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Conqueror of Paris

Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh

A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d’Epinay and the Abbæ Galiani

by Francis Steegmuller
Knopf, 280 pp., $23.00

Ferdinando Galiani, Louise d’Epinay Correspondance Vol. I (1769–1770)

by (The Correspondance will comprise five volumes to appear annually.), edited by Georges Dulac, by Daniel Maggetti
Les Editions Desjonquères, 327 pp., FF 140.00

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 could I? Your Majesty is not a subject!”

You are made for Paris, and Paris even more is made for you,” wrote Madame d’Epinay (September 1, 1769). Yet Galiani had been sent to Paris as a mere secretary to the Neapolitan embassy, responsible for keeping his minister, Bernardo Tanucci, informed of the news that eluded official channels. Since Charles of Bourbon had become King of Spain, relinquishing the throne of Naples to his son Ferdinand IV, Tanucci had been a member of the council of regency and, in effect, the ruler of the Kingdom.

But in his diplomatic correspondence with Tanucci Galiani preferred to keep quiet about his circle of friends, saying little about the philosophes and the Encyclopédie. He knew that his minister would not approve of his sympathies. As Luciano Guerci, who with Furio Diaz has edited the excellent edition of Galiani’s collected works, puts it, “Tanucci was a man of another generation and a different cultural outlook, upset and irritated by the desecrating antitraditional violence of the philosophes, and tenaciously attached to a conservative vision of the primacy of Italy in the field of culture.”3

The Parisian friendships that Galiani kept from Tanucci might have been predicted from his past. Born in 1728 at Chieti, in Abruzzo, Ferdinando Galiani and his brother Bernardo grew up in the house of their uncle, Celestino Galiani, chaplain-in-chief of the kingdom, an office roughly equivalent to a present-day minister of culture. Celestino, a friend of Gian Battista Vico, was a man of considerable intellect, in touch with the most interesting minds of contemporary Neapolitan culture. Thanks partly to the intellectual atmosphere in his uncle’s house, Ferdinando at the age of twenty already had a wide culture and encyclopedic learning, and could move with ease from archaeological and antiquarian studies (to which the recent discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii had given new impetus) to problems of science, minerology, economics, and financial law, all without abandoning his literary interests. The decision to take religious orders was an entirely practical one: his ecclesiastical benefices would enable him to continue his studies and compensate him for his lack of faith.

Was he then a typical eighteenth-century abbé who haunted academies and salons and in studious leisure carried on the old tradition of humanistic Encyclopedism? Far from it: we need only read his anti-academic parody Divers Compositions on the Death of Domenico Iannaccone, Hangman to the Great Court of the Vicaria (1749) to realize that young Ferdinand had a ferocious comic instinct and anti-conformist spirit, heaping derision on the hypocrisy of official funeral eulogies by writing one for the hangman of Naples.

When he was twenty-three Galiani showed what he was capable of with the anonymous publication of his treatise On Money. This work, as has been shown by one of the leading historians of the Enlightenment, Franco Venturi, is the “masterpiece” that emerged from the discussion of coinage that was taking place in Italy around the mid-eighteenth century.4 Destined to become a classic, cited by Marx in Capital, studied by such political economists as Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, Luigi Einaudi, and Joseph Schumpeter, the treatise based a theory of value on the simultaneous action of two categories, the utility and the rarity of things. Anticipating the modern theory of marginal utility, Galiani argued that economic value depended on the progressive satisfaction of less and less essential or even superfluous needs.

Enfant terrible and enfant prodige—from the beginning to the end of his career both labels could apply to Galiani. He would continuously amuse, mock, provoke, and at the same time express brilliant intuitions, define central social problems, and hint at solutions that he himself would soon abandon. What would have happened, Benedetto Croce wondered, if Galiani had not had occasion to go to Paris? In Naples the abbé “would very likely have come to nothing for lack of effective stimuli and material to work on…. He would have abandoned himself to indolence, to academic games, to facile jests, even to coarse buffooneries.” In short, he would not have found “the right conditions for developing the best and most genuine powers of his intellect, and revealing his true physiognomy as thinker and as writer.”5 Certainly he would not have written his two masterpieces, the Dialogues sur le commerce des bleds (“Dialogues on the Grain Trade”), a brilliant confutation of the principle of free trade (starting with agricultural products) as applied dogmatically by the physiocrats, and the letters he wrote to his French friends after his return to Naples.

