Spectacular Speeches: Emotions, Rhetorical Practices, and the New Canon of Public Speaking in France and Italy (1789–1861)
In my final years as a researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions, I studied the emotional engagement of political audiences in France and Italy from the French Revolution to 1848. The most talented orators of the French Revolution were well aware that it was the expressiveness of their language that made them eloquent. Some might have had deep voices, but they also took care to professionalize the writing of their speeches by hiring ghostwriters they trusted. In order to hold an audience’s attention, these professional speakers knew they had to read people’s cues—observing the movements of others’ bodies, foreseeing the emotional reactions to their words, and adjusting their script to the unexpected.
Theoretical reflections on rhetoric and cultural practices related to public speaking explain how skillfully revolutionaries weave together the fabric of their speeches. But where else could political actors gain the knowledge they needed to step up their skills accordingly? How did they end up experiencing a new canon of eloquence, making the most of eighteenth-century lessons on sentimentality? Which practices prepared or enabled them to embrace a new rhetorical style suited to influencing public opinion that became so important politically over the course of the 19th century? This project investigated some of the threads that facilitated this turn in the century-old tradition of rhetoric, identifying the main sources of the revolutionaries’ oral culture and the growing importance of emotional engagement in 18th-century rhetorical canon. By using insights from sociology and political sciences, I tried to demonstrate how much historians need to consider these cultural elements so as to seize the experience citizenry had of political institutions. During the pandemic, when the archives were not accessible, I worked on French and Italian theoretical treatises on rhetoric in order to understand what was at stake in the new set of rhetorical practices of the modern age: the conscious display of emotions, the emotional engagement of the audiences as the primary goal, and the social experiences that made possible the establishment of a new canon of emotionalized rhetoric.