The art of wool in Abbé Pluche’s “Spectacle de la nature”
The art of wool in Abbé Pluche's
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The art of wool in Abbé Pluche's "Spectacle de la nature"

There are many animals which, like man, construct themselves a dwelling; but there is no other creature than man that clothes itself. The most universal experience teaches us that all nations regulated by laws, in all periods, and for all things, have always regarded the custom of men covering their bodies as a decency which cannot be dispensed with, even when milder, more temperate climes did not oblige them to take any such precaution. Reason, and the knowledge of disorder, which man experiences in himself, undoubtedly dispose him to employ the aid of skins and cloths to cover his body. But the vacillating, unequal nature of human reason would not have sufficed to establish such a constant uniformity. Neither the whims of the human spirit nor the reasoning of philosophers have ever led the nations to a general method. The custom of dressing comes from higher up”. So where, or rather when, does it come from? “We can therefore say of garments what is said of sacrifices, and of religious meetings: what they have in common is nothing less than the ancient origin of the world itself“. Clothing and religious sentiment, then, are rooted in our most distant past; intrinsic characteristics of humanity. Just as people are hardwired to believe in some form of higher being, in the same way they are hardwired to wear clothes: two practices that that set us apart from animals and represent an integral part of human nature.

Abbé Pluche in a mid-18th century print, and the title page of the eleventh volume of his work, translated into Italian and printed in Venice in 1786.

The abbot Noël-Antoine Pluche (1688-1761), author of “Spectacle de la nature”, was firmly convinced of it. The eight volumes of his most famous work, fully titled “Nature Display’d. Being discourses on such particulars of natural history as were thought most proper to excite the curiosity, and form the minds of youth”, were published in 1732. Reprinted dozens of times and translated throughout Europe, the book is a sort of early form of encyclopaedia, authentically “encyclopaedic” in the modern sense of the term. Abbé Pluche, suspected of belonging to the controversial religious movement known as Jansenism, was more of a communicator than a priest, and his “Spectacle de la nature” aimed above all to be an informative, educational work. The focus of this information and education? In a word, everything. He set out to describe, illustrate and explain the world and nature in its entirety, spanning all human activities, including the processing of wool, the weaving of cloth and the making of clothes. Being intended for the general public (though the day’s leading intellectuals, including the Encyclopaedists/Enlightenment scholars had no qualms about making full use of it, thereby acknowledging its technical and scientific merits), he also decided to include illustrations as an aid to comprehension.

All eight original volumes and the countless subsequent editions are a wealth of clear and comprehensive images. The trend back in the day was for simple but effective “static” illustrations, along with more “dynamic” ones showing people using tools and operating mechanisms. Noël-Antoine Pluche and some of his contemporaries intuited that the age of machines was dawning. They wrote like God-fearing priests, but thought like technologists and scientists: they genuinely believed in God, but they also believed in progress, and the need to educate people so that the miracle of human advancement could be accomplished.

The prints that hang in our offices

Anyone who visits the Vitale Barberis Canonico offices will spot a number of small framed prints lining the walls, depicting old spinning wheels and antique looms, tools and mechanisms dating to the Ancien Régime, and figures dressed in outfits and arranged in poses reminiscent of late Baroque fashion plates. All of them hail from Pluche’s “Spectacle de la nature”, possibly the 1747 Neapolitan edition published by Cervone, or more likely the 1786 Venetian edition by Pezzana, both of which appeared in fourteen volumes. The eleventh “treatise”, entirely dedicated to “The clothing of man“, can be found in the eleventh volume. Regardless of which version they belong to, the engravings come from a high quality reprint, their images sharp and vivid.

Two of the plates in the collection

It is like travelling into a world that died out two and a half centuries ago, but it is in this very world that the ancestors of today’s weavers trace their origins. And among the Biella wool workers of the past who would have been perfect models for Abbé Pluche, the Barberis Canonico family were already present…

The historical fabric of the archive.
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The fabric of the Vitale Barberis Canonico collection.
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