Manners improved while morals declined. Catherine de Médicis had brought Italian politeness with her, a sense of beauty, a taste for elegance, a refinement in appointments and dress. Brantôme thought her court the finest that had ever been, “a veritable earthly Paradise,” sparkling with “at least three hundred ladies and damoiselles”12 dressed to the height of taxation. French court ceremonial, established by Francis I, now displaced the Italian as the model of Europe. Henry III created the office of Grand Master of the Ceremonies of France and issued an edict detailing the ritual and protocol of court behavior, specifying the persons who were to be admitted to the king’s presence, the manner of addressing him, of serving him at his rising, his toilette, his meals, and his retiring, who might accompany him on his walks or hunts, who might attend the court balls. Henry III, timid and finicky, insisted on these rules; Henry IV violated them freely, Louis XIII ignored them, Louis XIV expanded them into a liturgy rivaling High Mass.
Court dress became increasingly costly and ornate. Marshal de Bassompierre wore a coat made of cloth of gold, laden with pearls weighing fifty pounds and costing fourteen thousand écus.13 Marie de Médicis at the baptism of her son wore a robe covered with three thousand diamonds and thirty-two thousand other precious stones.14 A courtier considered himself poor unless he had twenty-five costumes of divers styles. Sumptuary laws were numerous and soon ignored. One, issued by Henry IV, forbade “all inhabitants of this kingdom to wear either gold or silver on their clothes, except prostitutes and thieves,”15 but even this clever correlation failed. Preachers complained about the calculated risk that ladies took in only partly covering their curves; if we may believe Montaigne, who was not often guilty of wishful thinking, “our ladies (dainty-nice though they be) are many times seen to go open-breasted as low as the navel.”16 To accentuate white skin or rosy cheeks, women began in the seventeenth century to adorn them with spots or patches which the prosaic called mouches, or flies. They stiffened stays with whalebone and spread their hoopskirts with wire. They tossed their hair up in a dozen tempting shapes. Men wore theirs in long and flowing curls, and crowned themselves with broad hats gaily plumed. Louis XIII, becoming prematurely bald, made the wig fashionable. The sexes rivaled each other in vanity.
Their fine manners did not deter them from eating with their fingers. Even in the nobility forks did not replace fingers before 1600, hardly before 1700 in other ranks. A fashionable restaurant, La Tour d’Argent, where Henry III dined on his way back from the hunt, achieved fame by supplying forks. Already in the seventeenth century the French were eating frogs and snails. Wine was their favorite drink. Coffee was coming into use, but was not yet indispensable. Chocolate had come in through Spain from Mexico; some physicians condemned it as an inopportune laxative; others prescribed it for venereal disease; Mme. de Sévigné told of a pregnant lady who indulged in it so immoderately that she gave birth to a charming little blackamoor—un petit garçon noir comme le diable.17
The improvement in manners was reflected in transportation and amuseraments. Public coaches were now common in Western Europe, and in France the well-to-do began to move about in splendid carrosses equipped with curtains and glass. Tennis was the rage, and dancing claimed all classes. The stately pavane came in from Spain, taking its name from the Spanish for peacock—pavo; its proud and graceful evolutions gave it an aristocratic flair, and the kissing that was part of it helped to circulate the blood. Under Catherine de Médicis the ballet became the crown of court entertainments, combining music and the dance to tell a tale in verse or pantomime; her loveliest ladies took part, in costumes and settings artistically designed; one such ballet was performed in the Tuileries on the day after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
Musicians were the heroes of the passing hour. They exercised such fascination on the French that one courtier, at a concert in 1581, clapped his hand on his sword and swore that he must challenge the first man he met; thereupon the conductor led his orchestra into a gentle strain that soothed the savage breast.18 The lute was still the favorite instrument, but in 1555 Balthazar de Beaujoyeux, the first famous violinist in history, brought a band of violinists to Catherine’s court and made violin music popular. In 1600 Ottavio Rinuccini followed Marie de Médicis into France and introduced there the idea of opera. Singing was still the favorite music, and Père Mersenne rightly judged that no other sound in nature could match the beauty of a woman’s voice.19
