New in Champagne: La Maison des Lumières
Following the inspired renovation of a stunning renaissance town house, this new museum is a tribute to illustrious Langres native Denis Diderot, man of letters and editor of the groundbreaking Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts), published between 1751 and 1772. Diderot shared his friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s fervour for freedom of thought and views on equality – these weren’t endorsed by king and church so philosophers and scientists had to publish anonymously and correspond with the utmost discretion. “Sapere Aude” (“Have the courage to use your own understanding”) is the motto which greets you at the door of the museum, and this was the battle cry of the Enlightenment, when thinkers like Voltaire, Franklin, Hume, and Locke searched for truth through knowledge.
The museum’s multimedia panels add much to its priceless collection of books and works of art, shedding light on the pre-Revolutionary mindset, when printing itself was a risky business. Diderot discovered this when he spent the summer of 1749 imprisoned in the dungeons of Vincennes, for publishing his essay, Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who Can See.
The renovation of any building of this age always throws up some surprises but this house offered up an actual treasure. Imagine the face of the worker who discovered, deep inside a stone wall, some 319 gold and 1,633 silver coins, a silver purse and packets of tobacco. Around the time when these coins were struck, during the early 1800s, it wasn’t unusual to keep private smoking supplies stashed as a regulated monopoly on tobacco made it a precious commodity. The reason for hiding the coins is up for speculation, one theory being that the house’s aristocratic owner would doubtless have been worried by the coming Revolution and so wanted cash at hand to emigrate at short notice.
However, this long-hidden bounty pales when compared to the incalculable riches housed in this jewel of a museum. It is just one of the unexpected treasures you will find when venturing off the beaten path, to this walled city of art and history in northeast France.
TIP: An excellent free booklet in English is available to visitors, which features a handy numbered guide to the museum’s exhibits.
Originally published in the February-March 2014 issue of France Today
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