On July 6, 1417, the Venetian nobleman Francesco Barbaro sent a laudatory letter to Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to the Antipope John XXIII and a leading humanist of his time. Barbaro praised Poggio’s extraordinary success in ferreting out ancient texts from their moldering monastic hiding places while in Germany for the Council of Constance, to which Poggio had come along with the pope.

Marc Fumaroli
Marc Fumaroli; drawing by James Ferguson

This letter, with its congratulations to Poggio on finding the work of such important writers as Tertullian and Lucretius, said that he deserved immortal glory in the “republic of letters.” Marc Fumaroli, now the leading French historian of Renaissance intellectual history, observes that this is the first use of the phrase “republic of letters”—respublica litteraria. It referred to the small group of Renaissance scholars who were engaged in rediscovering, reinterpreting, and enlarging on important Latin and Greek texts. In doing so, as Fumaroli and others have argued, they formed a new kind of community that did much to define the Renaissance and the ways of thinking that led to “modern” culture.

Despite the prominence of the term “republic of letters” in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the Huguenot encyclopedist and philosopher Pierre Bayle called his journal News from the Republic of Letters—it has only recently had serious attention in France, Italy, and Germany, as well as the United States and United Kingdom. The subject has grown in importance as a way of understanding why the period in Europe from 1500 to 1800 is so important. No one has contributed more to this shift in perspective than Marc Fumaroli.

Fumaroli was born in Marseille in 1932, spent his childhood in Fez, in Morocco, his teenage years in Marseille, and was then educated at the University of Aix-en-Provence and at the Sorbonne. He began his teaching career in Lille before moving to Paris in 1976. He has remained there, first at the Sorbonne, and since 1986 at the Collège de France. In 1995 he was elected to the Académie française, that would-be modern Parnassus created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 to honor the heroes of French learning. He has written or edited twenty books, the best known of which are commentaries on recent cultural politics in France or collections of texts such as L’État culturel (1991) and When the World Spoke French (2001; translation, 2011). In these books Fumaroli criticizes the present identity and cultural shallowness of France from the perspective of its past. But in most of his work he writes as a scholar speaking to other scholars.

Fumaroli is the most sure-footed guide we have to high culture in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. His works explore three main themes: the uses of classical rhetoric in the late Renaissance, the century-long so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, and the Republic of Letters.

What is perhaps his greatest book, L’Âge de l’éloquence (1980), is a vast study of how ancient rhetorical theory was rediscovered and adapted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We may think of rhetoric as the superficial art of using words, but in Greek and Roman antiquity, rhetoric was a system of exposition—a way of structuring what one wanted to express—as well as, implicitly, a way of organizing knowledge. The orator had to have an encyclopedic command of both historical and literary sources and the range of emotions he could draw on. The study of rhetoric was intended to explain how an audience responds and why. While rhetoric was practiced in Imperial Rome, the system was developed for argument in the law courts and senate of the republic. Its most famous and influential practitioner and theorist was Cicero, who was killed in the wave of executions following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.

Fumaroli begins by surveying ancient texts on rhetoric. But when he turns toward the present he chooses a distinctive and telling event: the sixteenth-century debate about Cicero. One the one hand, there were his Italian imitators who were so drawn to the classical past that they used only the Latin words he used. On the other, there was the argument of Erasmus of Rotterdam, that were Cicero alive in the sixteenth century he would have been among those who wanted to update language and draw on the vernacular. Erasmus pointed to Cicero’s own concept of decorum, the idea that expression and expressiveness needed to conform to the time and place of exposition.

Fumaroli follows these two positions as examples of the debate that took place in Europe between “ancients” and “moderns,” and he describes their permutations, among Jesuits, jurists, politicians, and princes of the Church in Counter-Reformation Italy and early-seventeenth-century France. Not only did the debate create the foundation for the literary achievements of the century of Louis XIV—the plays of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, for example—but it also led to the modern notion of “literature” and “literary studies.”


