Berenice, by Philippe Cherry (1759-1833), engraved by Pierre Michel Alix (1762-1817),
taken from the 1802 edition of Recherches sur les Costumes et sur les Théâtres de toutes les nations, tant anciennes que moderns ([Research on the Costumes and Theaters of all Nations, Ancient as well as Modern])
first published by M. Drouhin, Paris 1790. The drawing illustrates the 1670 play by Jean-Baptiste Racine.
From the translator
TWO SHORT NOTES IN THE STYLE OF THE AUTHOR
It is probably in keeping with the encyclopedic style of Professor Krawczuk for your translator to append two cultural notes to this delightful book.
1. In the year 1670, at the height of glory of Louis XIV, before rebellions and unlucky wars dimmed somewhat the brilliance of the Sun-King, his cousin and sister-in-law, Henriette d'Angleterre, daughter of the unlucky Charles I of England, and wife of Phillip d’Orleans, staged a bloodless duel: a head-to-head confrontation between two court dramatists, the aging Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and the up-and-coming Jean Racine (1639-1699), both of whom she commissioned to produce a play on the subject of Berenice, Queen of the Jews. Performed a week apart at the end of November 1670, the two plays caused a furor, a loud war of words and pamphlets between two cultural (and, therefore, as always in France, political) factions—the supporters of either one or the other author. It was a war conclusively won by the new man.
Broken by his defeat, Corneille never wrote another play. For Racine, this victory marked his rise to power. In 1672 he was elevated to a seat in the Academie and went on to compose, in short order, his greatest plays: Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673), Iphigénie (1674) and Phèdre (1677).
The French ruckus sent a veritable cultural tsunami across the shores of European courts, all of which rushed to stage their own versions of the story, whether in dramatic or operatic style. As a result, the sheer volume of “Titus and Berenice” output deposited in the deep layers of European heritage is staggering while Racine’s play remains on the playbill in France until this day. As a result, most Europeans have heard of Titus and Berenice: the title rings a bell even if most can no longer say which church is tolling.
2. Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel or Breughel) the Elder (1525?–1569) was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance, a painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (so-called “genre painting”); he pioneered the use of both subjects as the main focus of large paintings. He was a huge commercial success during his lifetime and founded a dynasty of sons and grandsons who continued the business, often copying their founder’s designs. Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II, the famed alchemist and art connoisseur, was a great admirer and collector of his work, which is how the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has come to feature a special room hung with twelve huge Pieter Breughels, including The Fall of Icarus, The Tower of Babel, The Hunters in the Snow, and The Peasant Wedding. It is, in my opinion, one of the most profoundly moving museum rooms in the world.
Ardennes National Park