I was contacted by an English professor, writer and broadcaster, Rebecca Stott. She is the author of several books, published and translated in a number of countries and languages. You can read more about her on her website. She is at present writing a book on the history of evolution called “Infidels: In search of the First Evolutionists”, which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2012. She is searching out all the places in which always proto-evolutionary ideas were discussed - from a lagoon in Lesbos where Aristotle talked about generation with his students to the desert outside ninth-century Basra to the police-watched houses of Paris and London in the eighteenth-century.
Rebecca asked me kindly if I could go and get some photos of a town house which during the second part of the 18th century belonged to the Baron Holbach where those days’ intelligentsia frequently met. So, here are the photos … and a text prepared by Rebecca:
“Although there is no plaque to distinguish this house from any other eighteenth-century town house in Paris, this house at number 8, Rue des Moulins (then the Rue Royale-Saint Roch), was the centre of the French Enlightenment. Nicknamed the Hotel of the Philosophers or the Synagogue, it belonged to the Baron Holbach, a wealthy French-German intellectual and a passionate atheist, who ran a salon for the radical intelligentsia of Paris every Thursday and Sunday from 1759 to 1789. He had an excellent chef, a dining table that seated fifty, a library of over 3,000 volumes, and a large number of paintings by France's leading artists. Rousseau, Diderot, Buffon, Galiani, Grimm, Marmontel, Naigeon, Saint-Lambert, Suard all passed through these doors. Diderot rarely missed a gathering. Foreign intellectuals such as Adam Smith, Laurence Sterne and Horace Walpole had dinner here during their visits to France. The house was under police surveillance. The very first book of atheism was written here - System de La Nature – by Baron Holbach himself. Early evolutionary ideas were discussed across his table. The leading members of the Encyclopedie met here. With these people for company Diderot published Rève de d'Alembert."
"It was there that one could not fail to hear the freest, the most animated and the most instructive conversation that ever was; when I say free, I mean in terms of philosophy, of religion, of government... there was no bold thought in politics and religion that was not brought forward there, and discussed pr and con, almost with much subtlety and profundity." Morellet, Memoires, 1, 128-30.
'There is the Rue Royale-Saint Roch! All the decent and clever people in Paris gather there. To find the door opened to you, it is not enough to have a title or to be a savant; one must also be good. It is there that exchange is secure. It is there that history, politics, finance, belles-lettres and philosophy are discussed. It is there that men esteem each other enough to contradict each other. It is there that the true cosmopolitan is found." Diderot, Oeuvres, X, 378-379.
Rebecca transmitted a photo of the town house, the way it looked around 1900 and also the portraits of Diderot and the Baron Holbach.
If you know anything about this house or about Holbach or any of the other houses in Paris that might have been the stage for 'evolutionary' conversations before Darwin, please contact Re/Users/rebeccastott/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Originals/2010/9 Jul 2010/RequestDigitalElement.jpegbecca at firstname.lastname@example.org uk If you want to know more about early evolutionary ideas in Paris, read her novel, The Coral Thief.
I went to the Louvre last week and actually found the painting of Diderot (by Van Loo) and another one (by Fragonard).