17 Nov 2015, 08:43 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 17 Nov 2015, 09:05 ]

The second paper of the 'Modern Early Modern' series offered a brilliant foray into the 19th century rediscovery of Ronsard in particular, and constitution of literary history and its related canon in general, envisaged from a formal and prosodic perspective.


For the first half of the 19th Century, and especially in 19th-Century textbooks of prosody such as Pierre Fontanier's Boileau des collèges (1825), Ronsard's poetry instantiates the emergence of regular prosodic rules in French poetry, and their successful aesthetic outcomes: Wilhem Ténint, in his Prosodie de l'école moderne (1844), thus outlines the pleasing harmony of a 'Renaissance stanza-like form' where lines of three feet alternate with lines of seven feet. He quotes Ronsard, and concludes that such poetic form is reminiscent of Hugo's ballad, thus enrolling French Renaissance prosody under the banner of Romanticism.


On the basis of a loose reading of Boileau's Art poétique (Ronsard, qui le suivit, par une autre méthode/ Réglant tout, brouilla tout, fit un art à sa mode), Ronsard was in fact, for the first generation of Romantics, a symbol of the stifling and sterilising obsession with rules. Sainte Beuve, Arsène Houssaye and, more importantly, Banville, struck a surprising note in this Romantic chorus by praising in Ronsard the precursor of French poetry proper, and doing so in forms reminiscent of Ronsard's own poetic practices: the sonnet for Sainte Beuve and Houssaye, the hymn for Banville.

            In his 1628 'Sonnet pour Ronsard', Sainte Beuve tries to rescue Ronsard from two centuries of merciless critique and condemnation and to reinstate it in the pantheon of great poets. So does Houssaye, mimicking Boileau's 'Enfin Malherbes vint' in the 'Enfin Ronsard survient' of his own sonnet. As for Banville, his 'Apothéose de Ronsard' celebrates Ronsard's 'folle musique' which eludes prosodic rules, in a pastiche hymn which marks all the stops of the Ronsardian metaphorical and prosodic world: idyllic setting, alabaster limbs are cast in -- sometimes obviously ironic -- 'rimes riches' (Belleau/ Belle-eau).


From the textbooks to the literary critics, the 19th century invention of Ronsard has him stand in turn for the epitome of regulated prosodic propriety (praised in the textbook, condemned by the critics), and for the herald of a 'true' form of French poetry, characterised by its musicality -- un Ronsard impair, à la Verlaine en somme.

Ronsard, 'Petite nymphe folastre', set to music by Clément Janequin (1552)

Term Card Michaelmas 2015: Modern Early Modern

posted 6 Oct 2015, 06:18 by Cambridge EMS

We are delighted to announce our termcard for Michaelmas 2015. Our meeting will be a joint venture between the early modern French and nineteenth-century French seminars. You can find an online version with links in the termcard section, where it is also possible for you to add our calendar to your own calendar programme. Or download the pdf version, below.

Compte rendu: Jane Munro, Fitzwilliam's French Connections

posted 12 Jun 2015, 01:18 by Cambridge EMS

The final session of the series took us back to the Fitzwilliam, and to the founder of the collection that had been our focus across the year. Jane Munro, with the help of Lucilla Burn, explored Lord Fitzwilliam’s biographical links with France, and the influence those links had on his collecting. Fitzwilliam spent a significant amount of time in France in the latter part of the eighteenth century, initially as a music student and Grand Tourist, and later visiting his long-term mistress, the opera dancer Anne Zacharie (born Anne Bernard). Their correspondence provides a detailed and intimate record of their affair, including domestic minutiae relating to their three children (two of whom were named Fitz and Billie). A 1789 painting, by Sicardi, and titled ‘O che boccone!’, depicts what is apparently Fitzwilliam in the garb of a theatrical clown, standing beside his sleeping mistress.

