Author(s) Perrault, Charles
Title Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes
Imprint Paris, J.-B. Coignard, 1688
Localisation Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, 265190
Subject Architecture, orders, machines, stereotomy
Transcribed version of the text


     Charles, the youngest of the Perrault brothers, gave up his legal career soon after he was called to the bar in 1651.  He then became auxiliary to his brother Pierre, who was the principal tax collector in Paris.  In 1664 he went on to Colbert's administration where he collaborated indefatigatibly as his right-hand man for almost twenty years, as the auxiliary to the Superintendant of the King's Buildings and then Inspector of Buildings.  As Secretary of the Petite Académie (the future Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres) where Jean Chapelain, Abbot Amable de Borzeis and Abbot Jacques Cassagne were also members, he was also responsible for the royal propaganda. Elected to the Académie française in 1671, he was at the height of glory.  A few months before the death of Colbert (1683) who preferred his son to him, his responsibility was taken away from him.  A victim of the hostility of Louvois, the new Superintendant of Buildings, Charles also lost his position within the Petite Académie.  All his efforts to gain Louvois' confidence proved to be futile, in spite of the reading at the Académie of his poem the Siècle de Louis le Grand in 1687 (which revived the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns) and the publication of the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, a plea pro domo published in four volumes (1688-1697) in the form of dialogues.  The disgrace pressed Charles Perrault to take up again the literary world to which he had been devoted during his youth.  In 1653 he had published Les murs de Troye, ou l’origine du burlesque in collaboration with Beaurain and his brothers Claude and Nicolas at the presses of Louis Chamhoury.  With them he also made a translation of the sixth book of the Aeneid, in burlesque, previously unpublished until 1901 (Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France).  Because of the controversy provoked by his reading of the Siècle de Louis le Grand at the Académie, Charles decided to publish his Parallèle, less to respond to the various criticisms than, as he specifies in his Preface, to "désabuser ceux qui ont cru que mon Poëme n’estoit qu’un jeu d’esprit, qu’il ne contenoit point mes véritables sentimens" ("disillusion those who believed that my Poem was only an intellectual game, that it didn't hold my true feelings").  In fact he maintains in his work in prose that if "les Anciens sont excellents, comme on ne peut pas en disconvenir, les Modernes ne leur cedent en rien, & les surpassent mesme en bien des choses" (the Ancients are excellent, as one cannot fail to discover, the Moderns make no concessions to them, and even surpass them in many things").  He repeated this again in his Mémoires written in 1702.
The first volume of the Parallèle, published in 1688 by Jean-Baptiste Coignard, printer to the King and the French Academy, is logically devoted to the arts and sciences.  In fact in order to serve the cause of the Moderns it was more judicious to begin by evoking the incontestable technical and scientific progress attained with the accumulation of human knowledge through the centuries. At the same time the preference granted to architecture, considered the first among the fine arts, can be explained by Charles' old interest in the art of building, to which, according to him, he owed his career.
The inaugural volume which opens on a preface and the privilege introduces three characters (the president, the abbot and the knight) who decide to go to Versailles during the king's absence.  After a first dialogue on the bias towards the Ancients (pp. 1-107), Perrault turns to the Parallèle itself on the fine arts (pp. 109-252).  He who had been responsible for overseeing the royal buildings and had closed the deals can do nothing more than grant the greatest importance to architecture (pp. 110-176) and Versailles, the magnificent concentration "de beautés toutes nouvelles".  The three begin their visit on the piano nobile, by the King's and the Dauphine's Suites, the galleries, the salons of Peace and War, the King's Small Suite, filled with wonder at the profusion of marble, the richness of the panelling and the flooring, and the quality of the paintings and sculpture.  On the ground floor they pass into the celebrated Suite of Baths and go on into the park to admire the façade on the garden side from the parterre.  This is the opportunity for the abbot, favorable to the Moderns and acting as Charles Perrault's spokesperson, to set forth his concept of beauty in architecture (natural positive beauties opposed to arbitrary beauties: proportions, ornaments...).  For Charles one recognizes a great architect in the quality of his construction (p. 138) and its solidity (p. 159), in the convenience and the distribution of the spaces, finally the magnificence of his work (pp. 159-160).  For in all these domains the superiority of the Moderns is undeniable: the Pantheon, the paragon of antique excellence, has, among other faults no two columns of the same width in the portico (pp. 162-163).  The Ancients did not master geometric diagramming or the art of stone-cutting (p. 168 sq.) which allow the realization of wide spacing between columns, to construct "astonishing" squinches, or unsupported banisters.  In addition stereotomy produced the invention of specific machines "qui n’élèvent pas seulement les pierres à la hauteur que l’on désire, mais qui les vont poser précisément à l’endroit qui leur est destiné" (p. 172) ("which not only raise the stones to the desired height, but place them exactly").  In the end only the beauty of the structure counts; the Colonnade at the Louvre is the best example of it (p. 175 sq.) considering the size of the stones and the quality of the almost invisible joints.
All these ideas had already been published by Claude Perrault in his Vitruve (1673 and 1684) or in his Ordonnance des cinq espèces de colonnes (1683), to which moreover he refers his interlocutors in reference to the abuse of the changing of proportions (p. 152).  But these ideas are without a doubt Charles' ideas. His taste for architecture dated back; in 1657 he was the one responsible for the new central building of the family house at Viry, supervising all the work.  Because of his competence he was awarded the post of auxiliary to Colbert in 1644, even though Colbert had ruined his brother Pierre (Mémoires, Paris, Macula, 2001, p. 125).  We know that Charles was the originator of several architectural projects, from the grotto of Thetis at Versailles (demolished in 1684 in order to construct the north wing of the palace) to the arch of triumph of the Porte Saint Antoine, as well as the "peristyle" of the Louvre (Colonnade) for which Claude always provided the drawings.  Moreover Charles inspired the architectural vocation of his brother, a doctor by training and his elder by fifteen years.  Thanks to Charles, in 1667 Claude was given the responsibility for the project of the Observatoire for  the Académie des sciences which had been created the preceding year.  The same year, he had obtained for him a membership in the "Petit Conseil" for the completion of the Louvre beside Le Brun and Le Vau, to participate in the project of the west façade of the palace after Bernini's setback.  The Parallèle on the fine arts was therefore for Charles the opportunity to justify Colbert's artistic policy and the choices that he had made himself; he claims ownership of the Colonnade and considers himself the true instigator and inspirer of the most beautiful creations of his period.  Attacked by François d'Orbay and others concerning the Colonnade, Charles completed this artistic testament in his memoirs, which were nevertheless left as a manuscript (Mémoires de ma vie).
The first volume of the Parallèle draws to a close with two pieces in verse, the Siècle de Louis le Grand, already published the preceding year which was the cause and the origin of the book, and the epistle to M. de Fontenelle Le génie; in fact Pierre and Thomas Corneille's nephew made a name for himself with his Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes (Paris, 1688) as a formidable partisan of the Moderns.  The three other volumes, published by the widow and the son of Jean-Baptiste Coignard who had died in 1689, deal respectively with eloquence (1690), poetry (1692) and various subjects such as astronomy, geography, philosophy, etc. (1697).  The bookseller-printers made the most of the situation and re-issued the first two volumes in 1692 and 1693.  Those who took sides with the Ancients were unquestionably supported by Versailles.  Charles, often abhorred because of his role close to Colbert, might have harmed the cause of the Moderns until the appearance in the controversy of Fontenelle, a brilliant independent mind, a recognized scientific figure whose arguments had quite a different scope.  In spite of the truce made official by Boileau's and Perrault's public embrace (as leaders of the two coteries) the quarrel took on international proportions at the end of the 17th century and the "Quarrel on Homer" was to ignite Paris as well as London and Naples.

