Paul-Louis Courier

Courrierist, lampooner, polemist
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to the Lettre to Mr Renouard, bookseller

The treasures of the Library of La Badia

Monastery of La Badia in Florence Monastery of La Badia in Florence

T he year of 1807 takes Artillery Captain Courier away from the dangers with which he had flirted, the previous year, during the relentless Calabrian guerilla warfare. During the summer, stationed at Naples, he is given orders to rejoin his regiment garrisoned at Verona. He postpones his departure because of back pain, fearing also he might again start to spit blood. Finally, on the 1st of December, he leaves for Rome where he spends some days to renew contacts with fellow scholars. On the 18th, he leaves the Eternal City for Florence. He reaches the city of the Medicis on December 20th and leaves it again on the 29th. Between these two dates, he visits, with a friend of his, Swedish philologist and archaeologist Jean David Akerblad, the monastery of La Badia, dependent on the mother abbey of the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino, where the relics of Saint Benoît are kept. This place of silence and study held in Florence a treasure for both visitors: a rich collection of ancient Greek manuscripts. Courier echoes the experience in the following Lettre to Mr Renouard:

L’abbaye de Florence, d’où vient dans l’origine ce texte de Longus, était connue dans toute l’Europe comme contenant les manuscrits les plus précieux qui existassent. Peu de gens les avaient vus ; car, pendant plusieurs siècles, cette bibliothèque resta inaccessible ; il n’y pouvait entrer que des moines, c’est-à-dire qu’il n’y entrait personne. La collection qu’elle renfermait, d’autant plus intéressante qu’on la connaissait moins, était une mine toute neuve à exploiter pour les savants ; c’était là qu’on eût pu trouver, non pas seulement un Longus, mais un Plutarque, un Diodore, un Polybe plus complets que nous ne les avons. J’y pénétrai enfin, comme je vous l’ai dit, avec M. Akerblad, quand le gouvernement français prit possession de la Toscane, et en une heure nous y vîmes de quoi ravir en extase tous les hellénistes du monde

Courier does not mention everything that happened during this hour. In particular, he does not say that, as Akerblad was admiring other works, such as one by Plutarque, his attention was attracted to a curious volume. The notebook contained 140 sheets divided into 280 pages transcribed in the hand of a single monk five or six centuries earlier.
The notebook is still visible at the Florence Library; it gathers twenty-three Greek works including an edition of Aesop’s Fables, carrying the number 21. It was the one Francesco del Furia1, prefect (i.e. director) of the San Lorenzo Library2, had been editing for several years. The volume also contained letters from the Greek emperor Théodore Lascaris, epistles from Saint Athanase, Saint Grégoire of Naziance and Saint Basile, and so-called « erotic » novels3.
Courier leafs through the volume, and lingers some time on number 13: he has in front of him the Pastoralia of Daphnis and Chloé by Longus, a work that was familiar to him for some time, mainly because the first-rate Hellenist d’Ansse de Villoison, Courier’s professor of Greek for a time, had given in 1778 a translation of these Pastoralia.
Periodically, from September 1808 until January, Courier in Florence puts the final touches to a translation of two treatises by Xenophon: Du commandement de la cavalerie (On cavalry commandment) and De l’équitation (On Horsemanship). Before his stay in Florence, interrupted by his army duties, Akerblad had warned him about a worrying matter. Upon his return the Badia, the Swede had gotten a rotten surprise: several works he had seen during his first visit with Courier were not there anymore. The comparison with the general catalogue dispelled the slightest doubt. How had such embezzlements been possible?
Faithful to the politics of the French revolution, a Napoleonic decree on the 12th of May 1807 had closed down the monasteries and convents of Tuscany.
From this moment on, the Church, dispossessed of all its treasures, intellectual and other, conceived an inevitable resentment. Some clerics did not want to stop there. Monks took advantage of the slowness of the French administration and under the leadership of the curator, Father Bigi, they undertook to have several works discreetly taken out of the Badia in order to tear them away from French’s clutch.
Akerblad informed Courier about this fact, and he in turn warned the baron Fauchet4, government commissioner in Florence, on September 30th, 1808:

