A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d'Epinay and the Abbæ Galiani
Ferdinando Galiani, Louise d'Epinay Correspondance Vol. I (1769–1770)
In 1766 the Paris of the Enlightenment welcomed the Milanese political philosopher Cesare Beccaria with both reverence and curiosity. All the philosophes were anxious to meet the author of Of Crimes and Punishments (1764), his celebrated treatise on judicial law that condemned torture and the death penalty. All the same, when invited to lunch by Madame Geoffrin, whose salon was considered “the headquarters of the Encyclopédie,” Beccaria found that another Italian (or rather, Neapolitan) guest was the center of attention and monopolized the conversation. And the same thing was to happen on subsequent occasions. “Whatever company we frequented,” wrote Pietro Verri to his brother Alessandro, “Galiani was there too, and wherever he is everyone keeps mum and leaves him to shine, because this abbé has a hundred wisecracks to not even the fourth part of a heart. He’s all the rage in Paris, much sought-after, everybody knows him…and everyone’s mad about him.”1
Three new books deal with the man whom Friedrich Nietzsche was to describe as “the most profound, the most acute, and perhaps the dirtiest man of his century.” Francis Steegmuller recalls the friendship between the Neapolitan Abbé Ferdinando Galiani and Louise d’Epinay, a prominent figure in the Parisian intellectual society of the time. The first volume of the correspondence between Galiani and Epinay, one of the most enchanting exchanges of letters written in French during the eighteenth century, has just appeared, and Ruth Weinreb’s scholarly book on Madame d’Epinay also devotes much space to Galiani.
Denis Diderot was among the first to lose his head over the visitor from Naples. “I love this abbé to distraction,” he wrote to Sophie Volland, and from the autumn of 1760 onward he devoted whole pages of the letters to his mistress to the stories and witticisms of Galiani. “Round and plump,” the tiny little abbé radiated a contagious joie de vivre. “In came abbé Galiani,” wrote Diderot, and with him “gaiety, imagination, esprit, madness, and everything that makes one forget the afflictions of life.”2 Less than two years after his arrival in France Ferdinando Galiani had discovered the capital city of the Enlightenment, and the capital city had adopted Galiani.
From then on, for an all too brief decade, the petit abbé was an integral part of Parisian intellectual life and “perpetually on show,” according to an almost invariable weekly schedule, at all the salons frequented by the philosophes. Along with Diderot, d’Alembert, Grimm, Marmontel, Saint-Lambert, Raynal, and Duclos—to mention only the most famous names—Galiani became a regular guest of Madame Geoffrin (Mondays and Wednesdays), Julie de Lespinasse (Tuesdays), Monsieur and Madame Helvétius (Thursdays), the Neckers (Fridays), Madame d’Epinay (Saturdays), and Baron d’Holbach (Sundays). From then on his bon mots, his anecdotes, his paradoxes, became famous in Paris and Versailles and in time reached the most distant courts of Europe. The story goes that Louis XV asked him to produce an off-the-cuff witticism on the subject of his royal self. And Galiani, quick as a flash, replied, “Sire, how…
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