Letizia Norci Cagiano de Azevedo


1Critics have often approached the various “baroque” aspects of Montesquieu by focusing by turns on the essence of his writing (Rétat 1987), his artistic interests (Ehrard 1965, Versini 2004), his religious attitudes (Versini 2008), or his vision of history (Rosso 1987, Rétat 1987).

2To proceed to a general overview of the relationship of Montesquieu to the baroque, however, we must establish the meaning we wish to give to that term, while recognizing that at the time the word “baroque” was used only as a pejorative adjective.

3Studies in the last century have shown that there exist several manifestations of the baroque, varying with periods and places. If we limit ourselves to consideration of the expressions that could have affected Montesquieu’s thought and style (thus, artistic and literary works from the end of the sixteenth century through the first decades of the eighteenth), we can make out two aspects: on the one hand an exuberant, dynamic, and bizarre taste, apparently without rules or limits, which can include a certain baroque, the barocchetto, rocaille, and in general any work the function of which is purely ornamental; and on the other hand, an art the copious, original, and sensual language of which, far removed from any classical idealization, is the expression of a metaphysical tension, its apparent chaos being underlain by an inexorable necessity. This is the case, for example, for certain French poets of the late sixteenth century, or for the grand Roman baroque (Bonnefoy 1970, Rousset 1998). The difference between the two aspects consists essentially in the presence or absence of an articulated and purposeful structure.

4If the first aspect is often criticized by Montesquieu and is quite foreign to his tastes and literary practice, the second seems to fit him perfectly. Montesquieu, while appreciating the harmony and conformity to nature of ancient and modern classicism, in art as in writing likes effects of surprise and movement, variety, contrasts, and open-endedness, which arouse curiosity and stimulate the imagination ( Essai sur le goût , 2020 ; OC, t. IX, p. 491-508) [Essay on taste]. Yet these effects must be subjected to a rigorous design; thus, he detests the Place des Victoires in Paris, which, lacking any purpose, “is the monument of frivolous vanity” (Pensées, no. 1442). It is precisely the absence of rules (which is to say, of a perceptible system of proportions and purpose) which he assimilates to the “gothic manner” in which the apparent variety is merely confusion (Essay on taste, p. 494).

5We should specify that in Montesquieu (as in many of his contemporaries) the term “gothic” does not refer strictly to the grand architecture that dominated northern Europe, but extends in a more general way to an apparently irrational, disordered and florid style such as the one, for example, that characterizes certain baroque churches in Naples (in Naples “today I saw four or five churches; I found in them ornaments, magnificence, an absence of taste, a gothic taste, something bizarre in the ornaments, and none of the simplicity to be found in ancient sites or in those of Michelangelo and his pupils” (Voyages, p. 301). Among Michelangelo’s pupils, Borromini, who “created [...] a well-ordered gothic” (ibid., p. 322), attracts Montesquieu’s admiration.

6The Persian Letters answer to writing requirements that belong to a baroque taste sustained by a necessary structure. The work is based on a rigorous and balanced structure: measure in the number and length of the letters, chronological verisimilitude, balanced alternation of subjects, even distribution of the apologues; yet the narrative is driven by a violent tension which draws toward the tragic conclusion. This apparently univocal tension is subjected to pressures which, acting in opposite directions, seem to dilate and deform the novel’s well-articulated structure (digressions, tales within the tale, quick leaps in space and time). These are elements that characterize the theatre and the novel which today we call baroque; to them we can add the taste for cross-dressing specific to tragi-comedy and to opera and its parodies, not to mention of libertine and curious aspects that could recall certain artistic and literary manifestations of the rococo. Yet this last hypothesis is more easily adapted to The Temple of Gnidus, for the Persian Letters in no way resemble a capricious and purely hedonistic work. Despite the tensions and contrasts that drive it, the narrative of the Persian Letters advances inexorably toward the necessary conclusion in which every contradiction seems to dissolve into Roxane’s sacrifice; yet at the novel’s end the struggle for virtue and freedom remains open, like the oblique perspectives of baroque decorators that disappear into the wings and offer the observer only a segment of an infinite trajectory.

7The practice of open-endedness, of the line that attracts the eye and the spirit toward purely imaginary spaces, is dear to Montesquieu despite his admiration for classical polish. In Rome, where his esthetic tastes were refined, he doubtless admired, in the landscapes of the great painters who worked around the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, procedures such as the multiplicity of vanishing points, variety, and work on movement, which not only elicit surprise but awaken curiosity in the spirit: the gaze loses itself in the endless horizon and allows the spirit to extend the sphere of its presence. “The spirit likes variety, but it likes it [...] because it is made to know and to see” (Essay on taste, p. 494; Truchot 2007, p. 217, 221). The importance given to the imagination is thus combined with a thirst for knowledge which, whatever the distinctions, is common to the baroque spirit and to the spirit of the Enlightenment. At the same time, the importance given to movement and to the multiplicity of vanishing points is part of a changing vision which is indigenous to the uneasiness of the baroque as well as to the relativism of the eighteenth century.

