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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.