Get Your Salon On, Enlightenment Style

Heather Hartley

Long before salons were a mecca of hair care products, swanky swivel chairs, and cosmetology services with mysterious and complicated names, the salon (beginning in the sixteenth century in Europe) was a hot spot for philosophical debates, intellectual discussions and general confabs of all sorts and traditionally—and quite exclusively—hosted by women in their homes. Not that all of this couldn’t happen in a modern-day salon, it definitely could, just most likely with a reduced amount of royal swag like crowns, tulle, or swords festooned with the family crest.

Etymological history points to the idea that the word salon first appeared in French in 1664 during what was named le Grand Siècle, although it might have been something of a surprise for the French that their word could actually derive from the Italian word salone or sala, referring to the spacious reception halls of Italian villas and mansions. More than a century before some of the most sought-after French salons appeared on the scene, the Italians had settled down for some serious metaphysical natter and nibbles with local and foreign nobles. In the mid-1400s, Giovanna Dandolo, wife of the Doge in Venice and a generous patron of the arts, was well known for her gatherings of artists. Around the 1550s, Italian poet, philosopher and famed courtesan Tullia d’Aragona showed everyone that you didn’t have to be a Medici princess to throw a festive salon party (but then it probably didn’t hurt either).

Madame de Staël

It wasn’t until the early 1600s that French salons came more into prominence and given some of the disparities between founding salon dates in these two frequently-competing countries, if the expression “to beat someone to the punch” had existed back then, the salon situation between Italy vs. France could be a good illustration of this phrase. (More recently, in the 2006 World Cup final against the French, Italians were ecstatic when Gli Azzurri, their national soccer team, incarnated this expression by beating ancient rivals Les Bleus in a fierce penalty shootout 5-3 after a 1-1 draw and with France playing with only 10 players on the field.)

In Paris in 1607, the Marquise de Rambouillet opened her celebrated salon near the Louvre and in 1652, one of her habitués, prolific writer Mademoiselle de Scudéry opened her own rival salon in the Marais where she crafted the art of classic rhetoric. Famously satirized by Moliere in two of his plays, Mademoiselle de Scudéry—along with many other brilliant women—was part of a larger movement of women writers and women with literary aspirations called les bas bleus, the bluestockings. Theirs was a fascinating, complex, intellectually vibrant and sometimes controversial group and although it might not always have been considered a compliment to be a part of their group for numerous reasons that could be deliberated in at least one more month’s column if not more, the blue stockings were a vital part of the growth of and enthusiasm for the larger literary world.

And although salons were run almost entirely by women, both men and women took part—from pretenders to the throne to philosophers like Voltaire to the inimitable letter writer Madame de Sévigné. Throughout the eighteenth century, there were over twenty-five well-respected and fashionable salons, mostly located in Paris. This included one hosted by Madame de Staël who duly noted, “One must chose in life between boredom and suffering,” and in between these slightly gloomy options, you could choose to check out or start up your own local salon. Starting a conversation doesn’t cost much, it can be done anywhere and you don’t need snazzy blue stockings, a custom-designed drawing room or an advanced degree in ancient philosophy to take part—just a couple friends, a little bit of inclination and a few chairs.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim
 (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.