Systematizing the Arts and Sciences in the Enlightenment
Des Connoissances Humaines
The Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was published under the direction of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert between 1751 and 1772.
With 74,000 articles written by more than 130 contributors, Diderot’s encyclopedia served as a massive reference work for the arts and sciences. It classified learning and human activity in ways that made sense of generations of human invention, culminating in the ideas and ideals of the late 18th century French Enlightenment.
Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers par une société de gens de lettres ; mis en ordre & publié par M. Diderot ; & quant à la partie mathematique par M. d'Alembert. Geneve: Chez Pallet, 1777-79.
The ideals of the Enlightenment are shown here in allegorical form, summarized by Diderot and systematized, in the 'Systême Figuré des Connoissance Humaines,' seen to the right.
Beneath an Ionic Temple, the Sanctuary of Truth, one sees Truth enveloped in a veil and radiating light which parts the clouds and disperses them. To the right, Reason and Philosophy are busy, one in raising the veil from Truth, the other in tearing it away. At her feet, Theology, on her knees, receives the light from on high. In following this chain of figures, one finds on the same side Memory, Ancient and Modern History; History records the pomp and ceremony, and Time serves as its support. Below them are grouped Geometry, Astronomy, and Physics. The figures below this group represent Optics, Botany, Chemistry, and Agriculture. At the bottom are several Arts and Professions which derive from the Sciences. At the left of Truth one sees Imagination, who positions herself to adorn and crown Truth. Below Imagination, the artist has placed the different genres of Poetry: Epic, Dramatic, Satirical, and Pastoral. After that come the other Arts of Imitation: Music, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.
The Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was first published under the direction of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert between 1751 and 1772.
The first edition of the engraved plates, which illustrate topics from anatomy and surgery to optics, astronomy, navigation, and architecture, among other topics, were first published in 1772. Robert Bénard engraved, or directed the engraving, of at least 1,800 plates for the Encyclopédie. He also engraved the plates for the voyages of James Cook.
The anatomical studies published in Diderot’s encyclopedia followed in the tradition of Leonardo’s studies of the early 16th century and Vesalius’ studies of the mid 16th century. Both anatomists relied on dissection of cadavers. Known as the father of anatomy, Vesalius conducted dissections of executed convicts.
Robert Bénard's classically-posed anatomical illustrations are set within landscapes - some with antique funerary monuments alluding to death and burial - echoing the work of Vesalius.
The Encyclopédie depicted surgical techniques and instruments, seen in this illustration of trephination, used to treat head injuries. While during the late eigheenth century, laudenum, derived from opium, and other herbals remedies could be employed to reduce pain, the use of ether as an anesthetic would not be discovered until the mid-nineteenth century.
The section of the Encyclopédie focused on surgery includes papers by Antoine Louis, the French surgeon and professor of physiology who built the first prototype for the guillotine on the eve of the French Revolution.
The Encyclopédie's corpus of writings and engravings on optics features an engraving of the camera obscura. The natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen (or, for instance, a wall) is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image (left to right and upside down) on a surface opposite to the opening. Frustrations with the limitations of the camera obscura would, in the 1830s, lead Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre to invent photographic solutions (see final section).
The Encyclopédie also includes Isaac Newton’s design of the reflecting telescope (below, left), first built in 1668. Newton first conceived of the reflecting telescope as an alternative to the refracting telescope at the age of 23.
Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie also included writings and engravings focused on astronomy. Engraver Robert Bénard charts the phases of the moon and maps its surface. Bénard also illustrates an armillary sphere (an astrolabe or model of the Copernican solar system, figure 21), celestial positioning, and a comet (figure 25), all visually echoing the varied artistic conceptions of the solar system explored by Aristotle, Sacro Bosco, Copernicus, and Galileo (preceding pages).
Bénard also features a celestial map (below, left) including the stars and constellations of the northern and southern hemispheres.