My aim with this conference is to review the founding moments of that conversational art that for three centuries, from the end of the 15th century and until the fall of the Old Regime, has been imposed with distinctive connotation in the lifestyle of the European elites. I will thus begin with the Italian humanist model, which was in elaboration since the reflexions of Pontano, who in his De Sermone (1499) inaugurates the European reflexion over conversation as a way of civil life. Later, I will remember the impact of the three major post-Renaissance pedagogical treaties: Il Cortegiano by Baltasar Castiglione (1528), Galateo by Giovanni della Casa (1558), and La civil conversazione(1574) by Stefano Guazzo. Three Italian writings that were extensively translated to other languages, and disseminated in Europe the code of conduct -what we would call now, the know-how- of the modern gentleman.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 17th century, France makes the Italian model its own, copying it, internalizing it upon their needs, and giving it a new and original character. Until then, the theoretical debate about conversation and the ways of the civil life were an exclusive of the great humanists, and its teaching, beyond the contingencies of the small Italian courts to which one or other made reference, wanted to be universalized. Alternatively, in France the ideal "way of living" to be adopted does not come from above, but it is elaborated in small steps by the mundane elites, so it can latter be imposed as key distinction of the national character.
For the first time in the history of Western civilization, an entire society looks in the mirror studying, analyzing, and systematically reflecting its own appearance and communication problems, and transforms this into the distinctive element of its identity. What is at game is the art of words being able to tame down the aggressiveness and foster consensus and social cohesion through a harmonious exchange. It is an art capable of unifying and at the same time separating, as well as capable of producing entertainment, pleasure, information, and culture.
Precisely due to this collective reflexion, the conversation à la française took shape and, due to its different roles, needed to be at the core of the aristocratic society rites of the Old Regime.
My purpose here is not to evoke in all of its multiple nuances the complex body of rules that have marked the art of conversation and have made of it a flagship of an entire civilization, but to see if this ephemeral art of the words traditionally associated to a world of privileged people has finally disappeared with the French Revolution, or if still has things to show us.