To Newton


Étienne-Louis Boullée



Cenotaph for Newton

Cenotaph for Newton

Sublime mind! Prodigious and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Deign to accept the homage of my feeble talents! Ah! If l dare to make it public, it is because I am per­suaded that I have surpassed myself in the project which I shall discuss.

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery. That is as it were to envelop you in your own self. How can I find outside you anything worthy of you? It was these ideas that made me want to make the sepulchre in the shape of the earth. In imitation of the an­cients and to pay homage to you I have surrounded it with flowers and cypress trees.

The conception of the interior of this tomb is in the same spirit. By using your divine system, Newton, to create the sepulchral lamp that lights thy tomb, it seems that I have made myself sublime. It is only decoration I felt I should use. I would have felt I was committing sacrilege if I had used any other decoration for this monument.

When I had completed this project, I must confess that I experienced a certain dissatisfaction that made me want to include inside the tomb ideas that I thought it would be im­possible to include, because I could scarcely glimpse how it could be possible. We shall see what study and the perseverance of a man who loves his profession can do.

I turned over in my imagination all the magnificence of nature. I groaned at not being able to reproduce it. I wanted to give Newton that immortal resting place, the Heavens.

If you have the drawing in front of you, you will see what could have been considered impossible. You will see a monument in which the onlooker finds himself as if by magic floating in the air, borne in the wake of images in the immensity of space. Since the effect of this extraordinary image can be imperfectly represented by the drawing which can give only a notion of shape, I will attempt to supplement it with the following description.

The form of the interior of this monument is, as you can see, that of a vast sphere. The centre of gravity is reached by an opening in the base on which the Tomb is placed. The un­ique advantage of this form is that from whichever side we look at it (as in nature) we see only a continuous surface which has neither beginning nor end and the more we look at it, the larger it appears. This form has never been utilized and it is the only one appropriate to this monument, for its curve ensures that the onlooker cannot approach what he is looking at; he is forced as if by one hundred different circumstances outside his control, to remain in the place assigned to him and which, since it occupies the centre, keeps him at a sufficient distance to contribute to the illu­sion. He delights in it, without being able to destroy the effect by wanting to come too close in order to satisfy his empty curiosity. He stands alone and his eyes can behold nothing but the immensity of the sky. The tomb is the only material object.

The lighting of this monument, which should resemble that on a clear night, is provided by the planets and the stars that decorate the vault of the sky. The arrangement of the planets corresponds to nature. These planets are in the shape of and resemble funnel-like openings which transpierce the vaulting and once inside assume their form. The daylight outside filters through these apertures into the gloom of the interior and outlines all the objects in the vault with bright, sparkling light. This form of lighting the monu­ment is a perfect reproduction and the effect of the stars could not be more brilliant.

It is easy to imagine the natural effect that would result from the possibility of increasing or decreasing the daylight inside the monument according to the number of stars. It is also easy to imagine how the sombre light that would prevail in this place would favour the illusion.

The effect of this magnificent composition is, as we can see, produced by nature. One could not arrive at the same result with the usual techniques of art. It would be impossi­ble to depict in a painting the azure of a clear night sky with no cloud, its colour scarcely distinguishable for it lacks any nuance, any graduation, the brilliant light of the stars stan­ding out garishly, brilliantly from its darkened tone.

In order to obtain the natural tone and effect which are possible in this monument it was necessary to have recourse to all the magic of art and to paint with nature, i.e. to put nature to work; and I can say that this discovery belongs to me. Someone will object that he has seen more or less similar things, will give examples of places lit by means of apertures. I know all about that, as we all do. But what was the effect in these places? It is not, in fact, the means which I am con­testing but the result. And if it is assumed that I am not suggesting anything new, which belongs to me alone, then I would observe that apples fell before Newton and I would ask what was the result of it before this divine intelligence ... ? Doubtless I could also add that the palette of a dauber contains the same colours as those used by a gifted artist and isn't the ink that an idiot writes with the same as the ink used by a man of genius, etc., etc., etc.



1784. In: Architecture, Essay on Art. Translated by Sheila de Vallée



TRACT I ON ARCHITECTURE by Sir Christopher Wren
THE LAST SUPPER by Adolfo Natalini