Fumaroli also probed into the visual and theatrical culture of this period. He showed how the same debates about how to update classical rhetorical theory for modern times influenced painting in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Italy and France. Like the great scholars of the Warburg school, Fumaroli’s familiarity with early modern ways of thinking enabled him to discern patterns, structures, and meanings derived from classical texts beneath the swirling figures in the paintings of the Italian Guido Reni, or the silent, cold subjects in those of the Frenchman Nicolas Poussin. He analyzed painting as a theater of the emotions.

Fumaroli has been particularly astute in understanding the theater of Corneille as a vocabulary of gestures derived from a variety of classical and contemporary sources. Fumaroli presents him not only as a successful playwright, but as a kind of transforming vehicle of culture in whose work Italy’s arts, its politics of “reason of state,” its Jesuit erudition, and its rhetorical styles are carefully distilled into something that seemed so French that, in turn, it set the standard for the next generation of French writers.

As Fumaroli shows, the supporters of the new absolutist state of Louis XIV were also among those who wanted to push the boundaries of acceptable style in new directions. Against this background Fumaroli takes up the politics behind the famous Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, which broke out with the publication of two books by Charles Perrault—The Century of Louis the Great (1687) and Parallels of the Ancients and the Moderns (1688). Fumaroli connects the later seventeenth century in France back to the debates over the classical heritage during the sixteenth century in Italy. He argues that the relationships between works of culture, political authority, and the influence of the past on the present lie at the heart of modern European culture.1

If there is a geographical momentum to Fumaroli’s history of rhetoric, it could be called “out of Italy.” The enormous presence of antiquity in the physical remains of the past—as with Rome’s Aurelian walls or the ruins on the Palatine Hill—had been visible throughout the Middle Ages. But what emerged during the fifteenth century was a new idea of antiquity as a model for living better. People could conduct relations with one another by drawing on examples from Cicero, Virgil, Horace, or Homer. This new approach, for the most part, coexisted with Christian religious authority; most of those whom Fumaroli considers were able to accommodate Christian ideas of faith to pagan ideas of living. But the new idea of antiquity set off shock waves that spread across the Continent during the sixteenth and on into the seventeenth centuries.

Fumaroli considers how these waves rolled across France, how they collided with native traditions in painting, literature, and architecture, and how they shaped France in the centuries before the French Revolution. Some aspects of the Revolution itself could be considered aftershocks from the great change—the revolution in the understanding of the classical past—that we call the Italian Renaissance.

The reencounter with the ancient world began with coins and buildings and manuscripts, but it soon spread to daily life in the distant past—clothing, food, religion, calendars, law. These, in turn, began to change the ways in which modern people lived in the world. Dress, speech, comportment—all that we might subsume under the notion of personal style—began to show the impact of antiquity.

The pressure of the past created the new forms and practices of life that are Fumaroli’s principal subject. He might have chosen to explore it by focusing on Michel de Montaigne, who expressed himself in a genre of his own devising that is both a monument to and a document of the conversion of old texts into new forms. Fumaroli wrote a beautiful essay about this aspect of Montaigne, but only one. It is almost as if he was arguing that there were darker corners more in need of illumination. His studies of the translation and reception in later seventeenth-century France of the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián show Gracián as having the kind of insight and importance that others assign to Montaigne.2


Just how did antiquity shape living? This is the question that permeates Fumaroli’s essays in La République des lettres. “Republic” was an ancient word with dense and various meanings. But when fifteenth-century scholars used the term “letters” (litterae or litteraria) what exactly did they mean? Fumaroli turns for help to the prefaces written at the end of the fifteenth century by the scholarly Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Aldus (or Aldo, in Italian) produced beautiful editions of the Greek and Roman classics, often the first time any of them had been printed. He cut type, inventing italics. (His achievement as a single-handed reviver of antiquity was recently the subject of a stirring exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York.3)


It was Aldus, according to Fumaroli, who also helped develop the very terms in which the revival of classical learning would perpetuate itself. For example, he identified his audience as the “students of good letters” (studiosi bonarum litterarum) and “most loving of good letters” (amantissimi bonarum litterarum). For Aldus, his writers and their readers, “letters”—literature in our sense, but also ancient learning of all sorts—represented a vision of a better future. “I hope that in a near future,” he wrote, “with barbarism destroyed and ignorance vanquished, good letters and the true disciplines will be embraced not, as they are now, by a tiny minority, but by universal accord.”4

Those “lovers of good letters,” however, had to confront an ancient dichotomy between otium, generally translated as “ease,” or “pleasure,” and its opposite, negotium, from which we get our modern “negotiation,” but which more precisely means “engagement with the world.” While otium may have seemed an appropriate aristocratic response to base practicalities, the Romans of the late republic, like Cicero, viewed it as a kind of dereliction of duty. Hence study, which from the outside could look very like abstention from the life of the community, had to be “saved” from the association with purely personal pleasure. “Ease with dignity” (otium cum dignitate) was the ancient answer, so that learning represented legitimate care of the self. In this debate about otium and duty we can see the formation of the idea of citizenship that animates modern politics.


Dominique Nabokov

Marc Fumaroli, Paris, March 2009

If part of being a citizen is belonging to a community, then communication is essential. Fumaroli identifies citizenship of the republic of letters with “conversation.” We may take this word for granted, but much serious thinking was devoted to its meaning and scope in the sixteenth century. Conversation referred not just to the ways people spoke but to much else: how talking fitted in with one’s life; the places of such talk; the societies that were created to carry on such talk. Written letters, which facilitated the conversation of absent friends, preserved the importance of dialogue even as they developed their own rules.

Bound up in “conversation” were the values at the core of a new and decidedly nonclerical and nongovernmental sphere of life. Hegel later used the term “civil society” to refer to what members of the republic of letters wrote about as “civil conversation”—conversation outside the bounds of bureaucracies and official conclaves. Conversation was a kind of performance and was often depicted as such: Cesare Ripa, for example, who published a frequently reprinted book about visual messages, Iconologia (1593), included a figure of “Conversation.” And when the book was republished in mid- eighteenth-century Germany with new engravings, it also came out with a new image: a “Modern Conversation” that reflected a century’s change in thinking and living. Watteau’s series of “Conversation” paintings do the same with much greater subtlety.


Fumaroli sees in the revival of ancient rhetoric a force that reshaped social norms. Those who studied the ancient world and made possible this cultural revolution were also transformed by the practice of study. A life in letters could be a form of self-fashioning. We know, for instance, that Poggio’s Florentine correspondent Niccolò Niccoli was famous for the beauty of his dishes, clothing, and house. We know that Donatello designed interior spaces in which meetings for conversation could take place and that Pomponio Leto, later in the fifteenth century, celebrated the ancient Roman holidays with his friends in the new Rome.

To these well-known examples, in one of the longest essays in his book, Fumaroli adds the Provençal humanist Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637). Through his study of Peiresc Fumaroli shows how, during the seventeenth century, a life devoted to “letters” became a cultural ideal. Drawing on Peiresc’s vast network of correspondents, Fumaroli evokes his commitment to collaboration and communication, to generosity and hospitality, to tolerating difference and avoiding angry disagreement. Peiresc, he shows, created a model of citizenship for the republic of letters as a whole.

Peiresc lived in Provence, along the major routes from Italy into France, and he was active at the crucial moment when the most innovative adaptations of antiquity into modern culture were beginning to occur not in Italy but in France during the first part of the seventeenth century. Peiresc was an astronomer, an antiquarian, a historian of Provence, an indefatigable writer to other members of the Republic of Letters. His career is crucial for understanding the broader relationship between the movements of thought we call the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. His work and his relations with others also define the particular classicism of seventeenth-century French culture.

Fumaroli locates a tipping point in the 1620s, just after Peiresc left Paris. For that brief moment there coexisted, in equipoise, an erudite, Latin-speaking, male republic of letters in the learned circle that gathered daily in the “cabinet” of the brothers Pierre and Jacques Dupuy, and a French-speaking, mixed-gender, more literary milieu that packed the “blue room” of Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet. In the group who met with the Dupuys there assembled Peiresc’s friends and Poggio’s heirs; in the “blue room” there were men and women who knew little about Peiresc and even less about philology. They were, however, keen on new forms of writing and speaking while they had also absorbed something of the classical renewal that had been going on around them. They wanted to cut a figure in the world of contemporary society—in both the court and the city, to borrow Erich Auerbach’s terms.5

In short, this was the time of the birth of the salon, and the beginning of the trajectory that led to the coffeehouse, the magazine, the public gardens, and the museums of the eighteenth century. These developments can all be closely tied to the rise of commercial society, the novel, and new kinds of history-writing. It was a momentous transformation that occurred before the French Revolution and throughout Europe, and it has justifiably engaged some of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers and historians, among them Franco Venturi and Reinhart Koselleck. Fumaroli’s work belongs alongside theirs.


