Kircher’s Cosmos: On Athanasius Kircher
In 1680, a small procession of Jesuits ascended a winding path to the mountaintop shrine of Mentorella, some thirty miles east of Rome. They carried a box containing the heart of one of their brethren, Father Athanasius Kircher, and at their journey’s end they buried the reliquary at the foot of the shrine’s altar. The rest of Kircher’s body had been entombed in the crypt of Il Gesù, the most important Jesuit church in the Eternal City.
For most of his seventy-eight years, Kircher had lived and worked at the Roman College, the principal seat of Jesuit learning, where he established himself as its greatest and most curious polymath and one of the most prolific and versatile thinkers of the century. Kircher’s thirty-six books enticed the mind with their vast and encyclopedic erudition and dazzled the eye with gorgeously engraved images of myriad curiosities, antiquities and enigmas: obelisks, mummies, Aztec temples, lotus gods, Brahmins, Buddhas, volcanoes, fossils, magnetic devices, sunflower clocks, tarantulas, Aeolian harps and Alexander’s horn, to name a few. There was virtually no domain of knowledge that Kircher left unstudied, no language in which he did not claim some degree of competence. His answers to intriguing questions about the world he inhabited—past and present—made him an authority without parallel for his most enthusiastic readers.
For all the intellectual renown Kircher enjoyed during his lifetime, his death attracted scant attention outside the Roman College’s hallowed halls. The reason was that Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who prayed daily in the church where Kircher’s remains lie, died on November 28, exactly one day after the German Jesuit. Although Kircher had collaborated with Bernini on two of his most prominent projects—the magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona and the slyly contorted elephant in Piazza della Minerva (which turns its back on the seat of the Roman Inquisition, where Galileo was tried and condemned in 1633)—the pomp and circumstance surrounding the renowned sculptor and architect’s interment in Santa Maria Maggiore overshadowed Kircher’s in Il Gesù.
Yet Kircher’s influence has endured. Whereas Bernini’s imprint is visible on virtually every important church and piazza in the city, Kircher’s has been more subtle, haunting the interstices of the imagination like a persistent dream—in Latin and about a dozen other real, invented and arcane languages. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Criolla nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz composed beautiful poems inspired by Kircher’s many books. Allusions to Kircher appear in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco; Marcel Duchamp and Giorgio De Chirico were fond of his engravings. Kircher has been celebrated by writers and scholars as a “baroque Leonardo,” a “dude of wonders,” “the last man who knew everything” and, quite possibly, as suggested in 2002 by a New York Institute for the Humanities symposium celebrating his 400th birthday, “just about the coolest guy ever, or what?”
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Around the same time, the iconoclastic David Wilson installed Kircher as the muse of his own latter-day cabinet of curiosities, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. Wilson created a series of dioramas that allow visitors to experience Kircher’s world as a sensorium. One entered a version of Kircher’s cosmos to the sound of tinkling music produced by a replica of his bell wheel, re-created from an illustration in Universal Music-Making (1650). In this darkened room, one had the momentary sensation of stepping inside a Jesuit magic lantern that projects its highly idiosyncratic and peculiar image of the world: a lush spectacle of ancient and exotic mysteries of faith and knowledge about to be revealed. I feel quite certain that the author of The Great Art of Light and Shadow (1646), a dazzling study of optics and catoptrics that captures the post-Cartesian fascination with anamorphic and other distorting images, would have appreciated this effect. A number of visitors not unreasonably concluded that Wilson invented Kircher to establish a historical precedent for his own sense of wonder, curiosity and paradox.
Kircher has twice inspired the founding of peculiar societies. The intensely German Catholic Internationale Athanasius Kircher Forschungsgesellschaft (International Athanasius Kircher Research Society) materialized in 1968, and its languid devotion to Kircher, which seems to have stood in the way of the society producing its gloriously advertised publications, became the subject of a Dutch documentary and a novel by Anton Haakman. The New York–based Kircher Society held its first meeting in January 2007, staging an exuberant pageant of intellectual pyrotechnics. Among the special guests were Kim Peek, the modern human book-memorization machine who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, and Princeton University professor Anthony Grafton, who declaimed in ornate Latin the vivid description of the descent into Mount Vesuvius offered in Kircher’s Underground World (1665). Other entertainments included a display of Rosamond Purcell’s Kircheresque photographic portraits of natural curiosities and the staging of a scene from Romeo and Juliet translated into the nineteenth-century universal language Solresol (presumably in honor of Kircher’s own attempts at a seventeenth-century Esperanto). The evening concluded with an opportunity for guests to win a replica of a walrus-penis bone. That the Kircher Society has not met during the past six years suggests the difficulty of—or exasperation with—imagining feats of erudition stranger than those conceived by a very dead Jesuit.