THE FRENCHMAN: Is it true that your Sultan can marry hundreds of wives who are kept in a forbidden place known as a ‘harem’, to which, apart from the Sultan himself, only eunuchs have access, men whom our Voltaire describes as chaponnés? Is it true that their job is to keep the harem tidy, to sort out squabbles between inmates, and to make sure that whichever wife the Sultan has chosen for the night is epilated, bathed and perfumed ready for her master’s bed? Is it also true that only one wife is permitted to bear the children that will constitute the royal bloodline?
A popular book on space exploration and the long-term future of a spacefaring humankind is not a place where one would immediately think of finding quotations by Voltaire. But Pale Blue Dot by the famous US astronomer Carl Sagan is inspired by Voltaire’s writings in several places.
The problem of money has never been far from people’s minds. In the Enlightenment the issue took on new importance as a result of a series of famous crises.
It isn’t always possible to know what prompted Voltaire to write a particular text. The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares appear to be the response from one armchair traveller and great China admirer, Voltaire (or his young Benedictine alter ego), to another armchair traveller and China detractor, Cornelius de Pauw, author of Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois (Berlin, 1773).
2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV, the Sun King, whose reign (1643-1715) defined the era of the 'Grand Siècle' and saw France rise to become the dominant player on the European stage. The Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with the Château de Versailles, is preparing to publish Voltaire's seminal account of his reign, Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) to coincide with this anniversary.
‘Mais le voilà donc ce prétendu égoïste, cet homme dur, cet impitoyable misanthrope, que ses lâches ennemis déchirent plus que jamais après sa mort!’ (Mirabeau to Marie Thérèse Sophie Richard de Ruffey, marquise de Monnier, on the subject of Rousseau’s acts of kindness during his lifetime.)
Sometimes the Voltaire Foundation’s infamous ‘yellow folders’ throw up complete mysteries! The job of the researcher thus resembles that of the detective. And just as detectives now use technology, the advances of digital humanities allow researchers to investigate cold cases by previously unavailable means.
For some decades now an incongruous mix of tourists and Italian schoolchildren have been milling around the once quiet interior of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. In the eighteenth century this was the place where a group of young French artists frequently attended mass.