Serious Pursuits – Rare Encyclopedia

Reprinted in full from the 2005 Rare Book Review magazine article.

Dieter Schierenberg reports on French Encyclopedia and the 18th century quest for enlightenment

Lille-born publisher Charles-Joseph Panckoucke began work on the Encyclopédie Méthodique in 1777 hoping to create a definitive record of the history of European thought and civilization. When it was completed in 1832 it ran to in excess of 120,000 pages, contained over 6,000 engravings and had taken three separate publishers to finish. Today it can be found in anything up to 300 volumes.

For many of his contemporaries, its appearance confirmed Panckoucke’s status as the ‘uncrowned king of the French publishing world’. In 1786 aged 32 he was made the official book dealer to the French court and Royal Academy of Sciences. Writing about the Encyclopédie, the renowned French bibliographer Jacques-Charles Brunet described it as the crowning achievement of French book production, unmatched anywhere in the world.

Reading the dictionary provides a comprehensive Who’s Who of France’s 18th-century intellectual elite: architectural critic Quatremere de Quincy, theologian Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier, mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and Charles Bossut, naturalists Pierre-André Latreille and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck whose controversial evolutionary theories were a precursor to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Initially, the Encyclopédie Méthodique ou par ordre de matières, to give it its full title, also enjoyed great commercial success. Twenty-five printing offices were employed for the first edition, and the number of subscribers proved so great that the subscription list had to be closed early. A papal ban on the Encyclopédie further helped to stoke up controversy and guaranteed publicity.

Yet despite the plaudits, popularity and incredible ambition and scope of his project, Panckoucke has not become a household name, and his great work has failed to realise the same degree of notoriety as Diderot and d’Alembert’s encyclopedic work of the time, even though the latter is svelte by comparison; it contains just 35 volumes, has 2795 plates, and was completed in the comparatively quick time of 29 years.

Being such a mammoth project, the Encyclopédie Méthodique presents the collector with a minefield of bibliographical problems. My own collection has taken over ten years to assemble. Indeed, perhaps no more unmanageable body of dictionaries has ever been published with the possible exception of Jacques Paul Migne’s Encyclopédie Théologique (1844-1875) which runs to 119,059 pages in 168 volumes and 101 dictionaries.

Panckoucke’s project had three separate publishers. After his death in 1798, work continued under the stewardship of Henri Agasse, Panckoucke’s son-in-law, and then following his demise by Agasse’s widow until its completion in 1832. Furthermore, most volumes in Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie, but by no means all, were originally published in two halves. Volumes have in turn often been subdivided, and added to by other dictionaries, supplements and appendices.

The whole work was to be completed and connected by a single volume quarto-sized index or ‘Vocabulaire Universel’ with references to all places where each word occurred, and a history of the Encyclopédie and its editions by Panckoucke. A prospectus marketing the project, issued early in 1782, proposed three editions – one with 84 octavo-sized volumes, another with 43 quarto-sized volumes with three columns per page, and a third with 53 quarto-sized volumes of about 100 sheets with two columns per page. However, some subjects such as engineering, hunting and games were overlooked in the prospectus, and new volumes had to be added.

To give some idea of the chief concerns of the age, the largest dictionaries in the collection were ‘Medicine’ which ran to thirteen volumes and 10,330 pages; ‘Zoology’ with seven dictionaries and 13,645 pages and ‘Botany’ with 12,002 pages and over 1000 plates. 

Denis Diderot et al

As the project got underway, Panckoucke had difficulties living up to his ambitions. Production fell behind as editors and contributors failed to meet deadlines. Complaints began to arrive from subscribers who had not received the latest instalment of the Encyclopédie, and Panckoucke was facing rising debts.

In November 1788, in a desperate bid to keep his project on track Panckoucke wrote to his authors appealing to them to finish the work. Those who were behind made new contracts, giving their word of honour to put their parts to press, so that Panckoucke hoped to finish the whole in 1792. That goal was not achieved until forty years later, thirty-four years after his death. 

Most copies of the Encyclopédie in libraries – even famous ones – are incomplete. Besides a set at Quaritch in London, the only other genuinely complete copy is at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem who will be hosting a special exhibition on the Encyclopédie and age of Enlightenment in 2006. My own collection was completed by having some volumes photocopied and then bound in the familiar ‘cartonnage d’éditeur’ – the greyish publishers board with printed labels on the spines. In total it contains 286 volumes – 251 ‘text’ volumes and 35 atlases – with 5952 engraved plates and maps along with the famous allegorical frontispiece representing Truth wrapped in a veil, encircled by Reason, Philosophy, Theology and other personifications of sciences, arts and crafts engraved by C. Boily and based on an original painting by Charles-Nicolas Cochin.

Denis Diderot et al

Good bibliographical and historical guides to Panckoucke’s life and work include Charles Joseph Panckoucke et la Librairie Française 1736-1798 by S Tucoo-Chala, Paris (1975) or R Darnton’s study The Business of Enlightenment – A History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800, Cambridge (1979).

