1How can one pretend to describe the tastes of a man whose mind “latches onto everything” (letter 605, to Maupertuis, 25 November 1746)? In the moving profusion of the world where “objects seem everywhere prepared for our pleasures” (“les objets semblent partout préparés pour nos plaisirs”, Pensées, no. 30), which should we privilege? Eager to know and especially to “think”, this curious soul attached itself with predilection to those who allowed it to exercise its “nature” in the successful play of its cardinal faculty: comparing, constructing relations and interconnections the order of which, assuring the subjective identity, does not paralyze an always surprising upsurge – in short, which allows it to enjoy itself (see Essay on taste [Essai sur le goût], OC, t. IX, p. 488, 491, 493); these pleasures of which we are “the more conscious artisans” and which emerge against the basso continuo of the good operation of the “machine” (Starobinski, p. 28-30), are sought in study, reading – a single hour of which can remove any worry (Pensées, no. 213), society, conversations, but also games – where, even if you lost, it at least enjoys hearing itself spoken of (Pensées, no. 1675), a costly “foible” which the economical Montesquieu has renounced (ibid., no. 1981); indeed all that in “the things of nature and art” touches on taste which denotes them as beautiful, agreeable, gracious, etc. (Essai sur le goût, p. 487-488): mountains, landscapes, gardens, music, architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, etc.
2His preferences are for a profusion which order subtly organizes into a “whole” where unity does not stifle variety. Thus the Essay on taste multiplies quotations of the Latin historian Florus, reputed in the classical age for his style, as examples of representation in a minimum of “words” of “many things”, even more than one could have hoped to see, brachylogies of which the sparkle is coextensive with the density of meaning, whereas the mania of antitheses which becomes, even in Augustine, the search for a bon mot rather than a “verity” (Pensées, no. 520), can only impose limits on his thought as on that of Saint-Évremond (ibid., no. 65); more than “words”, the “thing” matters (ibid., no. 1100). Thus the pupil of Raphael, Jules Romain, is the object of striking praise for his Battles and, especially for his frescoes at the Palace of the Té de Mantoue, where everything is “so well ordered that there is nothing blurred. The eye sees all and all at once” (“si bien ordonné qu’il n’y a rien de confus. L’œil voit tout et tout d’un coup […]”, Voyages, p. 382) and even certain “gothic” monuments – not to mention the little church of La Spina in Pisa with its exuberant ornamentation that makes him marvel at its lightness (Voyages, p. 212) – as in Florence Santa Maria Novella or the Duomo (Voyages, p. 221), escape censure for excessive ornamentation, the variety of which tips into confusion and uniformity: here “the ornaments are in the whole and not in the parts”, “you only see one single object” and “the whole presents itself as unified, simple and single” (Voyages, “Galerie du grand-duc”, p. 585-586); sobriety, if not nudity or absence of ornaments, characteristic of the “grand taste” of which in fact no era has a monopoly. The “grand simple” (ibid., p. 584) that charms him in the works of the Ancients, capable of capturing those two qualities at the same time (Pensées, no. 117) and which he again discovers in the “divine work of this century”, Telemachus (ibid., no. 115); simplicity “that is not poverty but the intentional reservation of a superior art” (Ehrard 1965, p. 85).
3These are classical ideas, less reminiscent of Roger de Piles, as Jean Ehrard notes (p. 134), than Félibien, whose intellectualism Montesquieu sometimes goes beyond: “breadth and clarity of the ordering, precision of the design […] rather than the harmony or grace of the color” (“ampleur et clarté de l’ordonnance, précision du dessin [....] plutôt que l’harmonie ou la grâce du coloris”): the plastic sensibility of the sculptor of lovely forms and clean contours more than colors, which accounts for his predilection for the Florentines, the play of fine poses and the clear manner (Pensées, no. 398), Pontormo, Rosso and other epigones of Michelangelo – whose paintings he liked as much as his sculpture – and which tempers his admiration for Correggio, even in Modena and Parma (Voyages, p. 374, 375, 378-380) to make him overestimate Jules Romain. It was these classical qualities of coherence and necessity of events, not to speak of variety, the vivacity of the rhythm and comparisons, which he observes in Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey he opposed to the likes of Amadis where the events arise not from the subject but from the writer’s fantasy, and where the merveilleux (‘supernatural’) is only in “the details”, whereas in Homer it is “in the whole” (Pensées, no. 2179); but, without falling like Mme Dacier (Pensées, no. 116) into the superstitious cult of the antique bard – who has perhaps done nothing more than to “sweep up the fables of his time” (ibid., p. 424) – he feels no “disgust” in seeing his kings cook and the sense of modern proprieties gives way to that of the necessities in an historical context: “The idea of cooking, in heroic times, was linked to the noblest ideas of other times” (“L’idée de cuisine, dans les temps héroïques, est liée avec les idées les plus nobles des autres temps”), here “that of sacrifice” (Pensées, no. 2179) and, in a general manner, “to judge the beauties of Homer, you have to put yourself into the Greek camp” (“pour juger des beautés d’Homère, il faut se mettre dans le camp des Grecs”, Pensées, no. 126). Thus he can find a Chinese piece that “gives a notion of the country’s mores” interesting (Spicilège, no. 554, p. 492), at the risk of being opposed to ours, if not to “reason”.
