“Rameau’s nephew” had the personality of a performer. He attracted patrons in aristocratic salons with his attitudes, onlookers in the Café de la Régence with his acting, and followers in the streets of Paris with his antics. He wished to be a creator, but he descended from his father, a violinist, rather than from his uncle, a composer. Creators express themselves, “Rameau’s nephew” argued, while performers express what they are given to express, the thoughts and feelings of a series of others. He felt admiration and envy for creative geniuses. He scorned to watch any chess players but prodigies such as Philidor. The real nephew of Rameau, true to his calling as a performer, moved Philidor’s pieces for him at the latter’s blindfold exhibitions. “Rameau’s nephew” extolled the culinary creations of French chefs and denigrated natural foods. He accorded even great criminals a certain genius, because of their resolute self-determination—in a word, their integrity. The pliable “Rameau’s nephew” was clearly unhappy to find himself only a performer. But with his envy of creators, with his conviction that creators were marked by integrity, and with his prophecy that French music would follow the example of Locatelli’s violin caprices, he showed the way for performers, through the intensification of their performances, to displace creators. The real nephew of Rameau said, “My uncle, the musician, is a great man, but my father as a violinist was greater than he.”  In whatever proportions a caricature of the real nephew of Rameau, a caricature of Rousseau, and an invention of Diderot, “Rameau’s nephew” was the prophet of virtuosity.
The Age of Revolution validated virtuosity. The Age of Revolution takes its name principally from the democratic revolution in politics, the industrial revolution in economics, and the bourgeois revolution in social organization. But during the same period there also occurred revolutions in culture: a revolution in the appropriation of space, a revolution in the valuation of practical knowledge, and a revolution in the projection of the self. The better-known revolutions in politics, economics, and social organization affected but did not control these revolutions in culture, which had their own dynamics.
Historians have too often said that in the Age of Revolution all things seemed possible and that the world seemed suddenly new. This is not sufficiently precise. What the word “revolution” implies, and what seemed possible and desirable to many who lived during the Age of Revolution, was a turning around of the old world. It seemed possible and desirable that government would be responsive to all people instead of to a single person, that machines would do what animals had done, that what one did oneself rather than what one’s ancestors had done would determine one’s place in society, that private social activities would take place in public, that practical learning would be more important than abstract learning, and that oneself rather than another would occupy the conceptual center of one’s world. During the Age of Revolution people attempted to put on the top what had been on the bottom, to put in the front what had been in the back, and to put on the inside what had been on the outside. The generality of the urge to turn around the old world is what warrants our use of the label the Age of Revolution.
In the old world, spectacles of the mind, works of art, the fine arts, and elite culture were associated in one tradition, generally considered superior, while spectacles of the body, works of skill, the mechanical arts, and popular culture were associated in another, opposing tradition, generally considered inferior. The chevalier de Jaucourt, in the Encyclopédie article “Spectacles,” classified stage plays, with their emphasis on people’s thoughts and feelings, on mental rather than physical things, as spectacles of the mind. They were also works of art: Theater counted as one of the fine arts. And they drew their audiences disproportionately from the upper classes. A performance of rope-dancing, on the other hand, was a spectacle of the body, a work of skill, and attracted a much more popular audience. Jaucourt contrasted spectacles of the mind and spectacles of the body in much the same terms that Diderot, in the Encyclopédie article “Art,” contrasted the liberal arts and the mechanical arts. Both were strongly influenced by the distinction between the fine arts and the mechanical arts made by Charles Batteux in his book Les Beaux arts réduits à un même principe (The Fine Arts Traced to a Single Principle, 1746). But Jaucourt maintained the old position in which spectacles of the body had been valued less than spectacles of the mind while Diderot advanced the new position that the mechanical arts were at least equal to the liberal arts.
The virtuosos intensified their performances by drawing largely on both traditions. Philidor’s simultaneous blindfold exhibitions were spectacles of the mind, but spectacles featuring the most “physical” characteristics of the mind, agility, strength, and stamina, in a demonstration of mental acrobatics. In making his pièces montées works of architecture, Carême was aspiring to have them considered works of art, for architecture counted as a fine art while cooking counted as a mechanical art, producing only works of skill. Actually, architecture itself mixed the two traditions, for according to Batteux it counted as both a fine art and a mechanical art. Music was definitely a fine art and the performance of it a spectacle of the mind. Sometimes highly skilled performers such as Farinelli called attention to the bodily aspects of music making, for example, when he showed off the enormous capacity of his lungs or the sensitivity and power of his vocal cords. Until Paganini and Liszt, however, performers of composed music did not normally emphasize the bodily production of that music. With their caprices and études, Paganini and Liszt straddled the boundary between works of art and works of skill and their performances straddled the boundary between spectacles of the mind and spectacles of the body. Some of their followers passed way over the boundary, converting the performance of music into a spectacle predominantly of the body. A mid-nineteenth-century organist, for example, successfully undertook to play six million notes in the space of twelve hours. Robert-Houdin began squarely in the tradition of the mechanical arts and works of skill, but he created such artful mechanisms and employed such artful deceptions in his presentation of them as to round them into a spectacle of the mind.
Performers who mixed spectacles of the mind and spectacles of the body, works of art and works of skill, the fine arts and the mechanical arts, appealed to a broader audience than performers who kept within either of the two traditions. If the hypothesis of historian Peter Burke is valid, the elite’s rediscovery of popular culture toward the end of the eighteenth century may have weakened the boundary between the two traditions. Another development having a similar effect may have been the emergence of a “midcult,” a middlebrow culture of the semi-educated posited by literary critic Dwight Macdonald. Chapbooks, either abridgments of elite works or short original works, aimed at audiences just above the threshold of literacy, far outsold books of the learned in the eighteenth century. Historian Michèle Root-Bernstein, in her study of Paris theater in the second half of the eighteenth century, found that “contemporaries recognized at least three broad theatrical publics: persons of high estate, the middle bourgeoisie, and the people.”  All six of the principal subjects of this study were semi-educated; specifically, all were literate and none attended university.
The virtuosos amplified spectacle-making, technical skill, and selfpromotion to the point that a performance no longer conveyed something or represented something; it simply was, a spectacle, a display of skill, an exercise in self-promotion. For Napoleon, the archetypal performer-genius of the Age of Revolution, winning battles became an end in itself. For the virtuosos, so did playing chess, making constructions out of food, studying the culture of crime, playing a musical instrument, and building complicated machinery.
The Age of Revolution turned around the old world’s social status system in several ways, some of them well known, one of them rarely noticed: It raised the value of how well someone fulfilled a role above the value of the role itself. Less vertiginous than a general mounting a throne, but still disorienting, were a composer ascending to professional chess player, monarchs bidding for the services of a cook, a criminal converting to policeman, musicians blending into the aristocracy, and a mechanician-magician implementing foreign policy. The crescendo of the virtuoso put the great performer up to any role.
The United States embraced Parisian virtuosity. The American chess master Paul Morphy gave an unprecedented simultaneous blindfold exhibition in the Café de la Régence, and later masters such as Paulsen, Pillsbury, and Koltanovsky set new records for such feats in the United States. Grande cuisine appeared in Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. Edgar Allan Poe and Allan Pinkerton learned from Vidocq. Maelzel made a highly lucrative tour of the United States with Kempelen’s Chess Player. P. T. Barnum made an even more lucrative tour with singer Jenny Lind, and he also brought Robert-Houdin’s automaton writer-sketcher to his American Museum in New York. Performers have done better and better since the Age of Revolution, thanks to a steady increase since then in the mounting of spectacles, in the exaltation of technical skill, and in the ballooning of the self.
The invention of still photography by Louis Daguerre in Paris in the 1830s, of cinematography by the Lumière brothers in Paris in the 1890s, of video broadcasting in Great Britain and the United States in the 1920s, and of video tape in the United States in the 1970s have provided spectacle-makers with increasingly powerful tools to expand both the spectrum of visual displays and the size of audiences. As the stage has given way to the film projector and canvas screen, to the electromagnetic-wave transmitter and cathode-ray-tube screen, and as experts in props have given way to experts in special effects, spectacles have grown ever more dazzling and reached ever larger numbers of people, as well as becoming ever more numerous and various.
Performances of skill, particularly athletic events such as the Olympics, heavyweight boxing championships, and World Cup soccer, have grown into the biggest spectacles. Performances of art such as music and dance have become athleticized. World’s fairs, successors of the old industrial expositions and like them technology-oriented, have surpassed industrial expositions as spectacles, seen perhaps by more people in person than any other kind of twentieth-century spectacle. Technical knowledge, whether of the mechanisms of nature, of man-made machines, or of the human machine, has been increasingly rewarded. And the material products of technical skill have spewed forth relentlessly, making them an all-pervasive presence in Western society.
Self-love has become the order of the day; the self-centered worldview, well established. Once restricted to posters and newspapers, selfadvertising constitutes much of the substance of today’s movies, television, popular music, and magazines. Nonviolent duels in the form of organized competitions are utterly commonplace and take place in almost every field of social activity. The torrent of autobiographies, confessions, recollections, and memoirs has never eased since the self-proclaimed heroes of the Napoleonic Empire began to publish theirs. Now almost everyone, particularly in the late-twentieth-century empire of American culture, feels that his or her own life story has interest or value for a mass public.
