A lofty beginning, thanks to Mme de Pompadour
Diderot worked for twenty-six years as the editor of the monumental French Encyclopédie, producing 17 volumes of text and 11 of illustrations published between 1751 and 1772. It summed up the world’s knowledge, but its writers also challenged the beliefs of the church and, less directly, the sovereignty of the King. The books were so controversial that the Encyclopédie’s publisher was jailed, though when the official censor sent his agents to raid the Encyclopédie offices, he always warned Diderot first.
Yet, the Encyclopédie was also breathtakingly magnificent. Over dinner at Le Trianon one evening, King Louis XV’s enlightened mistress Madame de Pompadour defended the radical books. I love poring over several reprinted volumes of the Encyclopédie, which I found at an open-air market in France. But even better, I love imagining Mme de Pompadour doing the same.
Below is Voltaire’s story about how the great lady used the Encyclopédie to learn about rouge, and how she convinced the King of the book’s beauty.
“One of Louis XV’s servants told me that one day, when the King was dining at Trianon with a small party, the conversation turned first to hunting and then to gunpowder. Someone said that the best powder was made of equal parts salt petre, sulfur, and charcoal. The Duc de La Vallière, who was better informed, maintained that to make good gunpowder you required one part sulfur, and one charcoal to five parts salt petre.
‘It is curious,’ said the Duc de Nivernois, ‘that we amuse ourselves every day in killing partridges at Versailles, and sometimes killing men, and getting killed ourselves on the front, without knowing precisely how the killing is done.’
‘Alas!’ said Madame de Pompadour, ‘we are all reduced to that about everything in the world. I don’t know how they compound the rouge I wear on my cheeks, and I should be vastly puzzled if any one were to ask me how my silk stockings are made.’
‘It’s a shame,’ said the Duc de La Vallière, ‘that his Majesty should have confiscated our Encyclopédies, which cost us a hundred pistoles apiece; we should soon find there an answer to all our questions.’
The King justified the confiscation; he had been warned that the twenty-one folios that were to be found on every lady’s dressing table were the most dangerous thing in the world for the kingdom of France; he wanted to see for himself whether this was true before allowing people to read the book. When supper was over, he sent for the book, and three lackeys came in, each staggering under the weight of seven volumes.
It was then seen from the article ‘Powder’ that the Duc de La Vallière was right, and soon Madame de Pompadour learned the difference between the old rouge of Spain with which the ladies of Madrid colored their cheeks and the rouge of the ladies of Paris. She found that the Greek and Roman ladies were painted with a purple that came from murex, and that, therefore, our scarlet is the purple of the ancients; that there was more saffron in the rouge of Spain and more cochineal in that of France. She saw how they made her stockings by loom, and the machine transported her with astonishment.
‘Oh! Beautiful book!’ cried she. ‘Sire, you have confiscated a perfect storehouse of useful things for yourself. If one possesses it, one has all the wisdom of your realm.’” —Voltaire, on the publication of Diderot’s famous encyclopedia.