Kircher’s Cosmos: On Athanasius Kircher

Kircher’s Cosmos: On Athanasius Kircher

Kircher’s Cosmos: On Athanasius Kircher

How did a man who got so many things wrong become an intellectual celebrity in his own lifetime?


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?”

* * *

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.

Less celebrated has been Kircher’s prose style, with its unchecked streams of words flowing around gorgeous engravings fashioned by artisans toiling in print houses throughout Europe. Kircher’s writing is some of the most rebarbative, unreliable, undigested and polyglot the world has ever known, bursting at the seams with learning, overflowing with ideas and possibilities, and pointing confusingly in many different directions. To be fair, many admired his style, and some even sought to imitate it; nonetheless, it groans with an appalling amount of verbosity that would make any print cartridge run dry. Late in life, when Kircher was less in command of his style, younger Jesuits claimed to avoid talking with him in the corridors of the Roman College out of fear that they might end up being misquoted in one of his books. Kircher’s Egyptian Oedipus (1652–55), his 2,000-page magnum opus on hieroglyphic wisdom (beautifully decoded in an erudite and exciting analysis by Daniel Stolzenberg), was a doorstop of a book designed to tell you anything and everything you ever wanted to know about Egyptian language, wisdom and secrets. The historian Frank Manuel described it as “one of the most learned monstrosities of all times.”

* * *

If Kircher’s books seem almost unfathomable to modern readers, his life is only slightly less so. How did a man who got so many things wrong become an intellectual celebrity in his own lifetime? His world and works are the subject of John Glassie’s lively and accessible A Man of Misconceptions, the first biography of Kircher to appear in English since Father Conor Reilly’s study from 1974. Relying heavily on the research of several generations of scholars, starting with the learned John Fletcher, Glassie does not offer new facts about Kircher’s life. What he does instead is retell the tale of Kircher for an audience who may be familiar with the era only through the ideas of its intellectual giants: Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Leibniz. Glassie’s Kircher is an eccentric and itinerant scholar of multiple and only partially realized talents. The priest’s stubborn devotion to the pursuit of the esoteric and exotic is the inverse of Descartes’ disciplined meditations and radical reinvention of the mind, or Newton’s brilliant insights into the dynamics of the physical world, accompanied by a new mathematics to represent them. In readable and enjoyable prose that stands in marked contrast to his subject’s stated passion for making even easy things difficult, Glassie presents Kircher as an interesting incarnation of a world in transition, an undisciplined thinker inhabiting a moment in which the habits of mind of the ancient, medieval and modern worlds existed in one seemingly confused heap of learning. Glassie invites readers to join him in following what Kircher described as The Great Art of Knowing, the title of one of his later and more problematic books on intellectual method. And what a bumpy but intoxicating journey it was.

The year is 1633; the city, Rome. The Inquisition has packed off Galileo to his native Tuscany to live under permanent house arrest for championing Copernican astronomy. A 31-year-old Jesuit arrives in town, having fled the devastation and dislocations of the Thirty Years’ War in his native Germany and bearing mysterious objects. One is an Arabic manuscript in the hand of an ancient Babylonian rabbi that might unlock the mystery of hieroglyphic language; the other is a cache of marvelous heliotropic seeds, allegedly acquired from an Arab merchant in the port of Marseilles, with which he claims to be able to make a solar clock. Father Kircher comes well recommended from colleagues in France, and there are already rumors circulating about the priest’s intellectual pursuits that only add to the mystery surrounding him. Kircher is known to be quite adept at making sundials and other mechanical devices and instruments; he may be cautiously sympathetic to Copernican astronomy; he seems to have a knack for finding and decoding secrets.

In acknowledgment of his skills, the Society of Jesus assigned Kircher the plum position of professor of mathematics and Oriental languages at the Roman College in 1633. Although he would cultivate loyal disciples over the years, some of them halfway around the world given the global reach of the Jesuit missionary network, Kircher was never passionate about teaching. What he wanted most was to publish—a lot. In his early years, eager to experience the world beyond Europe, he repeatedly requested permission to join a mission to the Levant. Wiser minds, however, judged Kircher to be temperamentally unsuited to the rigors and self-negation of the evangelical mission. They considered Rome to be the perfect venue for him, and to encourage the progress of his research and publications, the Society of Jesus released him from any teaching obligations in 1646, thereby providing the time he needed to fully realize his ambitions. He was now a one-man Institute for Advanced Study in a city through which the entire world passed.

