Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th Edition


(1709-1777), French magistrate and scholar, was born at Dijon and studied law with a view to the magistracy. The bent of his mind, however, was towards literature and science, and, after a visit to Italy in 1739 in company with his friend Jean Baptiste de Lacurne de Sainte-Palaye, he published his Lettres sur l'état actuel de la mile souterraine d'Herculée (Dijon, 1750), the first work upon the ruins of Herculaneum. It was during this Italian tour that he wrote his famous letters on Italy, which remained in MS. till long after his death. In 1760 he published a dissertation, Du culte des dieux fétiches, which was afterwards inserted in the Encyclopédie méthodique. At the solicitation of his friend Buffon, he undertook his Histoire des navigations aux terres australes, which was published in 1756, in two vols. 4to, with maps. It was in this work that de Brosses first laid down the geographical divisions of Australasia and Polynesia, which were afterwards adopted by John Pinkerton and succeeding geographers. He also contributed to the Encyclopédie the articles "Langues," "Musique," "Étymologic." In 1765 appeared his work on the origin of language, Traite de la formation mécanique des langues, the merits of which are recognized by E. B. Tylor in Primitive Culture. De Brosses had been occupied, during a great part of his life, on a translation of Sallust, and in attempting to supply the lost chapters in that celebrated historian. At length in 1777 he published L'Histoire du septième siècle de la république romaine, 3 vols. 4to, to which is prefixed a learned life of Sallust, reprinted at the commencement of the translation of that historian by Jean Baptiste Dureau de La Malle. These literary occupations did not prevent the author from discharging with ability his official duties as first president of the parliament of Burgundy, nor from carrying on a constant and extensive correspondence with the most distinguished literary characters of his time. In 1758 he succeeded the marquis de Caumont in the Académie des Belles-lettres; but when in 1770 he presented himself at the French Academy, his candidature was rejected owing to Voltaire's opposition on personal grounds. Besides the works already mentioned, he wrote several memoirs and dissertations in the collections of the Academy of Inscriptions, and in those of the Academy of Dijon, and he left behind him several MSS., which were unfortunately lost during the Revolution. His letters on Italy were, however, found in MS. in the confiscated library by his son, the émigré officer René de Brosses, and were first published in 1799, in the uncritical edition of Antoine Serieys, under the title of Lettres historiques et critiques. A fresh edition, freed from errors and interpolations, by R. Colomb, with the title L'Italie il y a cent ans, was issued in 1836; and two subsequent reprints appeared, one edited by Poulet-Malassis, under the title Lettres familières (1858); the other, a re-impression of Colomb's edition, under that of Le Président de Brosses en Italic (1858).

See H. Mamet, Le President de Brosses, sa vie et ses ouvrages (Lille, 1874); also Cunisset-Carnot, "La Querelle de Voltaire et du président de Brosses," in the Revue des Deux Mondes (February 15, 1888).