Monday, 29 February 2016

II. Strasbourg in 1809

You wouldn't believe the amount of text that has accumulated in... well, nearly one year. Let's try and evacuate it little by little, starting with Gassicourt's Journey to Austria.

( 3 April. ). – On the day I left, we greeted spring and the greenery that has started to grow along our way. Nature has changed much. It has been snowing here for the past thirty-six hours. The Black mountains, under my windows, are now the white mountains. The city was very quiet yesterday; now it is greatly agitated. Troops are marching in and out; everywhere, there are carriages full of generals and aides-de-camp... The Master is not far away.
– I am not surprised that a grenadier sharpened his sabre on the great Maurice’s tomb in a burst of enthusiasm. Marshal de Saxe’s mausoleum deserves its reputation. This hero, who calmly and majestically descends to his grave, rightly inspires admiration. One must be thankful to the citizen who, under the reign of terror, covered this mausoleum in plaster and patriotic emblems in order to save it from the vandalism of the Revolutionary army.
This morning, I climbed the spire of the Munster (the cathedral). It is about twice as high as the towers of Notre-Dame; there are six hundred and fifty-eight steps, the equivalent of roughly five hundred seventy-four feet. This edifice, one of the wonders of the modern world, is truly a miracle of elegance. It is sculpted as finely as lace, and dates back from the first centuries of the monarchy. I observed many modern restorations, and I learnt that its maintenance alone cost the department twenty-four thousand francs a year. It is struck and damaged by thunder fifteen to twenty times a year, and the physicists of Strasbourg have yet to find a way to outfit it with a lightning rod.
Atop the Roche-Motet, in Burgundy, I had enjoyed a beautiful view; but it could not compare with what one sees from atop the spire. One can see the horizon fifteen or twenty leagues away; this gives a view on part of the Rhine, Swabia, the Black Forest, the Vosges, Kell, Rastadt, Offembourg...
A rose of winds showed me the way to Paris; I greeted this spot on the horizon towards which all of my wishes and affections converge; then, climbing as high as I could, I wrote my children’s names, my dear friend’s name and my own on the highest point I could reach with the tip of my sword... Why did I follow this tradition? What pleasure did I find in etching this inscription? I have no idea; but that pleasure was real... Sterne could write a whole chapter on this.
The society of the casino gallantly offered me an entrance. It is a club whose political activities go no further than the reading of newspapers, in a large apartment rented by about a hundred merchants, landowners or scientists, who go there every evening to have news of the world and play billiards or bouillotte. In the morning, one can have breakfast here as in a café.
This society enabled me to meet several people of merit, who are held in high esteem here. There are hellenists, antiquarians, mineralogists and bibliographers. Erudition is very much prized here. The governor of Strasbourg handed me, as a curiosity, the catalogue of Dr Bacler’s library, which will be put on for sale next July. This catalogue is an in-8° of three hundred pages.
The scientist who interested me the most here is M. Cadet, director of contributions. He lived in Corsica for many years and made a three-dimensional map of the island; he also studied its mineralogical layout in minute detail. His mutual relationship of esteem and friendship with General Paoli and Napoleon’s family gave him many curious anecdotes to ell, making his conversation very interesting.
He obtained a large roll of Egyptian papyrus, which he carefully unrolled and copied.
This extremely precious work, of which he agreed to give me a copy, will keep the scholars trying to decipher the hieroglyphs busy for many more years. Although he cannot claim to have found the meaning of this monument’s paintings, M. Cadet says that if, according to some passages from Critias of Timea, Herodotus, Plutarch, Diodorus of Sicily, Horapollonus, Marcellinus, etc., one tried launching into serious conjectures, this nine-metre-long papyrus could be seen as 1° an initiation to the mysteries of Isis, and the blood trial that the initiate has to undergo; 2° a code of laws; 3° one of the astronomical epochs described by Herodotus (Euterpe, book II, p. 230. Lyons, 1550); 4° the epoch of the earth’s inclination and its first sway from Meridional signs to Septentrional signs; 5° the image of the twelve months, three of which are accelerated by a particular crisis of the globe; 6° the division of the lunar cycle into four parts of seven days each; but he thinks that we must reserve our judgement until the study of many other monuments can give some certitudes about the components of hieroglyphic language.
M. Cadet, who may be my relative and treated me as such, has a great soul in addition to his broad erudition; he lives in his house as a patriarch, dearly loved by his daughter, esteemed and respected by all those who know him. The spirit of justice that animates him made him undertake an immense work. It is a proportionality table in two in-4° volumes, containing more than a hundred thousand calculations in order to know what each property should owe the State, depending on its position, its nature, its value and its actual income. This work makes such a perfect land registry for the department that neither the poor nor the wealthy pay even one cent more than what law demands from them.
M. Cadet did very curious research on mythical history. As a writer, he would not be out of place in the third section of the Institute. He introduced me to the society of sciences of Strasbourg, which was kind enough to admit me in its midst. I presented a memorandum about the fabrication process of tobacco and its counterfeits1.
