Show & Tell: Rococo Microscope


The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

This Rococo Parisian microscope, created around 1751, is made of bronze, enamel, shagreen (untanned leather, sometimes coming from the skin of sharks), and glass. The J. Paul Getty Museum, which holds the item, writes that the microscope still works; “the case is fitted with a drawer filled with the necessary attachments such as tweezers, extra lenses, and slides of such items as geranium petals, hair, fly wings, and fleas.”

The microscope’s mechanism was designed by Michel-Ferdinand d’Albert d’Ailly, a French nobleman (the sixth duke of Chaulnes), who lived between 1714 and 1769. In a mid-19th-century biography, the English Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge described the duc de Chaulnes, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, as “a zealous amateur of scientific pursuits.” He was also an honorary member of the French Royal Academy of Sciences and published several papers on optics, astronomy, and optical instruments.

This microscope, the Getty writes, was made for a man much like de Chaulnes—“an aristocratic amateur scientist,” who might have used it at home to explore his collection of natural specimens. During the 18th and 19th centuries, in Europe, such collections were often arranged as cabinets de curiosité—small in-home natural history museums holding exotic and interesting specimens, which doubled as displays of power and wealth for the people who owned them. This microscope’s gorgeous style would have added further to the owner’s image as an affluent person who cared about intellectual pursuits.

Jacques Caffieri, a bronze caster whose work in the Rococo style won him favor with King Louis XV and his family in the first half of the 18th century, apparently designed the microscope’s curvy mounts. The Getty has digitized a few images of Caffieri’s other pieces—a wall clock and a wall light—showing how he executed similar Rococo motifs for more purely decorative items. “A microscope of this same model belonged to Louis XV,” the Getty writes, “and was part of his observatory at the Château de la Muette.”

Header image via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles