Marvellous Moderns The Brothers Perrault

Charles Perrault is celebrated as the collector of some of the world’s best-known fairy tales. But his brothers were just as remarkable: Claude, an architect of the Louvre, and Pierre, who discovered the hydrological cycle. As Hugh Aldersey-Williams explores, all three were able to use positions within the orbit of the Sun King to advance their modern ideas about the world.

May 17, 2023

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Henri Testelin after Charles Le Brun, Etablissement de l'Académie des Sciences et fondation de l'observatoire, 1666. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (centre, dressed in black) presents members of the Royal Academy of Science to Louis XIV. Charles Perrault is thought to be just to the left of Colbert, and Claude Perrault centre-right, looking at the viewer, beside the man holding scrolls. Through the parted curtains we can see the Paris Observatory, whose design was led by Claude Perrault — Source.

Louis XIV of France — the longest reigning monarch the world has ever known (born in 1638, he reigned from 1643 until his death in 1715) — was a man of great passions. Aside from his Catholic faith, and his two wives and his mistresses, he adored music, dancing, theatrical ceremonies, his gardens, fountains, and palaces. His last words, noted down and later framed as a warning to his successor, were: “I loved wars and buildings too much.”1

Fortunately, there were great talents equal to the King’s passions, among them the composers Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin and the playwrights Molière and Jean-Baptiste Racine. When domestic artists could not be found, the best were brought in from abroad, such as the sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who came from Rome.

Never, though, did a single family encompass the range of skills that the French court required as comprehensively as that of the Parisian lawyer Pierre Perrault and his wife Paquette Leclerc. Of their six sons and a daughter, three in particular would distinguish themselves in very different fields, their careers all woven together by dependence on Louis’ extravagant but visionary royal patronage. In an age when the fine arts, the “useful arts”, and the sciences still overlapped to a great extent, these three brothers crisscrossed almost effortlessly between a host of disciplines.

Best remembered today is the youngest of the brothers, Charles (1628–1703), who is famous now as the collector and author of fairy stories — including “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Puss in Boots”, and “Bluebeard” — known as the Mother Goose Tales. Before turning to writing, however, he served at the French court as a cultural advisor to Louis’ all-powerful minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

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19th-century engraving of Charles Perrault surrounded by depictions of the tales that were to make his name — Source.

Like Charles, Pierre Perrault, the oldest of the brothers (1611–1680), trained as a lawyer. He rose to a senior position as a receiver of taxes, where he was well placed to bankroll his family’s ambitions, until he fell from grace in an embezzlement scandal. Thereafter, he pursued literary and scientific studies, and wrote an influential treatise on the origin of springs, which is considered to mark the discovery of the hydrological cycle in nature.

Claude (1613–1688) began his career as a physician, and made investigations in the fields of physics and natural history, becoming one of the founding members of the French Academy of Sciences, before dying from an infection contracted during the dissection of a camel. But it was in the theory and practice of architecture that he was really to make his mark.

In addition, there was Nicolas, who studied to be a theologian, and became well known in his day as the author of a vehemently anti-Jesuit tract, and Jean, who also followed in his father’s legal footsteps, but caught a fever following injuries sustained in a carriage accident while in Bordeaux with his brother Claude, whose attempt to cure him through bloodletting precipitated his sudden death. Charles’ twin, François, died in infancy and a sister, Marie, died before reaching adulthood.

The quality of the brothers’ education is neatly encapsulated by a eulogy for their father, who “made a particular effort to fortify, at the opportune moment, his children against popular errors, to inspire them with the purest maxims taken from Holy Scripture, and to open their minds to the most beautiful forms of knowledge.”2 Though they were all intellectually accomplished and highly ambitious, the brothers were nevertheless different in character. Charles had a sharp, ironic wit. Nicolas was pious, but humorous, too. Claude was the most scholarly among them, while Pierre had the social skills that helped to launch them all on their astonishing careers.

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Frontispiece for a 1695 manuscript of Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose), possibly in the hand of his brother, Pierre — Source.