Various elements of the collections display the traces of this sustained contact with Parisian artistic, musical and theatrical circles. Of 144 paintings in Fitzwilliam’s own collection, just seven were French, but a number were acquired through the sales of French aristocracy, including the Duc d’Orléans. Fitzwilliam was also a prodigious collector of prints, many of which had a French provenance. His albums, organised by engraver rather than subject (saving a single album on ‘Les Jésuites’), are among the most complete records of the works of particular individuals. The Founder’s Library – 10,000 volumes on Fitzwilliam’s death – contained not only many French volumes, but also ephemera such as copies of Parisian journals that he is likely to have brought back from Paris.

A handful of items relate to the architect Pierre Bernard, presumed to have been the brother of Zacharie. Some of his drawings, completed during a sojourn in Rome, are conserved along with his plans for a new opera house, produced in response to the project of Noverre. Present, too, are a set of plans – attributed to Bernard – for a ‘French house’ for Fitzwilliam and Zacharie. The project, referred to in contemporary correspondence, was never completed, thanks to the outbreak of Revolution. A final French connection is Fitzwilliam’s own book in French, Les Lettres d’Atticus, which was published in several editions, dedicated to Louis XVIII, and produced with the support of the Abbé Vinson. His glowing account of Catholicism in this text contrasts somewhat with what might have been expected of an Irish landowner of the period, and is symptomatic of how his links to France pervaded his life, work, and collecting – perhaps subtly, perhaps eclectically and inconsistently, but nonetheless visibly for those who seek them out.

We would like to express our thanks to the Fitzwilliam for their cooperation throughout the year, and to all our speakers for their fantastic contributions. Watch this space for news about next year's seminar!


15 May, Jane Munro

posted 8 May 2015, 06:59 by Cambridge EMS

The final seminar of the series will be given by Jane Munro, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam. In an appropriate conclusion to our examination of objects in the collections of the museum, Munro will discuss 'Fitzwilliam's French Connections': how the museum's founder took a special interest in the objects and paintings he acquired from early modern France. Munro will be introduced by Lucilla Burn, Keeper of Antiquities.

The seminar takes place at 2pm in the Graham Robertson Study Room at the Fitzwilliam - PLEASE NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE. All welcome.

For those unable to attend, a short account of the paper will be available on this site following the seminar.

Compte rendu: Mia Jackson, 'The Cabinet-Maker's Cabinet'

posted 8 May 2015, 06:46 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 8 May 2015, 06:51 ]

Mia Jackson’s object was a seventeenth-century French cabinet-on-stand, parts of which are attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732). Speaking in front of the cabinet in the Flowers Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Jackson explored (and revealed) in meticulous detail the various components of a work that, in her words, is a literal ‘object lesson’, teaching us about what happens to objects over their lifetime.

Originally built in Boulle’s workshop at the Louvre, the cabinet was one of a series of similar pieces created using veneer cut in ‘packets’, a technique that results in several identical but inverted versions of the same pattern. Decorated with turtle shell, cow horn, exotic wood and pewter, it speaks of the riches of the New World, but in the parrot, butterfly, and flower designs the natural beauties of both old and new world are evoked. It probably arrived in the UK in the early nineteenth-century, following the post-revolutionary rejection of such luxurious furnishings in France. It is to its first English acquirers that the cabinet owes the Egyptian figures that hold up its stand – a function served by classical gods in a companion piece held in Scotland. Yet these anachronistic elements now form an integral part of the object’s story, and would never be removed in restoration. 

The cabinet, both made to house collections and itself part of a collection, also provided Jackson with a pretext for considering Boulle’s own career as a collector. As ébéniste du roi, he was one of a privileged group of artisans who set themselves apart not only through their dispensation from guild regulations, but also in the sociocultural practices that marked them out as more than mere craftsmen. Key among these practices was collecting: Boulle’s collection of prints and drawings numbered around 15,000 by the time it was seriously damaged by fire in 1720. Jackson argued that in this context, to consider Boulle as a mere furniture maker was reductive: his most important relationships were with his Louvre colleagues, he conceived of himself as one of these illustres, and his collecting practices are central to understanding this fact.


1-10 of 26