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."(p.220)
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
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
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: