French ‘salons’ in the 17th century

Madame de Rambouillet / en.wikipedia.org

Madame de Rambouillet / en.wikipedia.org

Aristocratic French ladies presided over salons invariably held in their extensive drawing rooms in the capital or at Versailles. Though all these ladies shared homes(with their husbands and children) in the countryside, they would never have dreamed of conjuring up such fashionable centres of cultured discourse in the rustic torpor of those dreamy chateaux. It was Paris, or Fontainebleau or Versailles for them.

The first of these grand ladies to encourage good conversation, literary criticism, political exchanges and other essentials of the intellectual life was Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet, actually born at the end of the 16th century (1588) who nearly reached the age of eighty before dropping off her perch (died 1665).

This woman presided over the salon which dominated the aristocratic life of seventeenth century Paris, at the Hôtel de Rambouillet. The great influence which these regular meetings held over upper-class French life cannot be under-estimated, not under-esteemed. They were the fashion between roughly 1620 and 1645, and the glittering rooms were filled by writer/playwrights such as Corneille and Molière, other salonistes like Madame de Sevigné, and radical clergymen like Bossuet.

Madame la Marquise ordered refined refreshments while the philosophical conversation flowed, refined and in good taste. Husbands were invited and expected to listen, even occasionally to utter. In almost all cases the mansions belonged to the men anyway, but the salons and what was said in them were feminine territory.

Catherine de Vivonne liked to be known by the descriptive sobriquet of précieuse, but this did not prevent naughty Molière from mocking her in his play Les Précieuses Ridicules. After this play was successfully produced on the Paris stage the playwright was invited to attend salons rather less. The poet and playwright Racine, born 1639, was too young to have attended, but one doubts if he would have received a gracious invitation, as he was considered too literal, too rough and ready, both in the literary sense and the physical.

Louis XIII, King of France during the salon period, was not known to attend, probably because he always took the advice of his chilly Minister the Cardinal Richelieu (q.v.) who thought the salons too full of feminine gossip to attend.

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