Diderot’s Encyclopédie

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Denis Diderot (1713–1784) 31K jpeg
Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Under the direction of Denis Diderot (1713–1784), over 140 of the greatest minds of pre-Revolution France—including Voltaire, d’Alembert and Rousseau—contributed the tens of thousands of articles to make the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de lettres (Encyclopedia or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Professions…). A mammoth work of around seventeen million words, it was a compendium of human knowledge and achievement.

Censorship of various articles deemed treacherous or heretical meant the publication was to proceed sporadically. The second volume was ordered to be burnt within days of its release in 1752, and five years later the death penalty was proscribed for authors penning seditious text and those publishers responsible for its dissemination. It was to be a quarter century from the publication of the first text volume of seventeen in 1751 to the final of eleven volumes of plates in 1772.

For the English world, Encyclopædia Britannica was not to make an appearance until 1768, with its first edition complete within four years.

From the original Encyclopédie, the elegantly-engraved plates for Lutherie are of particular interest to instrument makers. Four of the plates are directly relevant to the harpsichord, and are reproduced here by direct scans of the original edition engravings in my library.

Diderot Plate XIV 6K jpeg

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Plate XIV

Lutherie, Instruments à cordes et à touches. Clavecin.

Harpsichord without lid,
details of jack

Diderot’s Encyclopédie title page 53K jpeg
Title page from the first volume, 1751

Diderot Plate XV 7K jpeg

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Plate XV

Lutherie, Instruments à cordes et à touches. Suite du Clavecin.

Internal bracing, soundboard ribbing,
cabriole leg stand

Diderot Plate XVI 8K jpeg

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Plate XVI

Lutherie, Instruments à cordes et à touches,
avec le Psalterion Instrument à cordes et à baguettes.

Spinet, psaltery, double-manual keyframes,
detail of lower keyboard

Diderot Plate XVII 8K jpeg

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Plate XVII

Lutherie, Outils propres à la Facture des Clavecins.

Various tools of the harpsichord maker,
including small bow drill, marking gauge,
tongue broach, tuning hammer, etc

Framed Diderot plates 21K jpegEach trade was protective of its “secrets” in order to ensure its controlled survival under the guild system, and harpsichord making was no exception. As a result, the rendering of the internal case bracing and soundboard ribbing of the French Double Harpsichord shown in the Lutherie plate XV was merely an artist’s perception. No instrument looks like that inside!

It would seem Diderot’s artist was not permitted to view the interior of the instrument under construction, such things being for the eyes of guild members only. Perhaps for the sake of completion, the artist had to use conjecture to draw the interior from the very general description provided in the text. This might have provided sufficient information to whet a dilettante’s appetite, but not enough to enable a durable and effective instrument to be built. And it could make one question the reliability or at least the completeness of the other arts figured in the Encyclopédie.

From this, one should perhaps also be a little cautious of the written word with or without authoritative illustrations, whether appearing in print or even on the internet…

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