Word With a Past: Silhouette

I’m poking around in the long eighteenth century these days and stumbling across lots of surprising tidbits.

Take silhouettes. I had long known that charming likenesses cut from black cardstock became a popular and affordable alternative to oil portraits in the mid-eighteenth century. To the extent that I thought about the word at all, I assumed it was the name of a clever scissors-wielding artist who started the new fashion.

Wrong.* The art form, originally called “shades” or “profiles”, pre-dated the name.

Étienne de Silhouette was a French attorney with intellectual leanings and political ambitions. He wrote treatises on this and that, translated Alexander Pope into French, made friends with Madame Pompadour, and earned a name as a garçon fort savant** for a book he wrote on the English taxation system. That book would get him in trouble.

In 1759, halfway through the Seven Years War, he was appointed Controller-General of France. The war was expensive and Silhouette had the thankless job of balancing a budget with a shortfall of 217 million livres.*** To make things harder, more than sixty years of almost constant warfare, had left France with a shortage of metal money and a budget crippled by existing debt. Silhouette issued some long-term debts and cut some expenses, but he realized that the long term answer was raising tax income. He took the not-unreasonable position that the easiest people to raise money from were the people who had money–especially true in the Ancién Regime, where the nobility and the clergy were exempt from taxes. He took away their tax exemptions and cancelled a range of pensions, sinecures and handouts. With the wealthy and powerful already in an uproar, he then instituted new taxes on luxury goods, from jewelry and carriages to servants and windows. The marquise du Deffand, writing to Voltaire, complained “they are not taxing the air we breathe, but apart from that, I can’t think of anything that’s escaped.”

Less than nine months after his appointment, Silhouette was out on his ear and the term à la Silhouette was applied to anything cheap, including the profile portraits known as shades.

* In more ways than one, it turned out. Evidently there were two schools of silhouette artists, cutters and painters. The things you find out when you follow a fact down a rabbit hole.

** Bright kid

***Roughly 459 billion dollars today ****

****Very roughly, since I had to work from livres to francs, then calculate it forward to 1800 and convert it into dollars before I could plug it into this currency converter.

You pays your money, you takes your choice….

Right now I’m reading a Big Fat History Book dealing with tenth century Europe.* In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time circling the boundaries of medieval Europe: the Carolingian Renaissance, Irish monks, Viking raiders, Pope Sylvester II, Muslim Spain, Muslim Sicily, the Islamic world in general. My current reading is making it clear how little I know about Europe qua Europe in this period. I am highlighting names of historical figures I don’t know ** and critical events I haven’t heard of. The margins are filled with “????” and “!!!!!” and notes to myself. You don’t hear me say it often, but this is definitely Not My Field.

Nonetheless, while I was struggling to keep track of unfamiliar names and chronologies, I ran across a historical dynamic that I had seen before in a very different context.

I’ve always assumed that European royal families had practiced primogeniture*** since the dawn of time. Wrong. Frankish kings**** divided their kingdoms up between their sons. It seems like a fair-minded practice, but it is inherently flawed. If everyone played nice, this policy would result in smaller and smaller kingdoms over time. Not surprisingly, people didn’t play nice. Charlemagne’s grandsons went to war over the division of the Carolingian empire before their father was even dead–a period known to German historians as the Brüderkrieg, the brothers’ war. Their sons did the same, tearing apart Charlemagne’s empire in the process.

Most Islamic dynasties didn’t practice primogeniture either. The earliest Islamic community chose the earliest Islamic rulers, the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, based on their piety, ability, and closeness to the prophet. Later Islamic dynasties inherited this vague ideal of choosing the “best” ruler, though they tended to keep things in the family. Without a clear path to success and with numerous sons produced by polygamous marriages, the road to the throne often included savage political scrambling, fratricide (or at least fratri-blinding and imprisoning), and civil war. Like Charlemagne’s sons, some Islamic princes tried to seize the throne directly from their father instead of waiting for their own version of Brüderkrieg. Powerful, capable men fought their way to the throne. So did vicious psychopaths.

Obviously the absence of a clear succession policy has a deleterious effect on empires. On the other hand, primogeniture is basically a lottery without reference to ability. Makes a presidential election look pretty good by comparison, doesn’t it?

* Not trying to be coy here. I’m reviewing it for Shelf Awareness for Readers and they have first dibs on my thoughts about the book, as opposed to my thoughts about my own ignorance.

** You can bet your buttons that I’m going to go looking for Marozia of Rome: “the only independent female ruler in her own right for four centuries in the European West.” She is accorded three mingy (and very negative) sentences in Chambers Biographical Dictionary, appears only in passing in Britannica Online, and isn’t mentioned at all in my general medieval histories. Stayed tuned.

*** My Own True Love tells me I should define this. Primogeniture refers to the right of the first-born son to succeed or inherit. It’s a policy designed to keep the empire/kingdom/estate/family farm intact, but it doesn’t take ability into account. Younger sons and daughters who might be more capable don’t get an equal chance.

**** i.e. Charlemagne’s predecessors and descendents

Image credit: jaboy / 123RF Stock Photo

On The Map

Speaking of maps, as I believe we were, I recently spent several happy days with a book that straddles the intersection between cartography and history.

Simon Garfield, author of the bestselling Just My Type, once again takes a subject that seems the province of a small group of enthusiasts and opens it for a larger audience. In On The Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks , Garfield tells the history of cartography, beginning with the Great Library at Alexandria and ending with Google Earth. Along the way, he links the development of maps to the larger history of human progress–from the theory that the first maps, drawn in the dust of Africa’s Rift Valley, may have kickstarted the development of the human brain to modern efforts to map the brain itself.

Written in the breezy style of Just My Type, On The Map is structured as a series of engaging stories told in more or less chronological order. Each chapter uses a specific map, person, or idea to explore a bigger issue. Interspersed with the main chapters are smaller, more eccentric stories that Garfield calls Pocket Maps: detours that consider the origins of “here be dragons”, the different ways man and women read maps and the difficulties of refolding a paper map. Whether dealing with familiar topics, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition, or introducing the reader to stories that are less well known, like the legendary (and imaginary) Mountains of Kong, Garfield consistently delivers “aha!” moments.

On The Map will appeal to mapheads, history buffs, the terminally curious, and anyone who enjoys a well-told story


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers