Vitale Barberis Canonico

From cannibals to clothing:
the elastic philosophy of Abbé Pluche

We might not yet count him as an old friend, but we’ve already met Abbot Noël-Antoine Pluche, he of the 1732 tome “Spectacle de la Nature“. A genuine treasure trove, this ahead-of-its-time compendium mingles serious philosophy and lighter content with an ironic touch. At a certain point in his musings, he decides to set a few things straight with those peddling the idea of the “state of nature” and celebrating the figure of the “noble savage”, a primitive human existence with no rules (or clothes). 

Portrait of the Count of Vaudreuil, painted by Hubert Drouais in 1758, National Gallery, London.

Portrait of the Count of Vaudreuil, painted by Hubert Drouais in 1758, National Gallery, London.

The Abbot’s eleventh “dissertation” is entitled “The Clothing of Man“, and after a brief introduction, the first paragraph is devoted to “The Matter of Garments“. But first things first.

A certain branch of philosophy, ever singular in its aims, and entirely disregarding the concordance which lies between the experience of many nations and the account of the Scriptures, would like to exempt us in part from those laws, and attribute all to the simple need to mitigate the harmful effects of the elements“. As if to say that the only reason we wear clothes is to protect ourselves from the cold, and beyond that, clothes serve no purpose and we might as well be rid of them. “In poetry, and in painting, there is now the almost general tendency to omit garments“, the Abbot observes. In his view there existed moral absolutes which philosophical relativism was unfortunately attempting to undermine. Indeed this type of reasoning “could invoke the example of cannibal philosophers, to spare us unwelcome inconveniences, granting us the freedom to satisfy all our appetites, including the useful practice of eating our enemies after putting them in cages and amply fattening them up“. Without the fear of God, a future of nudity and cannibalism lay in wait, and this scabrous sophistry had to be combatted with rationality.

Pluche was no doubt an interesting character, with rigid principles but a very elastic brain, just as fabrics had to be: capable of providing protection, but also allowing freedom of movement. Man had Nature at his disposal and he had the duty to make responsible use of it, though without presumption because “the flexibility and consistency of his clothes are not, properly speaking, his own work“. Raw materials already possess certain innate characteristics, and the intelligent man had to be familiar with these in order to “put them into practice”, that is, to weave them. “Those with solidity and likewise elasticity, with the mobility of horsehair, or down, or the hairs of all kinds of animals; or the threads certain caterpillars wind around their chrysalises; or the worms which can be picked from certain types of bark, or the lint that can be extracted from the pods of certain trees“.

Pages of a volume of Vitale Barberis Canonico historical Archives with fabric samples.

Pages of a volume of Vitale Barberis Canonico historical Archives with fabric samples.

Abbé Pluche was not overly concerned that the microscopes of his time had not yet unveiled the wonders of these fibres. “He who gave them to us freed us from the burden of studying their nature, veiled in mystery to the present day; but He invited us to exercise our industry on the effects they can produce, rewarding our efforts with success“.

Browsing through the illustrations from “Spectacle de la nature” that hang along the corridors of Lanificio Vitale Barberis Canonico, it is tempting to think that the world really would be a happier, simpler place if it were enough to spin, weave, dye and enjoy the results, without asking too many questions about why wool, silk, cotton etc. behave in one way rather than another. According to the good Pluche, it sufficed to accept what had been given and adapt to that. What with science and technology, tastes and fashions, there were already  more than enough ideas, and no need take things any further. Progress was important, but in moderation… Time has proven the encyclopaedic Abbot wrong, and just as well. Tradition and innovation are the two sides of the same coin for those who, like Vitale Barberis Canonico, know their past and plan their future with a dynamic approach, applying both creativity and the microscope. 

We’ll be meeting Abbot Pluche again soon. The next chapter of his book, entitled “The Different Cloths“, has more hidden gems.

The historical fabric of the archive.
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Sample of fabric, black and white houndstooth pattern.
The fabric of the Vitale Barberis Canonico collection.
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