Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Important tables 1 - Voltaire's table at the Café Procope

Among the miscellaneous treasures of the famous Café Procope is this table which supposedly belonged to Voltaire.  Whilst it is not actually stated, the implication is that this was Voltaire's personal table at the Café.  The label on the front - old but not necessarily 18th century - says that the table was a gift to the philosopher from Frederick the Great of Prussia. It is not a handsome piece of furniture, with its chipped marble top; Jacques Hébert apparently did the damage by standing on it to address the crowd outside the Café door  The one further piece of information volunteered on various websites, is that during the Revolution, the ashes of Voltaire, and subsequently those of Marat and Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, rested here during their funeral processions.

Voltaire at the Café Procope

Situated as it was opposite the old Comédie Française, the Café Procope was a favoured haunt of playwrights, actors and critics during the 1730s and 40s. But Voltaire was not in general a fan of café society and seldom mentions the Procope in his correspondence. There is no sense whatever that he was a regular there.  His one visit commonly recounted occurred on the night of 30th August 1748 when he had arrived from Lunéville to oversee the production of Semiramis at the Comédie;  in order to eavesdrop on critics he went to the café disguised an abbé, "with cassock and bands, an old three-cornered hat, and an immense full-bottom unpowdered wig". (Tallentyre, Life of Voltaire, p.240-1)

A second, less well-documented, anecdote relates that on his return to Paris in 1778 the aged Voltaire had himself dropped off to visit the Procope: thus, the American writer M.C. Morrow:
"Voltaire, in his eighty-second year, whilst attending the rehearsals of his play Irène, descended from his chaise-à-porteur at the door of the Café Procope, and drank the coffee which the café had made fashionable. It was here also that he became reconciled to Piron, after an estrangement of more than twenty years." (Morrow,p.219).

This episode is temptingly plausible, but I haven't found any verification whatever; Voltaire's old enemy Alexis Piron died in 1773, whilst Voltaire was still far-away in Ferney.

Voltaire is often cited as an early coffee-holic, preferring coffee mixed with chocolate.  However, the statement that he drank forty or fifty cups a day - sometimes at the Café Procope itself - is clearly fantasy; even Balzac didn't manage that much!

Did Frederick the Great give Voltaire the table?

That's what the label says, but I am confused. Isn't this supposed to be the table that Voltaire used in the 18th-century café? In any case why on earth would Frederick want to give such an uninspiring piece of furniture to Voltaire?  Are we supposed to infer he sent it from Potsdam or that he had it made in Paris?  Or perhaps he somehow sponsored a reserved table at the Procope?  Maybe the table is simply spurious and came from elsewhere, complete with its label?

Voltaire's table during the Revolution

Here again, there is plenty of repetition on the internet but relatively few facts, and these seem to be derived mainly from the plaque below, which is of uncertain origin. By 1793 the Procope had changed hands to become the Café Zoppi and was a centre of Left-wing journalism. The story is that "Hébert jumped upon this table, which had been placed before the door of the cafe and harangued the crowd gathered there, exciting them to such a pitch that they snatched the newspapers from the hands of the news-venders. In a  moment of passionate appeal he brought down his heavy boot-heel upon the marble with such force as to split it". (Morrow, p.220)  It is Hébert too, who is credited with arranging for the funeral urns of Voltaire, Marat and Le Peletier to rest ceremonially on the table.  Morrow says simply that, "Since Voltaire's time this table has become an object of curiosity and veneration; when celebrated habitués of the cafe died this table was used as an altar, upon which for a time reposed the bust of the decedent before crêpe-covered lanterns

 Voltaire at the Procope in the 1890s

Although Hébert may have contributed briefly, it is clear that the heyday of enthusiasm for Voltaire at the Procope  belongs to the late 19th century.  In 1872, after the collapse of the Second  Empire, the old Procope finally closed its doors; but in 1893 it was leased to a new patron, Théo Bellefonds who reinvented it as a Bohemian literary café and even founded a journal called  Le Procope (which ran to all of  nine issues).  Morrow evocatively describes the interior of the café at this time, dimly lit by old-fashioned gas lamps:

"The woodwork,the chairs, and the tables are deeply stained by time, the contrasting white marble tops of the tables suggesting gravestones; and with all these go the deeply discolored walls and the many ancient paintings, - even the caisse, behind which sits Madame Théo, dozing over her knitting....." (p.213)
It is to this era that the upstairs salon dedicated to Voltaire belongs. Contemporary engravings show Paul Verlaine in his favourite place, seated at the great man's table.

 "M. Théo" was a history enthusiast and a collector; "He has worked out the history of the café, and has at the ends of his fingers the life-stories of its famous patrons” (Morrow, p.217).  One wonders just how much creative licence he allowed himself?

The Procope today

In the early 20th century the Procope went downhill, becoming a modest restaurant frequented by the students and white-collar workers of the quarter, and in the 1920s once more a café. It was known for a time by the name Au Grand Soleil. The present restaurant was completely renovated and re-opened in 1952.  It was once more refurbished in 1989.

 This is worth emphasising - the plush 18th-century interior has been recreated from scratch; very little survives from the 1890s, let alone the time of Voltaire.

The case for the table's authenticity is not improved by the existence at the Procope of another relic - tucked away inconspicuously, but yes, as the label attests, this is:

 Jean-Jacques Rousseau's table!


Website for the modern Café Procope

"Fenêtre sur... le Procope, de la brasserie de tradition au salon littéraire" | Ma Plume 2.0 - Editorial, photos reportages et articles multimédia 25/06/2013

W. C. Morrow "The Café Procope" in Bohemian Paris of today (1900) p.207-220.

Besides coffee, ices were a speciality of the Procope; its later history is conveniently summarised by Elizabeth David in her posthumous book Harvest of the cold months: a social history of ice and ices:

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