Darnton cites Diderot and d’Alembert’s creation as the major scholarly achievement of the 18th century, but it is perhaps best to see the two great Encyclopedias working in tandem, both serving as testaments to the remarkable intellectual ambition and tenacity of their authors, as well as a lasting paper testimony to the breadth and obsessive quest for knowledge in 18th- and 19th-century France.

Background image: A very rare complete set of the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1777-1832) at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem

Turkish Delight: the Ottoman World Observed

Coinciding with the launch of our Ottoman World catalogue, we asked Dr Philip Mansel, a fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, to give a talk at our bookshop. On the evening of 22 February the celebrated author brought to life the wonders of the Ottoman Empire, as seen through the eyes of European travellers, recorded in literature and art.

Luckily for those who did not attend, here is the podcast.

Philip Mansel's top picks at Shapero Rare Books (click through for further information)

The Ferriol Album (A collection of 100 engravings depicting various nations in Levant), 1714

The album is one of the most important works of the epoch regarding both fashion and other aspects of daily life in Levant. It was created as part of the Occident’s effort to understand the Orient and offers important clues about the way in which the Europeans perceived the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 18th century. The portraits were commissioned by Charles de Ferriol, the French ambassador in Istanbul, and made by the Flemish artist Jean Baptiste Van Mour, in 1707 – 1708.

Van Mour's paintings (and the plates that derive from them) show Constantinople as a cosmopolitan place with Muslims and non-Muslims uniting in shared 'Ottoman' pleasures. Armenians, Franks, Greeks and Persians are shown drinking coffee, playing mankeh (a version of backgammon), or making music.


MAYER, Luigi
Sala del Divan Dove Il G. Vizir Tratta con Pranzo, 1790

It was common practice in the 18th and early 19th centuries for ambassadors and wealthy travellers to employ artists to accompany them abroad. In an age before photography, visual records of significant events and places were as important as textual documentation as markers of authority or achievement.

Sir Robert Ainslie was not alone among diplomats in Istanbul in employing an artist to record the events of his office; as Philip Mansel has noted, the city inspired an unusual number of “embassy pictures”.

The Topkapı Palace in Istanbul was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years and where the Imperial Council held state meetings. Mayer's watercolour depicts a gathering of senior ministers presided over by the Sultan, with Europeans also in attendance.

Signed by Luigi Mayer. £50,000

FORBIN, M. Le Comte de.
Voyage dans le Levant, 1819

In his talk, one of the reasons Philip Mansel gave for Europeans extending their grand tour to this great Muslim power was the exoticism and glamour of the Oriental markets and Ottoman court.  Another reason was the desire to tread in the footsteps of the ancient civilizations.

Limited to 325 copies and issued in folio with 80 plates,  Forbin’s was one of the first important French books to use lithography on a grand scale. Most of the plates illustrate views in Egypt and Syria. As Director of Museums in 1817 he undertook a year-long voyage to the Levant, having been authorised to purchase antiquities for the Louvre.

The folio includes this famous image of Bernardino Drovetti, French consul in Egypt and notable collector of antiquities, holding on to a colossal statue. To his left, in Arab costume, is the Marseilles-born sculptor Jean-Jacques Rifaud, who combed Egypt for relics on behalf of the consul.


THORP, John.
Sketches of Constantinople and the Crimea, 1854

A highly accomplished sketchbook recording a tour of duty from Dublin to Odessa at the time of the Crimean War, with views of Constantinople, Gallipoli, Odessa, and Scutari.

John Thorp set sail from Dublin for the Crimea on 21st July 1854, on board the Royal West Indian mail steamer Avon, which was being used as a transport ship. The sketches include Gibraltar (1), Malta (1), and 22 of Turkish/Crimea interest of which 14 are double-page panoramas.


Palestine and Syria, 1912

Baedeker Guides were published for travellers in the era of the Grand Tour. This is the last edition in this series giving a detailed description of Palestine and Syria six years before the end of the Ottoman Rule, giving a sense of life and geography before World War I and the upheavels that followed, changing the region forever.

A reproduction of Baedeker's map is also featured in Philip Mansel's book Aleppo (2016).

Fifth edition incl. 56 plans. £275

Discover more

Philip Mansel chose these 5 items; "Because they are all realistic and based on direct observation, and they show the many direct links and alliances between European powers and the Ottoman Empire, of which they are an  artistic expression and product."

Philip Mansel (born 1951) is a historian of courts and cities, and the author of a number of books about the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. He helped found the Society for Court Studies and the Levantine Heritage Foundation. Writing in the Financial Times, Elif Shafak stated about Aleppo (2016): “Written by a scholar who is not only profoundly knowledgeable but who also sincerely cares about his subject, it is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about what we have lost."

Explore more highlights in our Ottoman World catalogue