Impossible Engineering

Posted in: A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

A new intriguing book on the shelves: Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi, by Chandra Mukerji (Princeton, 2009). This dovetails nicely with one of our new TJ Encyclopedia articles, which features (among other useful pieces of information), an itinerary of Jefferson's travels through southern France and Italy - during which, yes, he visited the Canal du Midi.  He rather liked it:

I have passed through the Canal from it’s entrance into the mediterranean at Cette to this place, and shall be immediately at Toulouse, in the whole 200 American miles, by water; having employed in examining all it’s details nine days, one of which was spent in making a tour of 40 miles on horseback, among the Montagnes noires, to see the manner in which water has been collected to supply the canal; the other eight on the canal itself. I dismounted my carriage from it’s wheels, placed it on the deck of a light bark, and was thus towed on the canal instead of the post road. That I might be perfectly master of all the delays necessary, I hired a bark to myself by the day, and have made from 20. to 35 miles a day, according to circumstances, always sleeping ashore. Of all the methods of travelling I have ever tried this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade. When fatigued I take seat in my carriage where, as much at ease as if in my study, I read, write, or observe. My carriage being of glass all round, admits a full view of all the varying scenes thro’ which I am shifted, olives, figs, mulberries, vines, corn and pasture, villages and farms. I have had some days of superb weather, enjoying two parts of the Indian’s wish, cloudless skies and limpid waters: I have had another luxury which he could not wish, since we have driven him from the country of Mockingbirds, a double row of nightingales along the banks of the canal, in full song.

Mukerji's book looks like it deals more with the actual construction of the canal in the seventeenth century, but she has an angle which is of particular interest to me. From the book flap:

The Canal du Midi is typically characterized as the achievement of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a tax farmer and entrepreneur for the canal. Yet Chandra Mukerji argues that it was a product of collective intelligence, depending on peasant women and artisans--unrecognized heirs to Roman traditions of engineering--who came to labor on the waterway in collaboration with military and academic supervisors. Ironically, while Louis XIV and his treasury minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert used propaganda to present France as a new Rome, the Canal du Midi was being constructed with unrecognized classical methods.

Did Jefferson recognize the classical pedigree of the Canal du Midi?  I'm not sure, but he was positively sloppy with adulation for the Pont du Gard and the Maison Carrée, so that aspect of the canal would surely have provoked a similar outburst of flowery language.

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