In 1654, Pierre followed his father into government finance when he bought the position of receiver-general for Paris. As such, he was responsible for collecting the iniquitous land tax known as the taille (it affected all common people’s property, but the nobility, with far greater land holdings, was exempt). His handsome earnings taken directly as a percentage of these receipts enabled him to support his younger brothers as they too began to explore the corridors of power. Charles was the first to take advantage, and moved in with Pierre, acting as a runner for his older brother, ferrying taxpayers’ monies to the bank. (Though he too had studied law, he never practised, dissuaded perhaps by the shady business of collecting his degree, when, along with two friends, they found “the sound of our money, which someone was counting behind us during our examination, played some part in making them believe our answers to be better than they actually were.”3)

The Perrault brothers’ collective prospects were boosted by political changes, which gradually introduced a more meritocratic approach in state administration. Following the death of his boyhood mentor and chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661, Louis XIV — still only twenty-three years old — began to take more direct control of the government. He appointed Jean-Baptiste Colbert as his finance minister. The immensely able and cultured Colbert set about centralizing power through a sweeping programme of domestic economic development, trade reforms, and colonial expansion, introducing greater efficiency in tax collection in order to pay for it all. The increased receipts were used to fund a series of public works such as long-distance canals, as well as to glorify Paris with the erection of grand buildings, foremost among them Louis XIV’s palaces of the Louvre and Versailles. Colbert also instigated a string of new royal academies of the arts and sciences in addition to the existing Académie Française.

Charles’ less than onerous duties for Pierre left him with plenty of time to browse in his brother’s excellent library, and to work his way into Colbert’s favour with his literary and cultural expertise. By 1664, Charles had so impressed Colbert that he was made superintendent general of buildings, advising on royal palaces and gardens, as well as the secretary of one of Colbert’s new academies, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, devoted to historical writings. In reality, the brief was even wider: as Colbert’s confidant, Charles was “to examine in good faith anything that contributed to the arts and sciences”.4 Sometimes, the literary and horticultural came to a happy convergence, as when he suggested that Louis XIV theme thirty-nine sculpted fountains at Versailles according to fables of Aesop.

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List of Aesop-themed fountains in the labyrinth of Versaillles, with a map of the grounds, from Jacques Bailly, Le Labyrinthe de Versailles, ca. 1675. While the book lists 38 fountains, a 39th was added at a later date — Source.

However, as Charles rose, so Pierre was to fall. Streamlining the collection of taxes proved so successful that it was soon possible to bring in general tax cuts. The only ones to suffer were the official receivers of taxes, such as Pierre, who had bought their positions dearly when taxes were high, only to see an easy incom gradually eaten away. Caught out by the abrupt change, Pierre felt he had no option but to dip into the current tax takings in order to pay his debts. When Colbert heard of this misdemeanour, he personally made up the missing revenue, but demanded an explanation from Charles Perrault, who went to see his brother to hear his excuses. These were unsatisfactory to Colbert, who immediately forced Pierre to sell off his office at a loss. “It was all done with extraordinary harshness, and shocked all the financiers”, Charles wrote afterwards.5 Charles, too, severely tried Colbert’s patience when he interceded once too often on behalf of his hapless brother. The Perrault brothers had learned the hard way that the family name they had sought to use for their advancement could also easily count against them.

Once he had regained Colbert's trust, it was now Charles who was able to help another brother, Claude. He recommended Claude as one of the founding members of the Academy of Sciences, where he embarked on a project to assemble a natural history of animals and their anatomy. Endless dissections of diverse animal species soon extended into an exploration of the motion of bodies and the action of mechanical springs.

But it was not long before Colbert found Claude a new project. Aware that the physician was adept in Latin, the minister commissioned Claude to produce a French translation of the ten books of Roman engineer Vitruvius’ De Architectura, the only work of architectural theory surviving from the classical period. His medical expertise allowed him to express his astonishment when he came across the highly idealized proportions of man laid down by Vitruvius in Book Three of his work.6

This theoretical project led to two important building commissions. The first was for the design of the east colonnade of the Louvre, which still stands as an exemplar of French classical architecture. The extent of Claude Perrault’s involvement is not entirely clear — several other architects contributed as well. However, he was the principal architect of the Paris Observatory, which, along with being an astronomical facility, was to serve as a meeting place for his Academy of Sciences. Work on the building began on the summer solstice of 1667 when the academicians gathered on site to agree its precise orientation to the cardinal points of the compass, with the Paris meridian defined by its axis of symmetry.

A major challenge of the design was to meet the modern requirements of a scientific institution within the conventions of the classical architectural style. The final plan comprised a complex grouping of three octagonal towers around a rectangular central block. Exceptionally for the period, the resulting edifice was almost without ornament, dedicated entirely to its scientific function. Unlike the Louvre colonnade, the classical orders of architecture were all but absent from the facades, whose tall, arched windows gave an austere overall appearance.

