‘Following the footsteps of dessein: Montaigne, design and the Essais’

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by Vittoria Fallanca (New College)

What is the design of the Essais? Montaigne often qualifies it directly: it is a design that is 'wild' and 'extravagant' perhaps also 'monstruous'. But Montaigne also often describes it negatively, in terms of what it is not, or does not do. The Essais are thereby qualified in terms of what has been left out: the shadows, traces, impressions of those things that have been excluded, excised. In this talk, I discuss what some of Montaigne's uses of the word design ('dessein') can reveal about the Essais as a work of both presence and absence, and reflect on what these insights can reveal about the development of design / dessein as a notion in Renaissance France and beyond. Analysing this term through its early polysemy (poised between the mental and the material, the real and the ideal) also allows us to see vital connections between literature, philosophy and the visual arts in Montaigne’s thought. Design emerges as an important tool for understanding elements of the Essais’s composition and the attitude to writing they embody. 


Vittoria Fallanca is Career Development Fellow at New College, Oxford where she is completing a book on Montaigne and design due out with Oxford University Press. From 2024 she will be Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, working towards a second book project on things that aren’t love in Renaissance Europe. 

The Early Modern French Seminar is convened by Raphaële Garrod (Magdalen College), Jess Goodman (St Catherine’s College), and Alice Roulliere (St John’s College)