Last week, I took a trip to Strasbourg, France, in search of Voltaire. Using Lettres D’Alsace as my guide, a compilation of 100 letters he wrote to his niece Madame Denis during the time he lived in Strasbourg, I searched for the 18th century Alsatian architecture and culture which inspired Voltaire while he wrote Philosophical Dictionary.
In his Lettres (1754-55), Voltaire is approaching the age of sixty and a fundamental change begins to take place in his life. He had recently been exiled by his friend and fellow philosopher, Frederick the Great of Prussia, which led to an internal battle between enlightenment and dealing with the political oppression which surrounded him; specifically, the torture at Calais and the execution of La Barre. These horrific events goaded Voltaire into action against intolerance and persecution of his fellow countrymen. Voltaire couldn’t understand how a society that claimed to worship God and live in accordance with the tenets of Christianity could live as brutal beasts.
Voltaire would crusade for humanity and justice in his next project, Philosophical Dictionary. These writings were quite a shift from his previous scientific and literary writings as these were more journalistic in nature. He wrote the Dictionary as a little book to be “carried in the pocket as a work of ready reference in sharp contrast with the massive effort of Diderot’s Encyclopedia” (xviii). He would continue to work on this project over the next 20 years.
In Strasbourg, Voltaire could work in an environment unhampered by persecution of the state. Voltaire wrote :
” À Strasbourg, j’ai tranquillement travaillé cinq heures par jour au même ouvrage ». [In Strasbourg, I can work quietly for five hours a day on the same book.]
In his letters to Madame Denis, Voltaire recounts of his many liasons with friends and acquaintances from Strasbourg: Mr. Gayot, Mr. de Malzerbe, Mr Gaiot, Mrs de la Reinière, M. Bouret, Mr d’Argental, and Mr de Laleu. Perhaps these friends were also inspiration for his rich characters in Candide!
Unfortunately, Voltaire doesn’t mention any street names in Strasbourg. He does mention street names in Paris so I know they existed at that time. In fact, he is very insistent that his niece visit the Libraire Hérrissant on rue Saint Jacques in Paris to give the printer his Histoire cronologique d’Allemagne.(I looked for this printing house last week which was on the corner of rue Parcheminerie by the Pantheon, but it no longer exists.)
So, what actual clues and landmarks do I have from Voltaire’s Lettres of his stay in Strasbourg?
I know that he spent much of his time at the Chateau de l’île Jard (could not find), the Chateau de Schwetzingen (in Baden, Germany), L’hotel de l’Ours Blanc with Professor Schaepflin, and L’Abbaye de Sémenes (in Vosges). I know that he spent time in the cathedrals (Notre Dame?), the gardens (the 18th century Pourtalès or perhaps the l’Orangerie) and daily strolls through the “la ville”.
Based upon the history of Strasbourg from the 15th-18th century, these were the landmarks in place that he possibly saw as a flaneur:
Saint Thomas cathedral (1521), Christkindelsmarik (Christmas Market, 1570), the Astronomical clock in the Notre Dame (1574), the Grosse Metzig (1588), l’Université de Strasbourg and the Jardin botanique (1619), Barrage Vauban (1690), Opera house (1701), l’Hôtel de Klinglin (1736), and the Palais Rohan (1742, ten years before Voltaire’s arrival).
Voltaire would have already returned to Paris by the time Goethe (1771) and Mozart (1778) would arrive in Strasbourg.
Voltaire also spent time at the University of Strasbourg with History Professor Sheffling (p. 83) or Shafling (p.111). I’m not sure why the spelling is different! The Lutheran German University of Strasbourg was founded in 1538 and today has over 51,000 students. The city of Strasbourg was annexed by France in 1681. Voltaire attended the lectures of Professor Shafling often at the university and even spoke on occasion.
As I am currently reading the Philosophical Dictionary, I continue my search for Voltaire in my hometown of Strasbourg; the energy of his mind and his art. Voltaire is a symbol of an era of European thought. I am glad he came to stay for a while!
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Voltaire: Lettres D’Alsace A Sa Niece Madame Denis. (1938). Paris: Librarie Gallimard