In 1954, the young François Furet, who was to turn upside down the interpretation of the French Revolution, passed the agrégation, the national examination for entry into the ranks of advanced teachers in France. The president of the reviewing committee was the great historian Fernand Braudel. It was five years after the publication of his epochal book on the Mediterranean and four after his election to the Collège de France. When Braudel asked what Furet wanted to work on, he answered, “The French Revolution.” Braudel shook his head: “Don’t we know all that already?”

Packed into Braudel’s statement of doubt was the certainty of a dominant historical explanation—that of social and economic history—and a dominant historiographical tradition—that of the Annales, the legendary journal founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the previous generation. In the space of Furet’s career that entire structure of certainty was put in doubt. If the current generation of historians now emphasizes the power of ideas in causing the Revolution, and rejects Marxisms both dogmatic and sophisticated, this can be traced, in large part, to Furet’s work. The French eighteenth century has become a different country.

Fumaroli has done the same for the early seventeenth century. If he is less famous than Furet, this has to do with the fame of Fumaroli’s chosen period, which mostly lacks the powerful presence of Louis XIV’s Versailles or the Revolution. Yet Fumaroli has almost single-handedly made the intellectual history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in France necessary for understanding those later, more glamorous periods. For him, as for Chateaubriand and Tocqueville, the ancien régime had declined and fallen long before the Revolution broke out. Men like the Comte de Caylus, another of Fumaroli’s subjects, saw in antiquity the means to reform the present.

Fumaroli is attracted to such figures. They unsettle the conventional dichotomy between progressive and conservative. If we look at his own work, not only his explicit criticism of the often stultifying contemporary cultural bureaucracy in France, but his fascination with the erudite Latin culture of clerics, jurists, and austere humanists, we see a similar resistance to convention. Like them, Fumaroli sees himself in dialogue with long-dead writers and thinkers and draws on them for ideas. Like Nietzsche’s, many of Fumaroli’s essays could be subtitled “untimely meditations.”

Braudel once wrote an alluring but flawed essay called in English “Out of Italy.”6 If Furet eventually demonstrated how mistaken Braudel was about the French Revolution, Fumaroli has written the “Out of Italy” that Braudel could not. Braudel introduced his love for the Mediterranean as the love of a northerner, from Lorraine, for a south as mythical as it was for Goethe when he came down from the Brenner Pass and beheld the Po Valley below. Fumaroli contrasts the “vivid colors” of the south with a northern Italy “by definition less flamboyant, more reserved, more economical.” This is not mythology. Fumaroli is himself a man of the south. As with many great scholars, his personal inclinations have become a kind of divining rod for research. What is powerful about Fumaroli’s work, whether on Peiresc or Chateaubriand, and very much in the spirit of their own, is a barely concealed hint of passion, especially the passion to know and to understand.

Caylus, in the preface to the second of the six volumes of his Collection of Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities, gave an account of this scholar’s passion that is still valid today. The scholar, he wrote,

examines ancient remains; he compares them with those already known; he researches their divergence or conformity; he reflects; he discusses; he formulates the conjectures that the distance in time and the silence of writers makes necessary. If one of these fragments offers ideas about the workings of art, either neglected, lost or rejected by the Moderns, the pleasure of experimenting, of describing them, energizes him and flatters his taste.

But nothing is comparable to the satisfaction of envisioning some usefulness for the public. This idea penetrates him; it touches his heart, and the happiness of succeeding amply compensates him for all his cares and all his pains. Voilà, I declare, the things that have seduced me.