Aesthetica Preprint, 31 (April 1991)

Claude Perrault, The order of Architecture

The contribution of Claude Perrault (1613-1688) to French culture in the Grand Siècle is important for the history of both science and architecture. A physician, member of the prestigious Académie Royale des Sciences and friend of personalities like Christiaan Huygens and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, he was highly thought of in scientific circles, though rather less than some of his great contemporaries. Though his contribution to architecture in certain projects, like the Colonnade at the Louvre, is debatable there can be no doubt that his work as a theorist is fundamental.
He was entrusted with the translation into French of the treatise of Vitruvius by Colbert (with whom his brother Charles collaborated from 1664 onwards as "premier commis aux bâtiments du roi"), the first edition being published in 1673 and the second in 1684. In the preface and some notes he propounded certain theories, provoking evident though prudent controversy, in particular among the supporters of architectural culture closest to the Académie d'Architecture. In 1683 these theories appeared in the Ordonnance des Cinq Espèces de Colonnes selon la Méthode des Anciens, which he reiterated and expanded on, condensing them into the twentyseven pages of the famous "Préface", now published in Italian for the first time. Here the attitude of Perrault the scientist is reflected in his approach to the theory of proportions, which was brand new for the time. It is a synthesis of carefully observed items (incidentally the surveys made of ancient monuments then standing show they did not respect the accepted rules, though these rules were inconsistent and at times contradictory), and a theoretical position of principle which, breaking away from longestablished tradition, refused to consider architectural proportions as having the same absolute and immutable character as those of music; for these, he proposed rules based on logic, simplicity of calculation and practical application. Although the title explicitly refers to the "Methode des Anciens", Perrault's real vision of the "Antique" world fully reflects the position of the "modernes" in the famous disagreement which was to cause a clash between his brother Charles and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, the author of L'Art Poétique, who mercilessly mocked the «méchant médecin», a convert to architecture.
The distinction between a «beauté positive» and «beauté arbitraire» - the former based on objective criteria including symmetry, the latter on taste and "je ne sais quoi" - is an original one, and unrelated to other distinctions made at the time, though this was suggested, such as Pierre Nicole's distinction between «vraie et fausse beauté» (true and apparent beauty) or Christopher Wren's «Geometrical or Natural Beauty» and «Customary Beauty». Argued by means of theoretical assumptions that sounded at the time like paradoxes, Claude Perrault's ideas mark the origins of modern reflection on the theory of architecture, which were to prove fundamental, and not only in France, for its development in the Eighteenth century and those to follow.