To kill a cat

Anthony Pagden

  • Settecento Riformatore. Vol. IV: La Caduta dell’Antico Regime 1776-1789. Part One: I Grandi Staii dell’Occidente by Franco Venturi
    Einaudi, 463 pp, lire 45,000.00, July 1984, ISBN 88 06 05695 6
  • Settecento Riformatore. Vol. IV: La Caduta dell’Antico Regime 1776-1789. Part Two: II Patriotismo Repubblicano e gli Imperi dell’Est by Franco Venturi
    Einaudi, 1040 pp, lire 55,000.00, July 1984, ISBN 88 06 05696 4
  • The Great Cat Massacre, and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton
    Viking, 284 pp, £14.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1728 8
  • Rousseau, Dreamer of Democracy by James Miller
    Yale, 272 pp, £25.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 300 03044 4

It is the fortune, or perhaps the misfortune, of the Enlightenment that its historians frequently write very long books. Franco Venturi’s Settecento Riformatore, which must surely be one of the longest, has now reached its fifth and final volume. As an enterprise it can have few parallels even among dixhuitièmistes. It offers no less than the description of an entire culture seen from a single geographical viewpoint. The culture is the whole of Europe from 1730 until the demise of the ancien régime in the French Revolution. The perspective is Italy, for, as Venturi announced at the start of the project, the Italians were, because of their long tradition of social and political analysis, perhaps the most perceptive observers of the European scene.

Settecento Riformatore has no single thesis. It is, as its title suggests, an anatomy of the several ways in which nearly every region of Europe, from Scotland and Russia to Spain and Portugal, struggled to adjust to demands for more open forms of government, for freedom from religious interference in secular affairs, for more humane attitudes towards the poor, the outcast, criminals and slaves, for a more rational organisation of political and social life. Each European nation responded to these demands in different ways, from the French insistence on the right of participation of all citizens in the political life of the nation to the ‘enlightened despotism’ of Catherine the Great and Joseph II. The Enlightenment was never, except among a restricted group of intellectuals, a single process. But by describing the various movements of which it was composed through Italian eyes, Venturi has provided his readers with a sense of how each of them can be read as a local response to a set of generalised ideological ambitions, even if some of these, like the term ‘Enlightenment’ itself, still elude adequate definition.

Those ambitions – and he has spent most of his life writing about them – were grounded in the belief shared by even the most radical of the philosophes that the virtuous life of the Roman Republic (or even that of Diderot’s Tahitian sages) could be achieved under a monarchy, even an absolute monarchy, if the monarch were prepared to commit himself to a rational and enlightened programme. Mercier’s futurist utopia conjured with the vision of a France in the year 2440 ruled over by a Louis XXXVI, who guaranteed for all his people an equal share in the civic life. By the end of the century, however, the enthusiasm raised by the apparent willingness of so many of Europe’s rulers to implement just such programmes had given way to a sense of the impending collapse of the ancien régime. As the Notizie del Mondo reported prophetically in 1783, ‘the crisis which faces Europe in the closing years of this century is certainly as great ... as any which one may read about in history.’ The final volumes of Settecento Riformatore deal with this crisis. Enlightened ministers in Spain and Portugal were driven from power by a revival of traditional values. The Netherlands, which had always been an important centre of diffusion for enlightened ideas, was plunged into revolt, as was the home of Rousseau’s ‘helvetic muse’, Geneva. Finally the world, essentially aristocratic and monarchical, which the men and women of the Enlightenment had struggled to improve collapsed in a revolution whose aim was to transform, not reform, society. It would be churlish to ask Venturi for more, but the somewhat old-fashioned decision to stop the work in 1789 leaves the reader to wonder just how Europe’s most perceptive political observers responded to an event which in so many ways brought an end to all the aspirations of the preceding decades.

Settecento Riformatore is simply the best account we have of the Enlightenment in Italy. Although he deals with only one, predominantly political, aspect of his subject, Venturi has succeeded in these volumes in establishing the importance for Europe, as well as the intrinsic fascination, of a diverse and complex cultural world which has been seen for too long through French eyes as a decadent corner of Europe that was never really able to sustain the achievement of its 15th-century renaissance. Few studies of the period make more than a passing reference to Italy. Beccaria, Muratori, Galiani, Giannone are sometimes mentioned because they were read in France and sometimes even wrote in French. But, for the most part, the Enlightenment is taken to be a French and possibly German affair, with English origins. Venturi’s massive work has done much to redress this balance: but it is still too little known outside Italy and unavailable in any language other than Italian. Is it too much to hope that some enlightened publisher might consider issuing at least an abridged English version?

In approach and in method, in how it conceives the historian’s task, in the very subjects it studies, Venturi’s history could not be more unlike Robert Darnton’s new book. Venturi is interested in how great events were understood by great, or at least highly articulate, minds. Darnton is concerned with apparently insignificant events – not the American Revolution but a slaughter of cats – and in what they meant to the poor, the peasant, the artisan, sometimes the policeman, or the bourgeois. Traditionally, of course, the Enlightenment has been viewed as the exclusive domain of a ‘high’ culture. If Aufklärung was, as Kant had famously asserted it to be, man’s newfound capacity to know himself, then its history was the history of those men and women, articulate, learned and always powerful, who could exploit that knowledge in pursuit of a set of ideas which, despite the battering they later received from Romanticism, still exercise a powerful hold over the modern imagination. The Enlightenment saw the birth of that much berated but still indispensable individual – the intellectual – and it is he, and the domain he is said to have inhabited as though it existed as a geographical reality, the ‘republic of letters’ with its salons and its cafés, which constitutes most people’s understanding of the Enlightenment. Darnton sees things rather differently.

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