Bibliothèque San Lorenzo à Florence Bibliothèque San Lorenzo à Florence

Les ordres que j’ai reçus m’ont obligé de partir si précipitamment, que j’eus à peine le temps de porter chez vous ma carte […] j’avais dessein […] de profiter des dispositions favorables où je vous voyais pour rassembler et sauver ce qui se peut encore trouver de précieux dans vos bibliothèques de moines. Mais puisque mon service m’empêche de partager cette bonne œuvre, je veux au moins y contribuer par mes prières. Je vous conjure donc de vouloir bien ordonner que tous les manuscrits de l’abbaye soient transportés à la Bibliothèque de Saint-Laurent, et qu’on cherche ceux qui manquent d’après le catalogue existant

Library of San Lorenzo in Florence Library of San Lorenzo in Florence

When Courier had left again to fulfill his military duty, the French authorities finally reacted. A committee, managed by Tommaso Puccini55 assisted by Furia, in charge of appraising the collections in libraries of the Badia and of St Marc’s convent, of which Akerblad was a member, visited the suspicious places on December 1st, 1828. The following day the Swede reported the inspection to Courier in writing:
Hier nous avons fait la fameuse descente domiciliaire chez les bénédictins, pour nous emparer de leurs manuscrits, mais ils nous ont prévenus ces gaillards ; 26 des plus précieux manuscrits ont disparu et entre autres le beau Plutarque que nous avons vu et dont vous devez vous rappeler. L’abbé du couvent est innocent de ce vol, j’en suis sûr, et le bibliothécaire, ce petit père Bigi, au regard faux, est à ne pas en douter le voleur. Il dépend de nous de le faire pendre ; nous n’avons qu’à attester d’avoir vu entre ses mains un seul des manuscrits qui manquent ; mais je vous avoue que je suis bon chrétien et je ne veux pas la mort du pécheur. D’ailleurs il me semble cruel de pendre un pauvre diable pour avoir volé une vingtaine de bouquins

Courier discovered these lines not without anxiety. However, the end of Akerblad’s letter reassured him: the notebook with the Longus text was still there6 and had been kept in a safe place with all that remained of the Badia’s collection, at the St Laurent Library

An incredible affair

A t the beginning of July, 1809, Courier leaves the army. After some months of rest in Switzerland, he goes back to Italy. The 13th of October, from Milan, he writes to Etienne Clavier, his stepfather-to-be and a specialist of Pausanias, a letter that begins in the following manner:

[…] je serai à Florence un mois, à Rome tout l’hiver, et je vous rendrai bon compte des manuscrits de Pausanias. Il n’y a bouquin en Italie où je ne veuille perdre la vue pour l’amour de vous et du grec. Je fouillerai aussi pour mon compte dans les manuscrits de l’abbaye de Florence. Il y avait là du bon pour vous et pour moi, dans une centaine de volumes du neuvième et du dixième siècle ; il en reste ce qui n’a pas été vendu par les moines : peut-être y trouverai-je votre affaire. Avec le Chariton de Dorville est un Longus que je crois entier ; du moins n’y ai-je point vu de lacune quand je l’examinai ; mais, en vérité, il faut être sorcier pour le lire

