"The mad carnival
of vice and frivolity"

Illustration by ZACH TRENHOLM

A brief history of Salons


He was a remarkably ugly man who wandered the streets and marketplaces of Athens barefoot, clad in a common cloak. His vocation was conversation, and in pursuit of it he talked endlessly to people of all stations, drawing them out, patiently leading them to discover the blind spots and unexplored contradictions in their beliefs. His dialogues, recorded by a disciple who went on to make something of a name for himself, form the cornerstone of Western philosophy. The groups that gathered around Socrates -- under trees, at dinner parties, in the streets, in prison -- cannot exactly be called Salons, yet they embody their noblest essence: the search for knowledge through conversation with others.

At about the same time that Socrates was holding his conversations with the males of Athens, a Salon-like circle was gathered around Aspasia, the mistress of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. Aspasia belonged to the class of foreign, educated women -- in status somewhere between a lady and a prostitute -- known as hetaerae or "companions." In the Menexenus, Socrates praises her as "an excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric." Aspasia (her name means "Welcome") was the first of a long and illustrious line of women who have headed Salons, and she introduces a recurring theme in Salon history: a heady mixture of lofty rhetoric and sexual energy. Without erotic intrigue, it is unlikely that so many 17th-century men and women of, uh, affairs would have sacrificed their evenings to debates over Racine's prosody. That the Internet has become an instrument of disembodied seduction is strictly in the finest Salon tradition.

Indeed, it was an intellectual dispute about sexuality that lay behind one of history's stranger Salons, the medieval "Court of Love" founded at the hotel d'Artois in Paris in 1401 by the duke of Burgundy. The aristocracy flocked to the duke's whimsical but serious court, which defended the cause of chaste chivalry against the sensual 13th-century allegory Roman de la Rose. Its 700 members, who took playfully grandiose titles like "The Prince of Love," devoted themselves, as Salon enthusiasts have throughout history, to literary and rhetorical pursuits: composing songs and poems and conducting mock-legal debates about chivalric love.

Without erotic intrigue, it is unlikely that so many 17th-century men and women of, uh, affairs would have sacrificed their evenings to debates over Racine's prosody.

The ferment of the Renaissance produced an upsurge of gatherings devoted to the life of the mind, including the Florentine Platonic Academy, led by the great humanist Ficino; numerous German literary clubs; Dutch chambers of rhetoric; and covert organizations devoted to occult and magical pursuits. The most famous of Renaissance "Salons," however, convened at the court of Urbino. The warm, wide-ranging conversations there, immortalized in Baldesar Castiglione's The Courtier (1528) took place between the members of a group composed, in Castiglione's words, of "poets, musicians, buffoons of all kinds" (even 500 years ago, the presence of a few jokers apparently ensuring a Salon's success) under the enlightened leadership of two cultivated women: the Duchess of Urbino, Elisabetta Gonzaga, and her friend, the witty (and reputedly impious) Emilia Pia.

All of the aforementioned gatherings, however, only served as prologue to the golden age of Salons -- a two-century flowering of female-led discourse that not only represents the epitome of the French style, but helped to create an ideal of civilized behavior that still stands.

In the early 17th century, the behavior of male aristocrats still reflected the idea that physical strength and military prowess were a man's most important virtues. Around 1610 a young noblewoman, fed up with the prevailing loutishness, did something unprecedented: she abandoned Louis XIII's court and set up her own "alternative space." The Marquise de Rambouillet remodelled a mansion near the Louvre, creating a suite of adjoining Salons, or large reception rooms, culminating in her sanctum sanctorum, the so-called chambre bleu. In this room (also known "the sanctuary of the Temple of Athene"), the marquise received her visitors from her bed.

De Rambouillet's Salon was the first of what the historian Mary Beard calls the "feminine institutions of civility" that were, for two centuries, "the greatest single influence in developing civilized social behavior, promoting lucidity of written expression, and inciting talents to flower in arts and letters." Her Salon, and the famous ones led by the Marquise de Sé vigné , the daringly sensual Ninon de Lenclos, Madame de Staë l and others, were attended by the great writers and thinkers of their day.

Next page: The French Salon ossifies