On the 11th of Fructidor, year 8 of the Revolution, Noël came before the Academy of Science and demanded a hearing for a unique invention--the secret of shaving oneself without a razor. Money was involved, big money for anyone who could come up with an invention that would be useful and help revive the Read More
The Vermillion Sea
Noël studied with King Louis XV's drawing master, Nicolas Charles de Silvestre, and with his son, Jacques Augustin. On Sundays the archives shut down, so I went out to Etampes and had a wonderful lunch on the terrace with the great grandson of Jacques Augustin.
The first artist in the Silvestre family, Israel Silvestre, escaped religious persecution in Scotland and moved to the Read More
Besides doing research for my novel, I've had a great time learning the ins and outs of the French archival system. First off, each archive has its own, unique collection. Before asking to look at old documents, you must register yourself and obtain your reading card. Those reading cards allow you to enter collections that are closed to the general public, and they're well worth the users fees you'll need to pay to acquire one. Before I came over here, I tried to get a general idea of what each collection contained. I didn't expect to find original art at the Archives nationales, but I wanted a paper trail of the young artist. Read More
What a magnificent library I stumbled into here in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, once housed in the Louvre, where artists, goldsmiths, and jewelers lived rent free, thanks to the regard the French have always had for art. Now, the Ecole occupies a beautiful old hotel a couple of blocks from the Cafe Read More
Shortly before I left for this trip, I made an earthshaking discovery about Alexandre-Jean Noël. That wasn't his real name! In a document in the Spanish Archives, I found a letter listing all the people in the French party heading off to Baja, and the young artist's name was Jean Noël Turelure. Read More
Portraits and personal stories about these scribes of the law fascinated me, and I learned that when property traded hands, a court told a debtor to pay, or a person died, a notary made a record of that event for posterity. If you died without a will, a notary would come and place a value on your property. Read More
Groggy and excited to dig into the last little bit of research I need for my new novel, I stumbled off the plane at Charles de Gaulle and made my way to the Marais, a part of the city I don't know well. The reason for picking the Marais is that it's close to the Archives nationales where I hope to find information about an obscure French artist, Alexandre-Jean Noël. Noël is one of those footnotes in history, a witness to an event that shocked the scientific world--the untimely death of the abbé Chappe d'Auteroche.
Chappe was the Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking of his day. He knew Benjamin Franklin and repeated Franklin's lightning experiments in Siberia. Chappe had gone to Siberia in 1761 to make observations on the Transit of Venus, a celestial event Halley had predicted. Chappe had translated Halley's tables into French, so he well knew how important it was to seize the opportunity the Transit of Venus offered. The Transit only occurred roughly every hundred years, and then again after a seven or eight year interval. If the astronomers missed collecting their data, another century would roll by before they could try again.
Everyone in the scientific circles of the Enlightenment, including all the Academies of Science and the monarchs of all the major powers, anticipated that this Transit event would give them a chance to answer a question that had long plagued astronomers as well as sea captains trying to circumnavigate the globe. What is the earth's distance from the sun? And, by triangulation, what does that make the earth's circumference? At that time, no one knew the earth's diameter. Terra incognita appeared on maps of the Pacific Ocean. Mariners had a tough time if they sailed around the tip of South America...which, of course, they rarely did because Spain claimed the waters between Mexico and Manila as the "Spanish Ocean." No one but Spaniards, the Portuguese, and the privateers that preyed upon the Spanish galleons dared enter the Pacific, but everyone, especially the British, wanted to know what lay beyond the North American continent. Britain's Colonists, the pushy Americans, had already started to crowd the Spanish out of South Carolina and Georgia, and the Spanish Crown, on the head of Carlos III, suspected anyone from another nation--especially the British--of ulterior motives.
In 1761, Europe's scientific Academies had sent their learned men to many points around the globe, mostly the northern hemisphere. Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason--of the Mason-Dixon Line--measured the Transit at the Cape of Good Hope. The French Observatory, coordinating the expeditions along with England's Royal Academy, wound up sending abbé Chappe d'Auteroche to Tobolsk. Avid in the service of science, Chappe nearly got himself lynched by a mob convinced his heavenly observations had unleashed torrential floods. Russia, unknown at the time even by its monarch, Catherine the Great, had never been exposed to outside scrutiny, but Chappe's memoir of the the trip, VOYAGE TO SIBERIA had just been published in France and quickly translated to English. Because its illustrations allowed readers to visualize the strange people Chappe wrote about, the book became an instant best seller and invited a rejoinder from the insulted monarch. Read More