Frédérique Lemerle (Centre national de la recherche scientifique,
Centre d'études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2010


Critical bibliography

J. Barchilon, "Charles Perrault à travers les documents du minutier central des Archives nationales", XVIIe siècle, 65, 1964, pp. 3-15.

J. Barchilon & P. Flinders, Charles Perrault, Boston, Twayne, 1981.

P. Bonnefon, "Charles Perrault, commis de Colbert et l’administration des arts sous Louis XIV d’après des documents inédits", Gazette des Beaux-arts, 40, 1908, pp. 198-214, 340-352, 426-433.

P. Bonnefon, "Charles Perrault. Essai sur sa vie et ses ouvrages", Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, 11, 1904, pp. 365-420.

P. Bonnefon, Introduction to Charles Perrault, Mémoires de ma vie, Paris, Librairie Renouard/Laurens, 1909, pp. 1-17 (reed.: Paris, Macula, 1993; 2001).

Colbert 1619-1683, exhibition catalogue for the Délégation aux célébrations nationales et de la Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Archives nationales, 1983.

"Charles Perrault", special copy of Europe, 739-740, november-december 1990.

M. Fumaroli, "Les abeilles et les araignées", La querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, Paris, Gallimard, 2001, pp. 178-196.

H. Gillot, La Querelle des Anciens & des Modernes en France : de la "Défense et illustration de la langue française" aux "Parallèles des Anciens et des Modernes", Paris, Champion, 1914.

A. Hallays, Les Perrault, Paris, Perrin, 1926.

H. Kortum, Charles Perrault und Nicolas Boileau. Der Antike-Streit im Zeitalter der klassischen französischen Literatur, Berlin, Rütten/Loening, 1966.

J. Morgan-Zarucchi, introduction to C. Perrault, Memoirs of my Life, English translation of the Mémoires, Columbia University of Missouri Press, 1989, pp. 1-25.

A. Picon, "Un moderne paradoxal", C. Perrault, Mémoires de ma vie, Paris, Macula, 1993, pp. 1-107.

A. Sigwalt, Une mystification de Charles Perrault : la Colonnade du Louvre, Paris, Éditions Nationales, 1948.

M. Soriano, Le dossier Perrault, Paris, Hachette, 1972.