Library of San Lorenzo in Florence Library of San Lorenzo in Florence

These words show that he had noticed in December of 1807 that this copy of Longus’ Pastorales was complete. Familiar with the novel, he was aware at once of the completeness of the manuscript, unlike those known in Europe up until now. All of the others were incomplete, but not this one. At the time, he did not say a word to anybody, not even to the friend there with him. Once discharged from « his vile profession », he can finally dedicate himself to the loves of Daphnis and Chloé.
Courier leaves Milan on October 27th. In Bologna, he meets up with Parisian publisher and librarian, Antoine Renouard whom he has known for ages. He confides in him about his decision to do a new translation of Longus’ novel; the man understands the importance of the project and he commits himself to publishing the Greek text and the French translation as soon as the ambitious work is finished.
On Sunday, the 5th of November, Courier and Renouard walk into the Laurentian Library. Courier asks Furia to see the notebook again. Furia complies. Armed with a Greek version of the Longus laid down by Louis Dutens, Courier goes at once to the pages of the Pastorales. He compares the precious manuscript with the document he brought and immediately shows to San Lorenzo’s director that where other manuscripts have a lacuna, this one contains a passage unknown until now. The amazement of the Italian librarian! He had had, day after day, over the course of several years, the manuscript in his hands in order to publish some months before the two volumes of the translation of the Fables of Esope, and he had not been aware of anything. His assistant, the abbot Saspero Bencini, is equally astounded by Courier’s find that had escaped both of them. For his part, Renouard is delighted and, not without jubilation, reveals to a mute Furia his intention to print the Longus.
Once the publisher has left, the following day, Courier and Furia meet in the library. They start to collate the manuscript. It is a laborious and hard task because the handwriting of the monk, as small as as it is cramped, is unreadable. The strain is continuous, the discussions long. The two librarians, used to the writing of the anonymous monk, decipher the original while Courier transcribes on a sheet what they dictate to him. When the readers trip over a word or a passage, the writer leaves a space in the line before continuing. From time to time, the Frenchman goes to the original, and being the better Hellenist and the most familiar with Longus, guesses what had not been deciphered by his companions; under his dictation, one or the other Italian fills in the lacks. Thus the copy will be made by three different hands: those of Courier, Furia and Bencini. Library of San Lorenzo in Florence Library of San Lorenzo in Florence

On November 8th, Courier is received by the baron Fauchet who depends not on the princess Elisa but on the Minister of the Interior. It is likely he tells him about his enterprise.
Then the fateful 10th of November arrives. The work is almost finished, and its trickiest part, that is the deciphering and the transcribing of the traditionally missing section, is now but a memory. The manuscript is closed, on the table. The Frenchman is alone; after twenty minutes, the two Italians join him. He gives the closed notebook to Furia for him to put it away in his office. The director notices a sheet sticking out of the manuscript, probably a bookmark. He opens the notebook to remove the paper and realizes that the sheet is covered with ink and remains stuck to the page of the manuscript where it lays. And it happens that it is the spot of the text that completes the missing passage. Later on, on the 5th of February of 1810, Furia will send to Domenico Valeriani7 an open letter or lampoon summarizing the whole story and accusing Courier of the worst base acts8. Here is what he reports about the unfortunate event:
A cet horrible spectacle, mon sang se glaça dans mes veines ; et, durant plusieurs instants, voulant crier, voulant parler, ma voix s’arrêta dans mon gosier ; un frisson glacé s’empara de mes membres stupides. Enfin, l’indignation succédant à la douleur : qu’avez-vous fait ! m’écriai-je ; quelle est la cause de ce malheur ? Il me répondit qu’il ne pouvait pas l’expliquer ; que, comme moi, il en était surpris, et qu’il n’en pouvait donner d’autre raison, si ce n’est qu’ayant ce jour-là remué l’encre avec les barbes de la plume pour la rendre plus fluide, et qu’ayant, par mégarde, jeté cette plume ainsi imprégnée sur la table, où se trouvaient des papiers, un de ceux-ci s’était taché par le contact de la plume et avait été ensuite placé comme marque dans le manuscrit

Asked by the director of the Laurentian Library to shoulder the responsibility for the accident, Courier gave him this note written and signed in his hand: This piece of paper, accidentally placed inside the manuscript as a bookmark, happened to be ink-stained; the fault lies with me who did this blunder.
In witness whereof I have signed

Florence, November 10th, 1809


So started the affair of the inkblot.
The day after the accident and independently of it, an article written by Renouard before the incident came out in the Gazetta Universale:

La découverte faite à Florence intéressera également les érudits et les amateurs de lectures plus légères. Le premier livre du roman de Longus qui raconte les amours de Daphnis et Chloé perdait son plus grand intérêt à cause de la lacune considérable qui s’y trouve, et qu’Amyot a laissé subsister dans sa traduction. Annibal Caro9 a composé en italien un supplément peu apprécié des Italiens eux-mêmes. Cette lacune est à présent comblée. Un manuscrit grec très ancien, actuellement conservé à la Bibliothèque laurentienne et qui se trouvait autrefois à la Badia de Florence, contient, entre autres l’œuvre de Longus ; l’écriture est si compliquée, et les caractères sont si petits, qu’ils sont difficiles à déchiffrer ; mais le premier livre est complet et le manuscrit offre dans son ensemble de très intéressantes variantes. C’est monsieur Courier, ancien officier d’artillerie, qui a fait cette heureuse découverte lors de son séjour à Florence avec monsieur Renouard, libraire […] [qui] a l’intention, dès son retour à Paris de publier immédiatement le fragment inédit avec la traduction française de monsieur Courier ; par la suite, il donnera le texte tout entier

On November 12th, Renouard is back in Florence. He goes at once to the Library to find out the state of affairs. Let us let him relate the continuation of this soap opera:

de retour le 12 novembre à Florence, où je n’avais à rester que douze heures seulement, je cours à la Laurentiane visiter MM. Les bibliothécaires et M. Courier. J’y trouve ce dernier avec M. Bencini, sous-bibliothécaire ; je les vois chagrins ; ils me montrent le manuscrit de Longus, et m’apprennent que la surveille, pendant une courte interruption de travail, une feuille de papier placée par inadvertance dans le manuscrit, y était restée collée, parce que cette feuille s’était trouvée fortement tachée d’encre en dessous. Je considère avec un chagrin aussi vif qu’amer cette malheureuse feuille collée tout à travers, et cachant tout une page qui était justement celle du morceau inédit. […] Je demande la permission de la décoller, afin de reconnaître l’étendue du dommage, et d’aviser à le diminuer, à le réparer, s’il était possible. M. Bencini m’engage à attendre l’arrivée du bibliothécaire en chef, M. Furia, qui effectivement ne tarde pas à venir. […] en sa présence, avec un peu de dextérité, animé par le désir de réparer le mal que je n’avais ni fait ni occasionné, mais qui cependant ne m’en chagrinait pas moins vivement, je parviens à détacher cette feuille, en la déchirant par morceaux ; et j’achève avec un plein succès cette petite opération10

After this success, Renouard claims that Furia asked Courier for a copy of the stained fragment. The publisher encouraged him to do so in order to help dissipate the dark clouds accumulating between the still civilized protagonists. He also sought another copy from his friend in order to print it as soon as possible in Paris.
That evening, among other guests, the two Frenchmen are welcomed to dine at the home of the baron Fauchet at the Médicis Palace11. At the end of the meal, the conversation turns to the discovery of the Longus. The host, who quickly understands the stakes of the venture, suggests right away to Courier that the Princess Elisa Bacciochi be honored in the best possible way: « You must dedicate this to the princess; she will accept your dedication ». As at each one of the major moments of his life, Courier proves to be a bad sycophant: he refuses. The baron doesn’t take offence, but the Princess Elisa will soon enough be informed of this lack of respect for her person.

In Rome, Akerblad learns from Courier that he is in Florence, and from the painter Gaspare Landi the incredible discovery at the Laurentian. On November 25th, he writes to his friend:

[…] M. Landi, dans une lettre qu’il m’a écrite il y a quelques jours, me parle d’une découverte que vous avez faite de quelques morceaux inédits de Longus, et d’une entreprise littéraire formée entre vous et M. Renouard sur cette découverte. Voilà ce qui s’appelle bien débuter au moins, et le pauvre Furia doit être furieux de voir un Welch venir pondre dans son nid

Contrite, Furia invites a renowned Italian chemist, the professor Gazzeri, to try and fade the inkblot in order to regain access to the stained text. In spite of several attempts, the specialist doesn’t succeed.
Akerblad was right: furious Furia, left in his library !
And everybody doing their own thing, Renouard, naïve, gone back to Paris, Courier, impassive then terrible, still taken up by the translation and printing of the Greek text of Longus!

From skirmishes to the outburst

D id Furia, piqued to see « un Welch venir pondre dans son nid », look for a pretext to open hostilities? The fact is that, having found natural support among many men of letters, Tuscan and otherwise, who do not much appreciate the occupying forces, he attacks the two Frenchmen both directly and indirectly. He accuses them of being in cahoots in order to seize the found fragment. On the 23rd of January, 1810, the Corriere Milanese makes the first of a long string of attacks in an unsigned article: Here, recently, an act of vandalism has been committed which proves how cupidity may blind, regarding literature’s true interests, the very men who proclaim to contribute to its progress

And so the newspaper accuses the librajo francese whose name it does not reveal of being the author of this tratto vandalico (act of vandalism), that is to say of having deliberately smudged the Longus manuscript in order to remain the only owner of the sole copy of an irreparably soiled original.
On the 5th of February, in his long lampoon, Furia attacks the two Frenchmen whom he accuses openly of having fomented their crime so as to benefit from it alone. In his long narration, he gives himself a nice role in the discovery of the fragment:

A peine m’eut-il [Courier] fait part de son intention, que, tout transporté, je lui indiquai le manuscrit de l’abbaye florentine où se trouvent, parmi les autres érotiques, les Pastorales de Longus ; je présume, lui dis-je, que la lacune n’existe pas dans cette copie qui est de la plus haute ancienneté, et qui n’a encore, que je sache, été consultée par personne.

An extract of the Pastoral of Daphnis and Chloe An extract of the Pastoral of Daphnis and Chloe

The next day, the publisher writes to Courier from Paris to ask him when he can get the found fragment. He also shares with him his indignation at discovering the article in Corriere Milanese. He informs him that he exposed to the prefect Fauchet the direction the matter had taken and his own reaction faced with reading this web of false accusations. His procedure with Arno’s prefect bears its fruits. The following days, Furia and his assistant publish a retraction to the article that had offended Renouard.
On February 23rd, from Rome, Akerblad entreats Courier to disprove the rumours around him in Tuscany: Since your last letter, I hear people talk a lot about you, and to tell you the truth, in such a way to make almost fall out with the persons who gave me news of you […] Besides, why don’t you keep your friends informed of your affairs ?…

The honest Renouard reiterates his request on March 10th. He would like to get the fragment and asks Courier to refute the Corriere Milanese. He does not know that the latter has finished his translation and devotes himself to sending it to his Hellenist friends in Paris and to other people with whom gets on well. In April, he himself receives a copy with a missive:

J’ai reçu, monsieur, vos deux lettres relatives à la tache d’encre. Je ne vois plus M. Fauchet ; mais je doute fort qu’il voulût entrer pour rien dans cette affaire. Vous comprenez que chacun évite de se compromettre avec la canaille. C’est le seul nom qu’on puisse donner à l’espèce de gens qui aboient contre nous. Pour moi je ne m’en aperçois même pas. […] Je déclarerai quand vous voudrez que moi tout seul j’ai fait la fatale tache d’encre et que je n’ai point eu de complices

Renouard then realizes he has been fooled by Courier. He forgets his project to publish the Longus but he goes back on the offensive so that Courier clears him of any kind of accusation of having had any responsibility in the affair of the ink stain.

Months pass. The Publisher, having moved heaven and earth for no result, decides to defend his honor and publishes on the 5th of July of 1810 a Notice sur une nouvelle édition de la traduction française de Longus, par Amyot, et sur la découverte d’un fragment grec de cet ouvrage.
(Note about a new edition of the French translation of Longus, by Amyot, and on the discovery of a Greek fragment of this work)

Le 12 décembre, j’arrive à Paris ; point de fragment ; j’attends, j’écris, je récris, rien ne vient : je finis par ne plus écrire ; et enfin, dans le mois d’avril, je reçois par la poste, non pas le fragment grec, mais un exemplaire de l’entière traduction française d’Amyot, réimprimée à Florence, avec le fragment traduit et remis à sa place [..] Il m’a fallu du courage pour surmonter le dégoût de poser ma langue sur ce feuillet tant de fois palpé par ces messieurs. C’est la plaie d’un malade que je suce, me disais-je en moi-même pendant cette répugnante corvée

And he delivers his blows to Furia without sparing Courier.
On the 25th of July, the police seizes the translated copies of the Longus that Courier had left with his Florentin publisher.
Some days later, the Corriere Milanese, which started the affair, blamed by Renouard’s Notice, recounts from its own perspective the whole affair from A to Z. In a long article dated July 31st, he stands his ground and lays the blame strongly on the Parisian publisher as well as on Longus’ translator.
The controversy, aired in public and added to the lack of consideration for the princess Elisa, leads the Minister of the Interior to intervene. An open-minded man of culture, the Count of Montalivet is going to calm things down by getting Paul-Louis to deliver a copy of the fragment to the Laurentian Library.

Things could have stopped there. But Courier’s pride has been injured. Free of any pressures, still in Italy, he takes up his pen in September – and what a pen! – to refute the elements of the affair and to give his truth. It will be his first public polemical writing, which he will entitle:
Lettre à M. Renouard, libraire, sur une tache faite à un manuscrit de Florence.
(Letter to Mr Renouard, bookseller, about a stain left on a manuscript of Florence)

In 1821, he writes Avertissement sur la Lettre à M. Renouard (Foreword to the letter to Mr Renouard) intended to help the reader understand the whole affair.

Sources :
Geneviève Viollet-le-Duc
Jean-René Vieillefond

[1] Del Furia maintained a judicious relationship with Courier. The prefect of the San Lorenzo Library knew it was better to carefully handle the French officer who probably benefited from high- level connections.  Note1
[2] Founded by Côme l’Ancien, extended by Laurent le Magnifique, the Laurentian Library adjoins the church of San Lorenzo where lies the Medicis’sepulchre.  Note2
[3] Only two in number, these novels are named « erotic », a word which would make one smile today in this 21st century accustomed to far more torrid productions; the majority of the volume is dedicated to questions of religion, such that these love novels strike us as out of place.  Note3
[4] Cf. Avertissement sur la Lettre à M. Renouard, note 3.  Note4
[5] Id. note 4.  Note5
[6] This is because del Furia and his assistant were working daily with the volume.  Note6
[7] Domenico Valeriani was a prominent person in Florence. He had strongly attacked Champollion and « the new science » of hieroglyphs before making amends.  Note7
[8] Della Scoperta, e subitanea perdita di una Parte inedita del primo Libro de Pastorali di Longo, fatta in un Codice dell’Abbazia Fiorentina, ora esistente nella Pubblica Imp. Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana that is to say Both the discovery and sudden loss of an unknown part of the First Book of Longus’ Pastorales, occurred in a copy of the Florentine abbey which is in the « Mediceo-laurentian » Library.  Note8
[9] Famous writer, Annibale Caro (1507-1566) was the secretary Pier Luigi Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, then Cardinals Ranuccio and Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III), brother and son of the former respectively. They gave him lots of benefits. We owe him an Italian translation of the Aeneid, regarded as a masterpiece, translations of Aristotle's Rhetoric and Pastoral Longus, poems, letters. His works were collected in Venice, 1757 6 vol. in-8, and Milan, in 1806 and 1829, 8 vols. 8vo. His letters were published later.  Note9
[10] Instructions on a new edition…  Note10
[11] Cf. the beginning of Avertissement…  Note11


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