8In Rome Montesquieu also developed his taste for Italian music, grand ceremonies in the Roman churches, as well as certain “post-Tridentine” aspects of his religious sensitivity (Versini 2004 and 2008); in general, one can discern a certain influence of the different manifestations of the Roman baroque in works subsequent to his journey to Italy. We must always remember that while appreciating the esthetic sides of an art that speaks to the senses, Montesquieu aims rather at the depth of appearances, and from this point of view he is in full agreement with the essence of the best baroque.

9While variety, with surprise, curiosity, movement, and contrasts, is considered among the sources of esthetic pleasure in the Essay on taste, it must nevertheless be subordinated to the rules if the spirit is to enjoy a delight free of excess. Yet these rules remain relative: while just in general, they are often, like laws, unjust in their application (Truchot 2007, p. 198-199 and 205). The most meaningful example of this principle is Michelangelo: “No one ever knew art better [than he]; no one scoffed at it more” (Essay on taste, p. 509), and following Michelangelo all those who were able to free themselves from the dominant rules in order to create new ones.

10In the same way, Montesquieu seeks new rules to express a world vision that combines the pre-eminence of reason with the multitude of phenomena, their instability, and their apparent incoherence (which is, moreover, what D’Alembert observes in his Eulogy of Montesquieu). Far from reducing the irrepressible flux of the life of men and of nature to rigid schemas in accordance with outdated canons, he tries to grasp the invisible but necessary order that governs them in order to find their sense and their reasons. That order is often veiled and difficult to know, like the movement of figures teeming in certain baroque domes which, against all appearances, is governed by a univocal tension.

11In fact, Montesquieu does not limit himself to admiring and understanding certain aspects of the best Roman baroque; in a certain sense he puts them into practice. And, with all the obligatory precautions and distinctions, we can assert that he adopts, or in any event that he shares, their language as well as their conception. In his Considerations on the [...] Romans, Rome is represented (think for example of its beginnings, full of conflicts and rapid changes, but especially driven by a continual and violent tension) in an evolution that springs from the shock of contrasts, as we see for example with the baroque architecture of Saint’Ivo alla Sapienza, where the infinite rising movement (the lantern, as we know, ends in a spiral) is determined by a tense dialogue of opposing forces to which Borromini each time brings genial solutions: never defined, but driven by an inexhaustible dynamic, these forces are always subtended by a deep coherence, by a single generative kernel (Brandi 1970, p. 81; Rousset 1998, p. 20-24). And in this principle we can recognize affinities with certain procedures of Montesquieu.

12If we observe the Considerations in this perspective, we can first notice that the vision of Roman history does not answer to a process of idealization (at a time, we must emphasize, when there is a return in France to the grand taste that leads up to neoclassicism), but to an impulsion that urges Montesquieu to accentuate, to put into relief, and to dramatize. Pierre Rétat, at the conclusion of a series of extraordinary examples taken from the Considerations, where paradoxical and antithetical formulas follow each other with dizzying rapidity, remarks that “the surprising image of contiguity, of suspended, menacing force, seems able to produce itself only in a titanic vision inspired by baroque painting and statuary” (Rétat 1987, p. 214). We could add that the elements indicated at the outset of the Considerations as causes of the greatness of the Romans all seem to belong, up to a point, to the bizarre imaginary of the baroque: battles, triumphs, metamorphoses, mixtures, instability; and yet they enter into a very tight narrative where events follow each other in a necessary chain.

13This is obviously the chain that connects and reveals hidden truths which is evoked in the Spirit of Law. The preface speaks first of an “infinite number of things”, then of the necessary relations that connect “the infinite diversity of laws and behaviors”. The intent to form a design is evident; Montesquieu is not after a compilation but a work of art, according to new perspectives that diverge from ancient paths (Casabianca 2007, p. 225). In the avertissement added to the posthumous editions, he evokes the necessity for a new language: “I have thought new thoughts; it was essential that I find new words for them or give the old ones new meanings.”

14Once again we find the element of the best baroque: organization underlying a multitude of apparently disparate or incompatible elements and an entirely original re-use of traditional quotations and models (Volpilhac-Auger 1999). That is what Michelangelo did, and after him his disciples Pierre de Cortone, Bernini, and Borromini, whose surprising, even bizarre use of the elements of classical architecture Montesquieu had appreciated in Rome: “When Michelangelo saw the Pantheon for the first time, he said he would raise it into the air. In my own way I shall more or less imitate that great man. I shall expose those antique laws that lie buried for everyone to see” (Pensées, no. 1938). By exposing those laws in a new light, Montesquieu becomes the artist who creates new rules, with the somewhat presumptuous courage of the great baroque architects who had undermined everything, yet while retaining the rigor of the structures (Spalla, p. 23).