Music, literature, fine manners, and cultured conversation now came together in one of the most basic contributions of France to civilization—the salon. Italy, alma mater of modern arts, had shown the way in such urbane gatherings as those ascribed to Urbino in Castiglione’s Courtier; it was from Italy that the salon—like the violin, the château, ballet, opera, and syphilis—came to France. Its founder in France was born in Rome (1588) to Jean de Vivonne, French ambassador to the papacy, and Giulia Savelli, an Orsini heiress. Catherine de Vivonne received an education exceptional for a girl of the sixteenth century. At twelve she was married to Charles d’Angennes, who, as Marquis of Rambouillet, held high office under Henry IV and Louis XIII. The young Marquise complained that French speech and manners fell short of the Italian in correctness and courtesy, and she noted with disapproval the separation between the intellectual classes—poets, scholars, scientists, savants—and the nobility. In 1618 she designed for her family the Hôtel de Rambouillet in the Rue St.-Thomas-du-Louvre in Paris. One room was hung with panels of blue velvet bordered with silver and gold; in this spacious salon blew the Marquise received her guests in what became the most celebrated salon in history. She took care to invite men and women of congenial manners but diverse interests: nobles like the Great Condé and La Rochefoucauld, ecclesiastics like Richelieu and Huet, generals like Montausier and Bassompierre, highborn dames like the Princess of Conti, the duchesses of Longueville and Rohan, lettered ladies like Mmes. de La Fayette and de Sévigné and MIle. de Scudéry, poets like Malherbe, Chapelain, and Guez de Balzac, scholars like Conrart and Vaugelas, wits like Voiture and Scarron. Here Bossuet preached a sermon at the age of twelve, and Corneille read his plays. Here aristocrats learned to take interest in language, science, scholarship, poetry, music, and art; men learned from women the graces of courtesy; authors learned to hide their vanity, savants to humanize their erudition; wit rubbed elbows with pedigrees; correct speech was debated and acquired, and conversation became an art.
The Marquise managed these lions and tigers with a tact that painlessly trimmed their claws. Despite bearing seven children, she kept her beauty long enough to inspire passion in Voiture and Malherbe, who, being poets, kindled into flame at every smile; despite these fires she was respected by all for her fidelity to her dull husband; despite ill health, she gave her guests an example of good cheer and sprightly intelligence; despite losing two sons to death and three daughters to religion, she silenced her melancholy till she wrote her epitaph. In an age of sexual license and untamed speech she spread about her a contagion of manners and decency. Good taste—bon ton, good tone—became a passport to her salon. Marshals and poets left their swords and shafts in the vestibule; politeness turned the edge of difference; discussion flourished, dispute was banned.
At last the refinement was carried to excess. The Marquise drew up a code of correctness in speech and deed; those who practiced it too precisely were called précieux or précieuses; and in 1659, when the Marquise was retired and solitary, Molière pounced upon these fanciful residues of her art and finished them off with ridicule. But even the excess had its use; the précieuses helped to clear the meaning and connotations of words and phrases, to cleanse the language of provincialisms, bad grammar, and pedantry; here in germ was the French Academy. In the Hôtel de Rambouillet Malherbe, Conrart, and Vaugelas developed those principles of literary taste that led to Boileau and the classic age. The précieuses contributed to that analysis of the passions which elongated the romances and lured Descartes and Spinoza; they helped to embroider the relations of the sexes with that strategy of retreat, and consequent idealization of the elusive treasure, which made for romantic love. Through this and the later salons French history became more than ever bisexual. The status of women rose; their influence increased in literature, language, politics, and art. The respect for knowledge and intellect increased, and the sense of beauty spread.
But would the salons and the Academy have made Rabelais impossible? Would they have closed the French mind to the gay physiology, the easy ethic, the proliferating pedantry of Montaigne? Or would they have forced and raised these geniuses to a subtler and higher art?
We have gone too far forward. Montaigne was twenty-six years dead when Mme. de Rambouillet opened her salon. Let us turn back in our course and listen for an hour to the greatest writer and thinker of France in this age.