4Moreover, these contemporary mores are so “corrupt” that the children’s scene in the tragedy Inès by La Motte appeared “ridiculous to many” (Pensées, no. 143): refusing to see “something base and lowborn” in what concerns “the education of children”, the “natural sentiments”, Montesquieu decries this “too unfortunate delicacy” and prefers the naiveté of Rabelais to the finesse of Voiture and, more generally, his taste “hesitates between the conventions of nobility or academic grace and the search for expressive intensity” (Ehrard 1985, p. 28): the suave figures of Guido and the pathetic crucifix seen in Padua, of which he describes in detail the bloody clots and the curled toes; the supreme simplicity of Raphael (whose literary pendant is Racine) and the realistic and powerful complication of Bernini (see ibid., p. 67-68 and Pensées, no. 1198) or “transports of Bacchantes” provoked by Crébillon (ibid., no. 68) compared with Guercino (Pensées, no. 1198); it is true that these “great movements” prevent one from rendering on the work of the tragedian a judgment as nuanced as the subtle analysis of the verse of Ovid’s Festivals expressing passion, “slow and muted”, of Lucretia narrating “Tarquin’s coup” to which Montesquieu returned on several occasions (ibid., nos. 1474, 1680, 2180). It can only cause us to regret that the long and rich literary experience left fewer traces (a few examples: Ariosto the incomparable [ibid. no. 1215], Boileau’s “bad temperament”, the genial author of Le Lutrin [ibid., no. 181], Voltaire more “pretty” than beautiful [ibid., no. 896], sometimes wanting meaning and speaking like a notary [ibid., no. 2087]) than that of the plastic arts in the detailed relation of the Voyages which Jean Ehrard has read as “the story of an experience or rather of an initiation” (p. 10).
5We see in action the avid curiosity of “the erudite provincial that Montesquieu still was with his collector’s mentality” who wants “to see everything”, for example, in Venice, of the treasury of the San Marco library (ibid., p. 20-21). We can glean a few comments on music, that is, essentially the opera: Montesquieu heard La Turcotta, “Italy’s second actress”, in Florence and says he has “found a taste for Italian operas” (Voyages, p. 235), a note confirmed by Pensées no. 327, where he attempts to explain this attraction by a more intimate and thus more effective relation from the standpoint of emotion, between the voices and the instruments, in Italian music – which will not go so far as to make him like the voice of castrati (Pensées, no. 383).
6The French have nevertheless shown more “taste” in taking the subjects of their operas not from history but from “Fable [i.e., mythology] or novels” (Essai sur le goût, p. 484, and Pensées, no. 119) and these “so inconstant” French still like the operas of Lulli (Voyages, p. 260) who “makes music like an angel” whereas Rameau – whom he all the same compared to Corneille (Pensées, no. 1204) who in turn was compared to Michelangelo (no. 1198) – makes music “like a demon” (no. 1209). But it is the plastic arts that will take precedence over the remarks relating to society, economy, politics, etc., and are the object of systematic inquiries, under the direction of knowledgeable guides, especially in Florence, which conquered him and where he lingered for six weeks. Architecture occupies an important position after Turin, where he discovered what he was to find again in Rome: “the sense of monumental perspectives, which is one of the essential aspects of great baroque art” (Ehrard 1965, p. 37), represented since Michelangelo by Borromini, who troubles him somewhat (ibid., p. 80), and especially Bernini, whose architectural work as a whole he praises (ibid., p. 79). We note his taste for the fountains with which he would like to adorn Paris (Voyages, p. 290) since it is as an urbanist that he appreciates even the ancient vestiges of Rimini (Ehrard 1965, p. 106) whereas his sense of the useful leads him to scorn the Place des Victoires in Paris (Pensées, no. 1442); or yet again his interest for stairways like the one in a cloister in Bologna where the opening “allows the view to escape” (Voyages, p. 357).
7His predilection for Raphael, who combines harmonious beauty with truth – sometimes surpassed by Michelangelo – as well as for his Roman and Bolognese epigones, Jules Romain, Domenico Zampieri, Guido, the Carracci, which causes him to ignore Caravaggio and prefer Guercino, does not prevent him, even if he does not mention Donatello, from being interested in some “ancient painters”: a particularly historical and technical attention to Giotto or Mantegna in Padua, to Masaccio in whom he seeks the pendant in painting to the sculptor Ghiberti. According to Jean Ehrard (p. 118), Montesquieu “dreams of an art that would unite the power of Michelangelo with the intellectual serenity of Raphael”, not without succumbing to the seductions of grace or of a somewhat declamatory heroism. Order, mastery of profusion, dominating energy: so many aspects able to satisfy the soul that draws its enjoyment from the deployment of its functions and growth; a great delight in “making general propositions” (Pensées, no. 1597) or climbing the highest tower to embrace the most objects possible with the eye and “look into the distance” (Essay on Taste, p. 492). But in this infinite extension of the soul does it not risk its fate? The taste for mountains – rare at this date – is rooted in strange pleasures, for these Pyrenees where planes evade scale, just as, in the stop in Milan and the first “shock of a major work”, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, it was the effect of perspective opening up the picture into the distance where the eye loses itself, which struck him (Ehrard 1965, p. 35). Delectable loss of the soul as if snatched by an unmasterable infinity and the wavering of recognizable landmarks of knowledge, these are analyses of the pleasure caused in St. Peter’s in Rome by the discovery of an immensity that is not immediately perceived, and the astounded uncertainty before the irreducible space between two contradictory characters visible at the same time (Essay on Taste, p. 504-505), which exceed explanation by simple surprise and stand out boldly on the background of habitual commentaries.
Essai sur le goût, OC, t. IX, ed. Pierre Rétat and Annie Becq, 2006, p. 459-518.
Voyages, OC, t. X, Jean Ehrard dir., with the collaboration of Gilles Bertrand, 2012.
Jean Starobinski, Montesquieu par lui-même, Paris: Seuil, 1953.
Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu critique d’art, Paris: PUF, 1965.
Jean Ehrard et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ed., Du goût à l’esthétique : Montesquieu, Pessac: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007.