The Age of Lightness: Emergences of a Paradigm of the French Eighteenth Century

Le siècle de la légèreté : émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français

Maison Française d’Oxford, Friday, May 15, 2015 – 09:00

Whilst Voltaire observed that ‘lightness and fickleness shaped the character of that agreeable nation’ (none other than France), Caraccioli remarked that ‘for a long time, French people have been accused of lightness, and for a long time they have not cared to mend their ways’. If lightness became such a crucial national issue in eighteenth-century France, it is in great part because of its connection with ‘civic virtues’ which were then thought to depend upon this inconstancy. The French nation would be too fickle to be seriously evil. However, the alleged lightness of the ‘siècle’ was far from inspiring unanimous praise. Many would rather condemn the inconsequential spirit of the times. Lightness thus emerged from all these discussions as one of the paradigms around or against which the entire century was defining itself. Furthermore, this interest for the question of lightness did not concern debates on morals alone, but reappeared instead in all fields of human knowledge. Whereas ‘amateurs’ or art critics extolled the ‘lightness’ of certain paintings, scientists investigated lightness as a potential property of matter. And, at the end of this Age of Lightness, the Montgolfier brothers’ balloons and others aerostats could be seen floating weightlessly over enchanted and enthusiastic crowds. The lightest century is also the one who first lifted itself to the sky.

Significantly, from the Revolution of 1789 onwards, subsequent periods would also define themselves in relation to this paradigm, thereby resuming the construction of the French eighteenth century not just as the Age of Enlightenment, but instead as the Age of Lightness. From the bourgeois nineteenth century nostalgically dreaming of bygone fêtes galantes to our own early twenty first century celebrating the frivolity (and marketability) of Marie-Antoinette’s and Fragonard’s images, the last century of the Ancien Régime has never ceased to exert its charms upon the public. Now more than ever, the fascinated focus of scholars, novelists, filmmakers and artists has brought to the fore that particular aspect of eighteenth-century France: the delightfully hedonistic, fickle, witty and frivolous siècle des Lumières that they give us to see spurs the ever-expanding diffusion of this representation of history.

Thus the lightness of the French eighteenth century not only appears to be the object of a multi-faceted conquest (at once scientific, moral, aesthetic, …); it also imposes itself as an historically constructed paradigm giving rise to many questions that we propose to explore from a critical and historiographical point of view during a study-day open to all, to be held at the Maison française d’Oxford on May, 15 2015.

9h : Accueil – Welcome

9h30 : Introduction

 9h45 : La légèreté à la conquête du ciel – Lightness takes to the sky

  • Luc Robène (Université de Bordeaux): « Plus léger que l’air » ou l’envol d’un siècle. L’invention des aérostats et la sublimation des esprits à la fin du XVIIIe siècle

  • Joël Castonguay-Bélanger (Université de Colombie-Britannique): Plus légers que les vents: portraits littéraires des premiers aéronautes

10h45 : Pause – Break

11h : Perspectives nationales sur la légèreté française – National perspectives on French lightness

  • James Fowler (University of Kent): French levity versus English gravity in Voltaire’s Letters concerning the English Nation

  • Kevin Hillard (University of Oxford): “Leichtigkeit” as an ideal in 18th-century German poetry

  • Jenny Mander (University of Cambridge): “Trop frivole, trop légère pour être politique”. The French national character and political economy seen through the lens of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes.

  • Azzura Mauro (Université Toulouse II – Università degli Studi di Genova): « Les matières graves, il faut les alléger » : paradoxes du recours à la légèreté chez l’abbé Galiani

13h: Déjeuner – Lunch

14h: Conférence plénière – Plenary lecture

  • Patrick Wald Lasowski (Université Paris 8): Palpable !

15h: La légèreté dans les arts – Lightness in art

  • Solveig Serre (CNRS « Théorie et histoire des arts et des littératures de la modernité »): L’insoutenable légèreté de l’air. Les enjeux politiques et esthétiques de la légèreté dans le répertoire de l’Académie royale de musique sous l’Ancien Régime

  • Anthony Wall (Université de Calgary): Être assez léger pour passer sur les ponts de Robert et de Pillement

  • Elise Urbain-Ruano (Université Lille 3, École du Louvre, Musée des Arts Décoratifs): « Dans un instant, la toilette aura tout gâté » : La mode du négligé dans le portrait français du XVIIIe siècle

16h30: Pause – Break

16h45: Constructions historiographiques de la légèreté – Historiographic constructions of lightness

  • Maxime Triquenaux (Université Lyon 2): « S’amuser et quelquefois amuser les autres en leur rappelant ce qui n’existe plus » : la mémoire mélancolique de la légèreté aristocratique chez le Prince de Ligne

  • Erika Wicky (Université Rennes 2): Les parfums de l’Ancien Régime : persistance olfactive et représentations au XIXe siècle

  • Cyril Barde (Université Paris 8): « Le siècle de la poudre et des mouches » : Octave Uzanne au défi du siècle léger

18h15 : Conclusion

For more information, please visit the MFO website

Contact: Dr Marine Ganofsky ( and Dr Jean-Alexandre Perras (


With the support of:

Maison française d’Oxford

 Society for French Studies

TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities)

The Voltaire Foundation



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