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Facade and layout of the Paris Observatory, from Claude Perrault’s 1684 Les dix livres d'architecture de Vitruve (The ten books of architecture of Vitruvius) — Source.

While Claude was busy with these projects, and Charles continued to serve Colbert, their brother Pierre, following his financial disgrace, tried his hand without success at translation and literary commentary. Quite how he came next to consider the problem of hydrology is a mystery. Perhaps a clue lies in the dedication of the treatise he produced on the subject to his friend (and friend of all the Perraults) Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch scientist and a leading light at the Academy of Sciences, who was much concerned with the hydraulics of Louis XIV’s fountains, among more serious pursuits in astronomy and mechanics. Or perhaps it was his brother Claude, who may have pointed out as he was translating Vitruvius that the Roman engineer speculates in the eighth book on the origin of springs and their exploitation for urban water supply.

De l’origine des fontaines (translated as On the Origin of Springs, rather than “fountains”) was published in 1674, setting out for the first time with quantitative evidence the workings of the natural water cycle (a summary of the work had appeared a couple of years earlier in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society). He published it only reluctantly, fearful of the kind of satirical criticism to which his brother Charles was routinely treated for his literary efforts.

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Frontispiece to Pierre Perrault’s De l’origine des fontaines (1674) — Source.

Water has long been something of a French obsession. The country’s natural thermal, spring, and mineral waters were acknowledged as an important national asset, with a history of scientific attention and statistical data-gathering behind them. A century after Pierre Perrault, the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier was one of the contributors to a mineralogical atlas of the country’s waters, for example. But the groundwork for Perrault was laid by the Huguenot ceramic artist and hydraulic engineer Bernard Palissy, who published a discourse on the sources and composition of underground waters in 1580.

It had been widely believed since antiquity that much of the Earth’s water must come from sources underground. Aristotle, for example, reasoned that the volume of all the rivers was far greater than could be explained by rainfall alone. Palissy was the first to suggest that the Earth’s precipitation was in fact sufficient to account for the flow of all its springs, streams, and rivers, although he did not offer evidence for his claim. Pierre agreed with his countryman that springs could arise from rainwater alone, although he disputed certain details, such as how the soil and rocks underground contributed to the cycle.

Pierre’s innovation was to employ quantitative analysis. He conducted experiments to gauge the ability of sand and soil to absorb and release water, and devised means to measure the flow and volume of streams and rivers such as the Seine. In this way, and taking into account the absorption of water by plants and losses due to evaporation, he was able to show convincingly for the first time that the total of the rain (and snow) that falls on the Earth is indeed sufficient to account for the water that emerges from springs and flows in all the rivers. In reviewing previous thinking about water sources from Plato onwards, Pierre surmised that Aristotle, perhaps overly awed by watching rivers in spate, had neglected the balancing factor of the sheer area of the Earth’s surface available to collect rainwater.

According to Pierre, the conventional wisdom that “the rains that fall on the slopes of hills are lost and of no use for springs, because thence they fall into rivers” — in other words, that rainwater was carried straight to the sea via rivers, and that springs were therefore caused by some other divine or undiscovered underground agency — was completely wrong. For Pierre, it was very nearly the opposite: it was the rains and rains alone “that serve to produce and maintain springs”.7

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Illustration of the underground source of springs as understood by Aristotle and others who believed that rainfall alone was an insufficient explanation of the Earth’s rivers, from Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1665) — Source.

For an amateur’s first foray into science, Pierre’s treatise was remarkably well received. His calculations were checked later and confirmed by leading members of the Academy of Sciences, such as the physicist Edmé Mariotte, and by the astronomer Edmond Halley in England. Pierre himself remained modest about his achievement. “There is nothing hard to understand, nothing new to be imagined, nothing to be assumed gratuitously or by miracle”, he wrote of his findings.8

Though working in very different milieus, each of the brothers was now known in effect as a writer at a time when writers were much in demand at court in order to communicate the glory and progress of the French state. Claude was the translator of Vitruvius. Nicolas had written against the Jesuits. Pierre had his treatise on springs. And Charles, the future author of the Mother Goose Tales, was kept busy by Colbert penning celebrations of royal occasions and profiles of beneficiaries of patronage. In the eighteenth century, the mathematician and encyclopedist Jean le Rond d'Alembert, writing a series of eulogies to early members of the Académie Française, praised Charles Perrault as one who wrote for a nation that “wanted and deserved to be enlightened”.9