Late-twentieth-century America’s best-known and best-rewarded individuals are performers: athletes, actors, and popular musicians. (Some CEOs are better rewarded than, but not as well known as, the leading performers; some politicians are better known, but not as well rewarded.) They achieve that status through spectacle, skill, and self-promotion. They are the descendants of the chess masters, chefs, detectives, musicians, and automaton-builders of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Paris. Napoleon admired the actor Talma and considered making him a member of the Légion d’Honneur; the people of the United States in the late twentieth century made an actor chief of state.
Virtuosity in Paris during the Age of Revolution sometimes looks familiar and sometimes looks strange to us. A story in which the protagonist converts in the middle from outlaw-hero to detective-hero is foreign to the late-twentieth-century Western sensibility of disillusionment with constituted society; because of this disillusionment our detective-heroes often seem to be on the verge of becoming outlaw-heroes, but they never do. Simultaneous blindfold exhibitions, although they continued to be a regular feature of chess life through the 1950s, have fallen out of fashion. So have massive pièces montées, although chefs of haute cuisine do still make ice sculptures and extravagantly shaped and ornamented cakes. One-string violin pieces, improvements to Beethoven piano sonatas, and androids subsist only marginally.
If certain manifestations of virtuosity in Paris during the Age of Revolution look strange to us, it is not only because those manifestations have disappeared since then, but also because we have forgotten that they ever existed. The natural tendency of memory and history is to purify the past. We have forgotten such disturbing complications as the fact that Mozart and Beethoven both wrote serious compositions for automatic instruments; that Mozart gave blindfold exhibitions at the keyboard; that Beethoven engaged in piano duels; that the disloyal army officer Bonaparte and the rabid revolutionary Fouché did much to found the modern police state; that during the invention of the crime novel, Balzac, Hugo, and Sue experimented with a wide range of portrayals of the criminal, as public enemy, as victim of society, as social product, as sportsman engaged in a contest with the police, as public hero; that the epitome of neoclassicism, David, designed revolutionary fêtes; that both the statesman Napoleon and the great zoologist Cuvier admired the tragedian Talma and copied his techniques for use in their public speaking; that Rousseau promoted not only democracy but also himself.
When we are reminded of these complexities, the culture of Paris during the Age of Revolution may seem to us a game without rules, a gallimaufry, an uncloseable file, a haphazard medley, a Goldberg contraption of extravagant doings, laughable, lamentable, astonishing, fascinating, exasperating. But there subsisted a certain order, a small set of guiding principles, a nexus of values: spectacle, skill, and self-promotion.
Human flight began with the balloonists of late-eighteenth-century Paris. During the subsequent Age of Revolution dozens of aeronauts made thou-sands of ascents. It was not until that age had passed, however—in fact until the passage of a full century from the first human flight—that two Frenchmen devised an effective steering mechanism and made balloons dirigibles—“directables.”  The aeronauts of the Age of Revolution, motivated by the values of spectacle, skill, and self-promotion, launched them-selves above the crowd, but once aloft they lost control and never knew where their flight would end.
All translations of quotations from other languages into English are the author’s unless otherwise noted.
1. This interpretation derives from Wilson, Diderot, p. 420. [BACK]
2. Mercier, Picture of Paris, p. 177. [BACK]
3. Chevalier de Jaucourt, “Spectacles” and [Diderot], “Art,” in Encyclopédie, vol. 15, pp. 446–47, and vol. 1, pp. 713–17, respectively; Charles Batteux, Les Beaux arts réduits à un même principe (New York: Johnson Reprints, 1970; reprint of 2d ed., Paris, 1747; first published in Paris, 1746). Jaucourt, “Spectacles,” says explicitly that his exposition is based on Batteux. [BACK]
4. Batteux, Beaux arts réduits, p. 6. [BACK]
5. Schonberg, Great Pianists, p. 132. [BACK]
6. Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, p. 63; Dwight Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” in Against the American Grain (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 27–75; Geneviève Bollème, “Littérature populaire et littérature de colportage au 18e siècle,” in Bollème, Ehrard, Furet et al., Livre et société dans la France du XVIIIe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris: Mouton, 1965–70), vol. 1, pp. 66–69; Root-Bernstein, Boulevard Theater and Revolution, p. 34. [BACK]
7. Dale, Early Flying Machines, p. 25. [BACK]