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  • The “Virtual Menagerie”: The Histoire des animaux Project
  • Anita Guerrini (bio)

In 1671 and 1676, the royal printing office in Paris published two volumes of a sumptuous elephant folio titled Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux. Emblazoned with a large royal emblem encompassing a crown, scallop shells, and fleurs-de-lis proclaiming the volumes to be a product of royal patronage, the 1671 title page named no author, although the 1676 volume did name the physician and architect Claude Perrault as “compiler.” The books were printed on fine paper and were illustrated with numerous engravings by Sébastien LeClerc, one of the best known of Louis XIV’s stable of court artists and engravers.1 These lavish books were obviously not meant for an ordinary audience, and indeed, Alexander Pitfeild, who translated the books into English in 1688 noted that most of the copies were given away by the crown and its agents to “persons of the greatest quality,” so that even by the time he wrote, a decade after its appearance, few copies were available for purchase.2 The volumes were obviously meant to showcase Louis XIV’s patronage of the sciences and perhaps also to guarantee its continuation; [End Page 29] the front matter included an illustration of a visit of the king to the Paris Academy of Sciences—a visit that had not yet taken place at the time of publication. Tailpieces and other incidental ornaments in the texts continued the royal theme.

But apart from its function as a vehicle for patronage, the Histoire des animaux displayed the results of a research program at the Paris Academy. Among the most notable aspects of the volumes were LeClerc’s illustrations. A full-page illustration accompanied each of the animals discussed, displaying the animal in life as well as some of its dissected parts. In this essay, I will argue that the animals were drawn, in life and in death, following several very specific artistic conventions. I will examine Perrault’s claims of empiricism, naïve observation, and absolute verisimilitude in the construction of the Histoire des animaux to contend that in this work, the animals were artifacts: crafted objects rather than natural ones. What, therefore, were the meanings held by the animals in this project?

The Animal Project

The project was one of several of the Paris Academy of Sciences, founded in 1666 by Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert and supported by the crown. Early in 1667, Claude Perrault announced a project of “anatomical observation” at one of the first meetings of the academy. In the discussions surrounding its foundation, the academy delineated two distinct fields of study, which were somewhat deceptively, by our standards of nomenclature, called “mathematics” (la mathematique) and “physics” (la physique), both of these much broader than their names imply. Mathematics would be discussed on Wednesdays, physics on Saturdays. La mathematique included not only geometry and algebra, but also astronomy, while la physique encompassed anatomy, botany, and chemistry as well as mechanics and was deemed to be easier and less abstract.3 Perrault appears to have been in charge of la physique, and at that early meeting he outlined a plan of work for the academy that focused on “the two most useful and most curious parts of natural philosophy,” anatomy and botany.4

Perrault distinguished two varieties of anatomy, one dealing with form and the other with function, or what he called “les dispositions mechaniques.” Perrault valued observation above reasoning, arguing [End Page 30] that observation must always be prior to reason. Therefore, in his discussion of anatomy, he privileged observation of form over reasoning about function. Similarly, in the case of plants, he proposed only to do “L’Histoire & la Description simple des Plantes,” in, however, “une manière philosophique.” This “philosophical manner,” however, had more to do with the order of and kinds of descriptions rather than with drawing conclusions from them.5

The animal project emphasized observation—the province of natural history—rather than seeking causes, which was the province of natural philosophy, and the method pursued was dissection. In her book on the botany project, Alice Stroup argues that the academicians distinguished “natural...


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