In June 1651, the Fountain of the Four Rivers gurgled magnificently to life, becoming a beloved new spectacle in the Eternal City. Kircher’s fascinating theories about subterranean passageways through which water and fire flowed, animating the geocosm, inspired Bernini’s idea of creating a fountain at the geographic crossroads of the world, representing a kind of biblical genesis of the major rivers of four continents. Such ideas would eventually reach their culminating expression in Kircher’s magisterial Underground World (1665), his greatest and most comprehensive encyclopedia of nature, which anticipated the importance of the modern sciences of geology, volcanology and paleontology in spirit if not in substance. (It is little wonder that Glassie has Jules Verne on his mind when he writes about Kircher, though Verne was much more likely to have been inspired by the heroic tales and fantastic theories of romantic geologists than their Baroque predecessor.) At the behest of Pope Innocent X, whose family palace overlooked the Piazza Navona, Kircher wrote a lavish interpretation of the obelisk that had been restored and raised atop Bernini’s fountain. In retrospect, it seems only fitting that this great “Egyptian” monument is actually an ancient Roman imitation of an Egyptian obelisk, something neither Kircher nor any of his contemporaries recognized. As a result, Kircher’s dating of it was inaccurate by some 1,500 years.

* * *

By 1651, it seemed that Kircher had himself become a crossroads of learning. His much discussed books on magnetism, catoptrics and music were circulating widely, and the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli was so appreciative of the gift of astronomical data sent him by Kircher that he named a lunar crater after his confrere. Kircher was on the verge of publishing the first volume of the Egyptian Oedipus, his summa of Egyptology, in which he not only decoded every obelisk in Rome but also demonstrated his ability to write hieroglyphic messages, which he ceremonially presented to his most important patrons. That same year, Kircher became the P.T. Barnum of seventeenth-century Rome when he was asked to curate another new spectacle: the Roman College museum. Paintings and antiquities donated by a wealthy Roman formed its nucleus, but the execution and ultimately the exhibits that were most delightful, puzzling and infuriating bore Kircher’s stamp. Having long lamented the lack of space for his papers, curiosities and inventions, which he showed regularly to visitors who marveled at his ability to work on so many interesting projects at once, Kircher used this opportunity to transform his private collection into a public one. Shortly after his death in 1680, it would become commonly known as the Kircherian Museum.

The 1678 museum catalog by Kircher’s assistant Giorgio de Sepibus depicts a gallery decorated with cosmological motifs and filled with objects ancient and exotic. A crocodile dangles from the ceiling; a skeleton rests on a pedestal; a thousand curiosities beckon. In the center of the main corridor is a neatly arranged row of seemingly gargantuan obelisks towering high above Father Kircher and the two guests he greets at the entrance. In its idealized version, the effect is stunning. The reality, however, disappoints, because the actual wooden models—rediscovered more than a decade ago in the storage rooms of the Liceo Visconti, a high school occupying the building today—are about one meter tall. Within a decade or so after Kircher’s death, many of the machines were broken. Paging through the catalog many years ago, I initially envisioned a gallery as spacious as any Roman piazza when I should have been peering down rather than looking up. Better yet, I should have left the building and walked in one direction or another to encounter Kircher through the obelisks adorning Rome’s piazzas or the hydraulic organ in the Quirinale that he helped to restore. As Glassie recounts, de Sepibus’s catalog is a nostalgic memento of a museum that no longer was, even though its carcass remained on display for another century.

Let me single out one artifact that, along with a few of Kircher’s translation devices and calculating and music-making machines, still exists today: the bound volumes of correspondence that were proudly displayed in the museum and advertised to readers of its catalog. The letters were like a fabulous seventeenth-century Facebook account filled with more than 750 “friends.” This part of Kircher’s museum can be found in the archive of the Pontifical Gregorian University, the modern Jesuit institution of higher learning that emerged from the Roman College (and nowadays in digital form through the online Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project). I first encountered Kircher’s letters in 1988, sitting in the Gregorian University library, where one still wrote maneant in Latin to ensure that the books remained on the desk for the next day’s reading. The letters were a treat: pages and pages of correspondence in multiple and, in some instances, imaginary languages, for Kircher’s contemporaries responded to his polyglot erudition with their own. They also sent him hundreds of queries about cryptic subjects and shared their best arcana with him. Inside Kircher’s letter box lay the hopes and dreams of his age, an unlikely precursor to current experiments in generating knowledge collectively such as the aptly named Polymath Project, an online hub where mathematicians collaborate on solving difficult problems.

In a letter from 1639, a Prague alchemist writes to Kircher, hoping that he might decipher an indecipherable code, quite possibly a famous piece of cryptography known today as the Voynich Manuscript that may have been sent to Kircher by another Czech scholar, Johannes Marcus Marci, in 1666. Elsewhere in the correspondence, the flamboyant, erudite and sexually ambiguous Catholic convert, Queen Christina of Sweden, thanks Kircher for having dedicated to her, in the year after her abdication, his Ecstatic Voyage (1656), an imaginary bit of space travel done by a fictional Kircher and an angel. A Criollo priest writes from Puebla that he is dreaming of Kircher’s machines after seeing his books and sends his favorite author a bit of chocolate. A German missionary shares his observations of the Brazilian heavens and longs for Rome. Kircher’s Dutch publisher checks in regarding progress on the latest projects and sends a handsome, multibook contract. Letters by leading scholars exude polite but learned skepticism at Kircher’s more exuberant conclusions, such as his persistent advocacy of the miraculous sympathetic healing properties of a bit of Jesuit missionary medicine from South Asia known as the snakestone—a calcified substance that reputedly attached itself to wounds to suck out poisons. A young Leibniz wrote fan letters and then decided that Kircher was pretty much wrong about everything; others never ceased to believe that Kircher might be right. Legions of readers eagerly awaited his next publication, sharing information and secrets in the hope of being cited by one of the seventeenth-century’s most famous authors.

* * *

It is relatively easy to see only absurdity in Kircher’s ambition. The young German scholar Andreas Müller, who allegedly invented some hieroglyphic writing for Kircher to “translate” late in his career, did indeed expose Kircher’s misplaced confidence in his ability to answer definitively some of the hardest questions of his time. (Jean-François Champollion’s analysis of the Rosetta Stone did not provide a true linguistic analysis of Egyptian hieroglyphics until 1822, though scholars long understood that more symbolic readings such as Kircher’s were likely to be acts of wishful thinking.) Glassie doesn’t flinch from explaining how Kircher was deluded in his quest for a grand unified theory of absolutely everything. Yet Glassie also captures some of the intoxicating possibilities of a moment in which a single—and singular—mind stood at the center of a global Catholic information network, embraced the internationalism of Baroque Rome, and attempted to make sense of virtually every imaginable domain of knowledge then under discussion. Did you want to know the origins of the Nile or the location of Atlantis? Father Kircher’s maps were there to guide you. Did you aspire to learn the Pater Noster and Ave Maria in Sanskrit? Read his book on China. Were you wondering exactly how high the Tower of Babel reached or the cubic footage of Noah’s Ark? The books were just about to appear. Would you like to write in cipher? Stop by the Roman College museum and ask Father Kircher for a lesson or two.

Perhaps Kircher has appealed to writers and readers through the ages because he tried so hard to do it all and show just a bit of everything in the process. For some, Glassie included, there is something crazily admirable about seeing a writer jump off an intellectual precipice without a parachute. And there is the sheer audacity and folly of that towering stack of beautifully illustrated and almost unreadable tomes written by a man who once confessed to his most trusted disciple that he dreamed of being pope. If he were around today, he would probably claim to have written Wikipedia single-handedly. In the cabinet of human curiosities, Kircher is one of the ultimate curios—a term I prefer to “eccentric,” because the ideas that Kircher sometimes stretched to their limits were the basic ingredients of intellectual life during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Much like P.T. Barnum, Kircher was an ingenious producer of spectacles responsive to the appetites of his society, making him an interesting mirror to hold up to the age commonly described as the scientific revolution. Newton would become the eighteenth century’s celebrity man of science, but Kircher—as much as Galileo or Descartes—was that person in Newton’s youth, which is why Sor Juana coined a verb, kircherize, to acknowledge her debt to her muse.

Someday soon, I will consult the Voynich Manuscript in Yale’s Beinecke Library to see if Father Kircher can assist me in cracking the ultimate code. I will translate it into demotic Egyptian, place it inside a language box, project it through my magic lantern, refract it in catoptric theater, set it to music, and announce the results in an echo chamber to multiply their potential effects. My great discovery will be secured by a secret manuscript acquired from a retired Kurdish herdsman at the local swap meet, one that only I can read. I will promise to publish a graphic novel about my own great adventure (though I never will, of course, to honor the ghosts of Kircher’s many well-advertised projects that never quite became books, not to mention a few of my own). One day, a novelist will write about me because of what I may or may not have known. Historians will puzzle over my own perdurance (I did not make up this word, but possibly Kircher did—or should have, since he invented so many neologisms). In the interim, however, readers unfamiliar with one seventeenth-century Jesuit’s excellent adventure should enjoy Glassie’s sympathetic and pleasurable account of a world we have lost in the daylight, but still harbor in the unexpected recesses of our nocturnal imaginations.

In March of this year, Barry Schwabsky surveyed two recent books on Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

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