The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries .
Can art be taught? Certainly. The larger question is, can it be learnt? And if so, how?
Open any book on the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette or the French Revolution and the reader will invariably find one or two sentences recounting the grisly manner of the princesse de Lamballe’s death during the September massacres.
A constantly recurring theme throughout Voltaire’s œuvre is the intolerance exhibited by established religions and the barbarity that all too often follows on from that. Throughout his life he was haunted by the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants at the hands of Catholics. He described it in his epic poem La Henriade (1723), later complaining to Frederic the Great: ‘Croiriez-vous bien qu’on m’a reproché plus d’une fois d’avoir peint avec des couleurs trop odieuses la St Barthelemy?’ (letter of c.15 January 1737).