15Scanning the table of contents of The Spirit of Law, one is surprised at the multiplicity of points of view and the dynamic, changing nature of the laws in their various relationships; Montesquieu’s eye is mobile, but he can back away from specific views without at the same time losing sight of them; in other words, he is capable of holding them together (Casabianca 2007, p. 231).

16Corrado Rosso has rightly remarked that in Montesquieu the study of structures takes precedence over positive or positivist observation of events and chronology (Rosso 1987, p. 188). Indeed, Montesquieu seems to master each phase of the processes he studies; he reveals their necessity and intuits their inevitable but tentative conclusions. Which contrasts with the intentions of post-Tridentine baroque art, where a chaotic and disquieting representation of the world is rigorously organized to direct the obscure forces and the experiences of the flesh towards a final goal: the luminous vision of God and of his grace (Bonnefoy 1970; Rousset 1998).


Essay on taste (Essai sur le goût), Pierre Rétat and Annie Becq eds, in OC, t. IX, 2006, p. 459-518.

Mes voyages, Jean Ehrard dir., with the collaboration of Gilles Bertrand, in OC, t. X, 2012.

Eugenio d’Ors, Du Baroque, French trans. by A. Rouart-Valéry, Paris: Gallimard, 1935-1936 ; Paris, Gallimard, « Folio essais », 2000.

Jean Rousset, La Littérature de l’âge baroque en France: Circé et le paon, Paris: José Corti, 1953 and 1995.

Marcel Raymond, Baroque et Renaissance poétique, Paris: José Corti, 1955 and 1985.

Victor-Lucien Tapié, Baroque et Classicisme, Paris: Plon, 1957; second edition with a preface by Marc Fumaroli, Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1980.

Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu critique d’art, Paris: PUF, 1965.

Yves Bonnefoy, Rome, 1630: l’horizon du premier baroque, Milan: Istituto Editoriale Italiano and Paris: Flammarion, 1970; updated edition, Paris: Champs-Flammarion, 1994 and 2000.

Cesare Brandi, La prima architettura barocca: Pietro da Cortona - Borromini - Bernini, Bari: Laterza, 1970.

Marc Fumaroli, L’Âge de l’éloquence, Genève: Droz, 1980; Paris: Albin Michel, 1994.

Alberto Postigliola dir., Storia e ragione, Naples: Liguori, 1987; in particular:

- Pierre Rétat, “Images et expression du merveilleux dans les Considérations”, p. 207-217. (rééd. 2019, Pierre Rétat, sous le signe de Montesquieu, [].

- Corrado Rosso, “Demiurgia e parabola delle élites nelle Considérations”, p. 181-206.

Jean Rousset, Dernier regard sur le baroque, Paris: José Corti, 1998.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La référence antique dans les œuvres de jeunesse: de la rhétorique à l’histoire des idées”, in Montesquieu: les années de formation (1689-1720), Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Naples: Liguori, Cahiers Montesquieu no 5, 1999, p. 79-87.

Richard Bösel and Christoph Luitpold Frommel dir., Borromini e l’universo barocco, Milan: Electa, 2 vols., 1999-2000; in particular:

- Richard Bösel, Introduzione

- Robert Spalla, L’opera architettonica di Francesco Borromini nel contesto politico, culturale e storico del Seicento romano, t. I, p. 23-33

Laurent Versini, Baroque Montesquieu, Genève: Droz, 2004.

Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Du goût à l’esthétique, Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007; in particular:

- Eleonora Barria, “Le Bernin sculpteur vu par Montesquie : génie baroque ou héritier des Anciens?”, p. 31-46 

- Denis de Casabianca, “Ed anch’io son pittore: poétique du regard et politique dans L’Esprit des lois”, p. 223-244

- André Charrak, “Le plaisir et l’ordre: pour une nouvelle lecture de l’Essai sur le goût de Montesquieu”, p. 177-190

- Pierre Truchot, “L’esthétique dialectique de Montesquieu”, p. 191-222.

Laurent Versini, “Montesquieu: une spiritualité post-tridentine”, in Travaux de littérature de l’ADIREL. La spiritualité des écrivains, t. XXI, Genève: Droz, 2008, p. 191-204.

Letizia Norci Cagiano, “Montesquieu et la leçon de Borromini”, in Gérard Ferreyrolles et Letizia Norci Cagiano de Azevedo dir., Rome n’est plus dans Rome ? Entre mythe et satire: la représentation de Rome en France au tournant des XVIIle et XVIIIe siècles, Paris: Champion, 2015, p. 181-197.

Letizia Norci Cagiano, “Architetture barocche nell’opera letteraria di Montesquieu, prima e dopo l’esperienza italiana”, in L’Architecture du texte, l’architecture dans le texte, Macerata: EUM, 2018.

Bibliographical reference

Norci Cagiano de Azevedo Letizia , “Baroque”, translated by Philip Stewart, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: