1902 Encyclopedia > Academy > Academies of Belles Lettres

(Part 3)


Italy. -- Italy in the 16th century was remarkable for the number of its literary academies. Tiraboschi, in his History of Italian Literature, has given a list of 171; and Jarkius, in his Specimen Historioe Academiarum Conditarum, enumerates nearly 700. Many of these, with a sort of Socratic irony, gave themselves names expressive of ignorance or simply ludicrous. Such were the Lunactici of Naples, the Estravaganti, the Fulminales, the Trapessati, the Drowsy, the Sleepers, the Anxious, the confused, the Unstable, the fantastic, the Transformed, the Aetherial. "The first academies of Ital;y chiefly directed their attention to classical literature; they compared manuscripts; they suggested new readings, or new interpreations; they deciphered inscriptions or coins; they sat in judgment on a Latin ode, or debated the propriety of a phrase. Their own poetry had, perhaps, never been neglected; but it was not till the writings of Bembo furnished a new code of criticism in the Italian language, that they began to study it with the same minuteness as modern Latin." "They were encouragers of a numismatic and lapidary eruditon, elegant in itself, and throwing for ever little specks of light on the still ocean of the past, but not very favourable to comprehensive observation, and tending to bestow on an unprofitable pedanty the honours of real learning." The Italian nobility, excluded as they mostly were from politics, and living in cities, found in literature a consolation and a career. Such academies were oligarchical in their constitution; they encouraged culture, but tended to hamper genius and extinguished originally. Of their academies, by far the most celebrated was the Accademia della Crusca or Furfuration; that is, of Bran, or of the Sifted. The title was borrowed from a previous society at Perugia, the Accademia degli Scossi, of the Well-shaken. Its device was a sieve; its motto, "II piu bel fior ne coglie," it collects the finest flour of it; its principal object the purification of the language. Its great work was the Vocabulario della Crusca, the first edition of which was published 1613. It was composed avowedly on Tuscan principles, and regarded the 14th century as the Augustan period of the language. Beni assailed it in his Anti-Crusca, and this exclusive Tuscan spirit has disappeared in subsequent editions. The Accademia della Crusca is now incorporated with two older societies-the Accademia degli Apatici (the Impartials) and the academia Fiorentina.

Among the numerous other literary academies of Italy we may mention the Academy of Naples, founded about 1440 by Alfonso, the king; the Academy of Florence, founded 1540, to illustrate and perfect the Tuscan tongue, especially by a close study of Petrarch; the Intronati of Siena, 1525; the Infiammati of Padua, 1534; the Rozzi of Siena, suppressed by Cosmo, 1568.

The Academy of Humourists, Umoristi, had its origin at Rome in the marriage of Lorenzo Marcini, a Roman gentleman, at which several persons of rank were guests. It was carnival time, and so to give the ladies some diversion, they betook themselves to the reciting of verses, sonnets, speeches, first extempore, and afterwards premeditately, which gave them the denomination of Belli Humori. After some experience, and coming more and more into the taste of these exercises, they resolved to form an academy of belles letters, and changed the title of Belli Humoroi for that of Humoristi.

In 1690 the Academy or Society of arcadians was established at Rome, for the purpose of reviving the study of poetry. The founder crescimbeni is the author of a well-known history of Italian poetry. It numbered among its members many princes, cardinals, and other ecclesiastics; and, to avoid disputes about pre-eminence, all appeared masked after the manner of Arcadian shepherds. Within ten years from its first establishment the number of academicians amounted to 600.

The Royal Academy of Savoy dates from 1719, and was made a royal academy by Charles Felix in 1848. its emblem is a gold orange tree full of flowers and fruit; its motto "Flores fructusque perennes," being the same as those of the famous Floriementane Academy, founded at Annecy by St Francis de Sales. It has published valuable memoirs on the history and antiquities of Savoy.

Germany. -- Of the German literary academies, the most celebrated was Die Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, the Fruitful Society, established at Weimar 1617. Five princes enrolled their among the original members. The object was to purify the mother tongue. The German academies copied those of Italy in their quaint titles and petty ceremonials, and exercised little permanent influence on the language or literature of the country.

France. -- The French Academy was established by order of the king in the year 1635, but in its original form it came into existence some four or five years earlier. About the year 1629 certain literary friends in Paris agreed to meet weekly at the house of one of their number. These meetings were quite informal, but the conversation turned mostly on literary topics; and when, as was often the case, one of the number had composed some work, he read it to the rest, and they gave their opinions upon it. The place of meeting was the house of M. Conrad, which, was chosen as being the most central. The fame of these meetings, though the members were bound over to secrecy, reached at length the ears of Cardinal Richelieu, who conceived so high an opinion of them, that he at once promised them his protection, and offered to incorporate them by letters patent. Nearly all the members would have preferred the charms of privacy, but, considering the risk they would run in incurring the cardinal's displeasure, and that by the letter of the law all meetings of any sort or kind were prohibited, they expressed their gratitude for the high honour the cardinal thought fit to confer on them. They proceeded at once to organize their body, settle their laws and constitution, appoint officers, and choose their name. Their officers consisted of a director and a chancellor, both chosen by lot, and a permanent secretary, chosen by votes. They elected besides a publisher, not a member of the body. The director presided at the meetings, being considered as primus inter pares, and performing much the same part as the speaker in the English House of commons. The chancellor kept the seals, and sealed all the official documents of the academy. The office of the secretary explains itself. The cardinal was ex officio protector. The meetings were weekly as before.