The Perraults’ centrality to the literary world of Louis XIV’s France was underscored when Charles became embroiled in the “culture wars” of the day. Known as the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns”, a satirical pun on the title of an essay by Charles titled “Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns”, this long-running dispute revolved around whether the works of classical antiquity could or should be surpassed by contemporary creativity. It began in 1674 with an operatic production of Alceste by the court composer Lully, which was criticised for departing from the classical story by Euripides. In a polemical essay, Charles defended the work, arguing that artistic progress was possible. However, leading playwrights such as Pierre Corneille and Molière sided with the Ancients, while Racine mocked Perrault in verse.

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Portrait of Charles Perrault by Philippe Lallemand after Charles Le Brun, ca. 1671 — Source.

Charles Perrault was a modern in more than just a literary sense. For example, he produced an early “Defence of Women” when a colleague published a satire against the female sex in the style of the Roman writers Horace and Juvenal. In fact, the “Quarrel” reveals something fundamental about all the Perrault brothers, which is that they were all Moderns in their way, for Pierre’s and Claude’s works take sides no less than Charles’. Claude’s translation of De Architectura was no slavish copy, but also a modern commentary in which he was critical not only of Vitruvius’ idea of human proportion, based on his own modern medical knowledge, and referenced reinterpretations of the Roman master by modern architects such as Palladio. The translation served as the platform for Claude’s later work, “Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns”, which aimed to synthesize the best features of Vitruvian idealism, actual classical antiquities and the ideas of Renaissance theoreticians.

The architect-brother's immersion in the dispute was practical as well as theoretical. A design that he produced for a triumphal arch near the Bastille came unstuck when opposing sides could not agree whether its inscriptions should be in Latin or modern French. In the end, construction was abandoned and the foundations were demolished after Louis’ death. And at the Observatory, an argument erupted concerning Claude’s proposal to set the signs of the zodiac in marble into the paving. Though not strictly an ornament in the classical style, and so a “modern” conception, the idea was judged vulgar and unscientific by the incoming director of the observatory, the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini.

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Design for the Arc de Triomphe at Place du Trône (today’s Place de la Nation), which was never completed, by Claude Perrault, who beat out Charles Le Brun in a competition overseen by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ca. 1670 — Source.

Pierre Perrault’s hydrological studies were also framed in terms of the “Quarrel”. In his introduction to the work, he challenged his contemporaries for their refusal to consider that rainfall might account for all the Earth’s waters. “How is it then”, he demanded, “since the first and most usual maxim of our Moderns is to doubt everything, that they do not doubt also an opinion so contested and so obscure?”10 In the end, though, he builds on modern studies such as those of Palissy, and demolishes the old thinking of Plato and Aristotle.

In 1697, his seventieth year, Charles Perrault saw prose versions of his fairy tales into publication. Surprising as it seems, even these were a late counterblast in the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns”, intended as modern alternatives to the classical fables of Aesop. They were also a riposte to the contemporary French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, one of the Ancients faction, whose famous verse tales, such as “The Grasshopper and the Ant” and “The Lion and the Mouse”, began to appear from 1668, and were derived mainly from classical sources.

Assembled from folklore, but greatly embellished, and in some cases completely invented by Charles, the Mother Goose Tales are modernized versions of traditional stories, relocated into a bourgeois society that seventeenth century readers — and especially his friends at court and in the Académie Française — would recognize. Sleeping Beauty’s wedding even takes place in a mirrored apartment reminiscent of Versailles. And each tale has a moral purpose. “They all lead us to see the advantage of being honest, patient, clever, industrious, and obedient, and the evil that befalls those who are not”, Charles wrote.11 For him, it was this that made them modern. “I believe that my Fables are more worthy of being recounted than most of the ancients’ Tales . . . which were created only to please, without regard for sound morals, which they greatly neglected.”12

Just as Claude’s magnificent additions to the architecture of Paris still stand today, so do Charles’ timeless stories and Pierre’s ideas about the hydrological cycle. In these three brothers’ work, we find enduring achievements made possible by the overlapping visions of science and art under the reign of Louis XIV.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and curator. He is the author of Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe (Picador, 2020), as well as a cultural history of the chemical elements, Periodic Tales (Penguin, 2011), and The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015).

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.