Galiani’s rise in Parisian circles seems to have been spectacular—a matter for hyperbole. The little abbé appeared to be “unique,” “irresistible,” “sublime,” because he embodied opposites—“he is Plato,” Melchior Grimm said, “with the verve and gestures of Harlequin.” And Voltaire, who in his exile at Ferney knew Galiani only from reading him and hearing about him, raised the literary tone a few notches by saying he embodied the qualities of Plato and Molière.

Still, such exaggerated comparisons give us a clue to the reasons behind the abbé’s success in Paris. Harlequin was after all the mask-character par excellence, the personification of the Commedia dell’Arte, and Plato the symbol of the Socratic method and the art of dialogue; and theater and conversation—what Madame Necker appropriately called “the theater of ideas”—were among the ruling passions of fashionable French society in the eighteenth century. A genuine Italian Harlequin must have been an irresistible spectacle for people who, not content with constant theater-going, would invite the actors back home for private performances and had their own theaters where they staged plays in which they often took part themselves.

The memoirs of Marmontel, the philosopher, novelist, poet, and dramatist who contributed to the Encyclopédie, give perhaps the best description of the abbé in action:

An Epicurean in his philosophy, and—having seen everything from the ridiculous standpoint—possessing a melancholy soul, there was nothing either in politics or in ethics about which he did not have some good tale to tell; and these tales always fell aptly, with the piquancy of some unexpected and ingenious allusion in them. In addition to this, picture in his gestures and style of narration the most artlessly engaging manner, and you will see what pleasure we obtained from the contrast between the profound meaning conveyed by the tale and the bantering air of the teller. I am not exaggerating when I say that one forgot all in harkening to him, sometimes for hours on end.6

With the instinct of the born actor Galiani knew how to use self-caricature as a means of seduction: “Here I am the same as ever, still the abbé, the little abbé, your little plaything. I am installed in my comfortable armchair, waving my arms and legs about like a madman, with my wig all awry, talking non-stop,” he was to write to Madame Geoffrin on his return to Naples. In a civilization of masks, as Claude Arnaud7 has defined the aristocratic French society of the eighteenth century, on which the tyranny of social propriety (les bienséances) imposed a considerable homogeneity of style, the abbé relied on his own natural sense of when to strike the discordant note. Despite his buffoonery, however, he was never seen as rough or vulgar; his wit, according to Diderot, was “like the flame of spirits of wine, gentle and light, that travels everywhere but never sears.”

Galiani, then, was an extraordinary mime and raconteur, and in him the two things seemed to be inseparable. Told by others, even by Diderot, his stories lost their edge. But the Harlequin of the comic monologues excelled also in conversation, the most indispensable of the collective rites of social life à la française. In the Paris of the 1760s this meant two different and to a large degree antithetical kinds of communication, the one playful and frivolous, the other intellectual and dialectical. There were not many capable of passing from one register to the other, and Galiani soon showed himself to be one of them.

  1. 1

    Viaggio a Parigi e a Londra (1776–1767): Carteggio di Pietro Verri, edited by G. Gaspari (Milan: Adelphi, 1980), pp. 249–250.

  2. 2

    Denis Diderot to Sophie Volland [November 25, 1760], in Diderot, Correspondance, edited by Georges Roth and Jean Varloot (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1955–1970), Vol. III, p. 268.

  3. 3

    Ferdinando Galiani, Opere, edited by F. Diaz and L. Guerci, in Illuministi italiani, Vol. VI (Milan and Naples: Ricciardi Editore, 1975), p. 799.

  4. 4

    Franco Venturi, Settecento Riformatore: I, Da Muratori a Beccaria 1730–1764 (Turin: Einaudi, 1969), p. 490.

  5. 5

    Benedetto Croce, “Il pensiero dell’abate Galiani,” in Saggio su Hegel seguito da altri scritti di storia della Filosofia (Bari: Laterza, 1948), p. 321.

  6. 6

    Mémoires de Marmontel, Vol. II (Paris, 1806), p. 122.

  7. 7

    Claude Arnaud, Chamfort, translated by Deke Dusinberre, foreword by Joseph Epstein (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

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