( 5 April ) – I visited the two public promenades planted outside of the town, the Contade and the Robertseau. The former resembles our Champs-Elysées; the latter has a nice orangery, which acts as a ballroom or a banquet room in public celebrations. It is quite regrettable that these promenades should be so far away from the town centre. I asked whether the green tree mentioned by La Martinière still existed; no one could give me a satisfactory answer. This tree was so large that twenty tables of four or five seats each had been laid on its branches.
( 6 April. ) – I was shown M. Mathieu’s cabinet of mineralogy. I noticed very beautiful composite rocks, and samples of recently discovered ores, such as chrome, tellure, tungsten, mobdylen, etc., splendid feldspaths and a large gold nugget.
The inhabitants of Strasbourg have little taste for comedy, perhaps because the French language is less spoken here than German; thus the theatre, provisionally settled in an old church, is quite ugly, and the troupe is mediocre. A new theatre is being built near the prefecture; the construction is already at an advanced stage; but it does not end, and the funds are lacking, they say, for a temple of Thalia; luckily, there is no shortage of money for useful purposes.
I had been told that there were many priestesses of Venus in Strasbourg, all remarkably elegant and soft-mannered. I was quite surprised to see none in theatres, in public concerts, in promenades or in merchant streets. “We have morals here,” a town doctor told me, “and we do not allow the ostensible commerce of charms and pleasures, which is so widespread in Paris. Our prostitutes have to be decent when they go out, and a foreigner’s eye can hardly find them. Yet they are everywhere in Strasbourg, as in all garrison towns. In 1495, there were sixty houses of debauchery here; some even settled in the cathedral’s tower. A judicial decree expelled them in 1521. The public women who had settled there were known as munster schwhalbe, that is, the swallows of the church.”
On Good Friday, I listened to an important religious concert, which took place in a dedicated room; it was the first time I heard singing in German. The grand chorus performed a scene from the Bible; I thought it was a parody of the scene in the Barber of Seville with the sneezer and the sleeper: every time I heard sittlick or aschicht, I said “God bless you!” It seemed to me that the Germans put much precision in collective pieces; they perform symphonies and concertos quite well, but I also felt that they liked noise very much; their execution is powerful and dry. They handle the fermata quite badly; there is nothing soft or gracious; they aim at impressing rather than pleasing... Of course, German music should not be judged from a concert in Strasbourg, and this note is truly a Parisian’s judgement.
A hundred and fifty young women, attired with a sort of provincial elegance, attended this gathering. I was told that they were the elite of the town; I could hardly believe it; I only counted two who could qualify as pretty. Let us say about the German women’s beauty the same thing I said about music; it is not to be judged from the specimens in Strasbourg. Said specimens have remarkably broad feet; this is apparently due to the way the town is paved.
It is impossible for a Frenchman to see Strasbourg for the first time and not feel that he is in a foreign land. Although it has been a hundred and twenty-five years2 since Alsace and France were reunited, the Alsatians are still French in name only. They are Germans by language, customs and taste; it is so difficult to change a people’s mores! Yet this experience will not dissuade the sovereigns from selling their subjects as they would cattle, without knowing the first thing about the principles and elements making up what we call the homeland.
( 7 April. ) – It has been freezing for three days, and the temperature is constantly at -3°C or -4°C; as a reward, the Germans, who hate chimneys with a passion, lit up cast-iron stoves in their apartments, raising the temperature much too high and giving their visitors violent headaches. They only have thermometers outside of their windows; I cannot understand how they all manage to avoid dying of catarrhes, of apoplexia or peripneumonia. This morning, I visited the citadel, the arsenal and the fortifications; all of this could have been admirable for someone like Vauban; I only found this surprising. The lengths men go to when they want to destroy each other! I counted thousands of cannons of all shapes and calibres. If the other fortresses contain as much, proportionately to their importance, France has more copper in her cannons than the rest of the world have in their pots. The latter, whose usefulness is generally acknowledged, will serve me as a transition to speak of the beautiful Rhine carps, so sought after by gastronomes. I paid them a visit this morning at the house of their owner, M. Hirschel, at Finckwiller. This fisherman raises them, feeds them and breeds them in special tanks in the Ill, a small river that waters Strasbourg. As far as ichtyophagic supplies are concerned, I never saw anything as beautiful as these huge carps, some of which have lived for more than a century. There are some that weigh twenty-five to thirty pounds; their price follows an arithmetical curve, as with mirrors and diamonds. One can purchase some for twelve, fifteen and twenty louis. I bought two to send them to Paris, and I chose two varieties that M. de Lacépède might not have described; one is shaped like the Seine carps, round and oblong like an olive, and its body is covered with brown and golden scales of equal diameter, except around the tail. The other has a much wider body and flat sides: it only has scales near the head and along the spine. These scales are a whitish silver and the size of a small coin. The rest of the body is covered with green and white skin, quite similar to tenches. These fish are fed for six months with animal guts and other fish. Carps stop eating in autumn and winter. I was also shown very handsome fish that are called Hungarian anglerfish, even though they are caught near Strasbourg. I was told that M. Hirschel or his agents sometimes had no qualms presenting a fat pond carp as a Rhine carp; but connoisseurs cannot be fooled.

1This Memorandum is printed in the 1st volume of the Bulletin de pharmacie, page 263.
2It is in 1684.

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