The letters patent were at once granted by the king, but it was only after violent opposition and long delay that the president, who was jealous of the cardinal's authority, consented to grant the verification required by the old constitution of France.

The object for which the academy was founded, as set forth in its statutes, was the purification of the French language. "The principal function of the academy shall be to labour with all care and diligence to give certain rules to our language, and to render it pure, eloquent, and capable of treating the arts and sciences" (Art 24). They proposed "to cleanse the language from the impurities it has contracted in the mouths of the common people, from the jargon of the lawyers, from the misusages of ignorant countiers, and the abuses of the pulpit." Letter of Academy to Cardinal Richelius.

Their numbers were fixed at forty. The original members who formed the nucleus of the body were eight , and it was not till 1639 that the full number was completed. Their first undertaking consisted of essays written by all the members in rotation. To judge by the titles and specimens which have come down to us, these possessed no special originality or merit, but resembled the _____ of the Greek rhetoricians. They next, at the instance of Cardinal Richelieu, undertook a criticism of Corneille's Cid, the most popular work of the day. It was a rule of the academy that no work could be criticized except at the author's request. It was only the fear of incurring the cardinal's displeasure which wrung from Corneille an unwilling consent. The critique of the academy was rewritten several times before it met with the cardinal's approbation. After six months ofelaboration, it was published under the title, Sentiments de l'Academie Francoise sur le Cid. This judgment did not satisfy Cornielle, as a saying attributed to him on the occasion shows. "Horatius," he said, referring to his last play, "was condemned by the Duumviri, but he was absolved by the people." But the crowning labour o the academy, commenced in 1639, was a dictionary of the French language. By the twenty-sixth article of their statutes, they were pledged to composed a dictionary, a grammar, a treatise on rhetoric, and one poetry. M. Chapelain, one of the original members and leading spirits of the academy, pointed out that the dictionary would naturally be the first of these works to be undertaken, and drew up a plan of the work, which was to a great extent carried out. A catalogue was to be made of all the most approved authors, prose and verse: these were to be distributed among the members, and all words and phrases of which they approved to be marked by them in order to be incorporated in the dictionary. For this they resolved themselves into two committees, which sat on other than the regular days. M de Vaugelas was appointed editor in chief. To remunerate him for his labours, he received from the cardinal a pension of 2000 francs. The first edition of this dictionary appeared in 1694, the last Complement in 1854.

Instead of following the history of the French Academy, - which, like its two younger sisters, the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Inscriptions, was suppressed in 1793, and reconstituted in 1795, as a class of the Institute, - a history which it would be impossible to treat adequatelyin the limit of an article, we will attempt briefly to estimate its influence on French literature and language, and point out its principal merits and defects. To begin with its merits, it may justly boast that there is hardly a single name of the first rank among French litterateurs that it has not enrolled among its members. Moliere, it is true, was rejected as a player; but we can hardly blame the academy for a social prejudice which it shared with the age; and it is well known that it has, as far as was in its power, made the amende honorable. In the Salle des Seances is placed the bust of the greatest of modern comedians, with the inscription, "Rien ne manqux a sa gloire; il manquait a la notre." Descartes was excluded from the fact of his residing in Holland. Scarron was confined by paralysis to his own house. Pascall is the only remaining exception, and Pascal was better known to his contemporaries as a mathematician than a writer. His Lettres provincials were published anonymously; and just when his fame was rising he retired to Port-Royal, where he lived the life of a recluse. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the fauteuils have often been occupied by men of no mark in literature. Nor is the academy wholly exonerated by M. Livert's ingenious defence, that there are but eight marshals in the French army, and yet the number has never appeared too restricted; for its most ardent admirers will not assert that it has, as a rule, chosen the forty most distinguished living authors. Court intrigue, rank, and finesse have too often prevailed over real merit and honesty. Though his facts are incorrect, there is much truth in Courier's caustic satire: - "Dans une compagnie de gens faisant profession d'espit ou de savoir, nul ne veut pres de soi un plus habile que soi, main bien un plus noble, un plus riche: un duc et pair honore l'Academie Francaise, qui ne veut point de Boileau, refuse la Bruyere, fait attendre Voltaire, mais recoit tout d'abord Chapelain et Conrat."

We have next to consider the influenceof the French Academy on the language and literature, a subject on which the most opposite opinions have been advanced. On the one hand, it has been asserted that it has corrected the judgment, purified the taste, and formed the language of French writers, and that to it we owe the most striking characteristics of French literature, its purity, delicacy, and flexibility. Thus Mr Matthew Arnold, in his well-known Essay on the Literary Influence of Academies, has pronounced a glowing panegyric on the French Academy as a high court of letters, and rallying point for educated opinion, as asserting the authority of a master matters of tone and taste. To it he attributes in a great measure that thoroughtness, that openness of mind, that absence of vulgarity which he finds everywhere in French literature; and to the want of a similar institution in England he traces that eccentricity, that provincial spirit, that coarseness, which, as he thinks, is barely compensated by English genius. Thus, too, M. Renan, one of its most distinguished living members, says that it is owing to the academy "qu'on peut tout dire sans appareil scholatique avec la langue des gensdu monde." "Ah ne dites," he exclaims, "qu'ils n'ont rien fait, ces onscures beaux esprits don't la vie se passx a instruire le process des mots, a peser les syllables. Ils ont fait un chef-d'oeuvre- la langue francaise." On the other hand, its inherent defects have been so well summed up by M. Lanfrey, that we cannot do better than quote from his recent History of Napoleon. "This institution," he says, speaking of the French Academy, "had never shown itself the enemy of despotism. Founded by the monarchy and for the monarchy, eminently favourable to the spirit of intrigue and favouritism, incapable of any sustained or combined labour, a stranger to those great works pursued in common which legitimize and glorify the existence of scientific bodies, occupied exclusively with learned trifles, fatal to emulation, which it pretends to stimulate, by the compromises and calculation to which it subjects it, directed in everything by petty considerations, and wasting all its energy in childish Aournaments, in which the flatteries that it showers on others are only the foretaste of the compliments it expects in return for itself, the French Academy seems to have received from its founders the special mission to transform genius into bel esprit, and it would be hard to produce a man of talent whom it has not demoralized. Drawn in spite of itself towards; politics, it alternately pursues and avoids them; but it is specially attracted by the gossip of politics, and whenever it has so far emancipated itself as to go into opposition, it does so as the champion of ancient prejudices. If we examine its influence on the national genius, we shall see that it has given it a flexibility, a brilliancy, a polish, which it never possessed before; but it has done so at the expense of its masculine qualifies, its originality, its spontaneity, its vigour, its natural grace. It has disciplined it, but it gas emasculated, impoverished, and rigidified it. It sees in taste, not a sense of the beautiful, but a certain type of correctness, an elegant form of mediocrity. It has substituted pomp for grandeur, school routine for individual inspiration, elaborateness for simplicity, fadeur and the monotony of literary orthodoxy for variety, the source and spring of intellectual life; and in the works produced under its auspices we discover the rhetorician and the writer, never the man. By all its traditions the academy was made to be the natural ornament of a monarchical society. Richelieu conceived and created it as a sort of superior centralization applied to intellect, as a high literary court to maintain intellectual unity, and protest against innovation. Bonaparte, aware of all this, had thought of re-establishing its ancient privileges; but it has in his eyes one fatal defect-esprit. Kings of France could condone a witticism even against themselves, a parvenu could not."

In conclusion, we would briefly state our own opinion. The influence of the French Academy has been conservative rather than creative. While it has raised the general standard of writing, it has tended to hamper and crush originality. It has done much by its example for style, but its attempts to impose its laws on language have, from the nature of the case, failed. For, however perfectly a dictionary or a grammar may represent the existing language of a nation, an original genius is certain to arise- a Victor Hugo, or an Alfred de Musset, who will set at defiance all dictionaries and academic rules.

Spain. -- The Royal Spanish Academy at Madrid held its first meeting in July 1713, in the palace of its founder, the Duke d'Escalona. It consisted at first of 8 academicians, including the duke; to which number 14 others were afterwards added, the founder being chosen president or director. In 1714 the king granted them the royal confirmation and protection. Their device is a crucible in the middle of the fire, with this motto, Limpia, fixa, y da esplendor -- "It purifies, fixes, and gives brightness." The number of its members was limited to 24; the Duke d'Escalona was chosen director for life, but his successors were elected yearly, and the secretary for life. Their object, as marked out by the royal declaration, was to cultivate and improve the national language. They were to begin with choosing carefully such words and phrases as have been used by the best Spanish writers; noting the low, barbarous, or obsolete ones; and composing a dictionary wherein these might be distinguished from the former.

Sweden. -- The Royal Swedish Academy was founded in the year 1786, for the purpose of purifying and perfecting the Swedish language. A medal is struck by its direction every year in honour of some illustrious Swede. This academy does not publish its transactions.

Belgium. -- Belgium has always been famous for its literary societies. The little town of Diest boasts that it possessed a society of poets in 1302, and the Catherinists of Alost date from 1107. Whether or not there is any foundation for these claims, it is certain that numerous Chambers of Rhetoric (so academies were then called) existed in the first year of the rule of the house of Burgundy.

The present Royal Academy of Belgium was founded by the Count of Coblenzl at Brussels, 1769. Count Stahrenberg obtained for it in 1772 letters patent from Maria Theresa, who also granted pensions to all the members, and a fund for printing their works. All academicians were ipso facto ennobled. It was reorganized, and a class of fine arts added in 1845 through the agency of N. Van de Weyer, the learned Belgian ambassador at London. It has devoted itself principally to national history and antiquities.

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