He had fun

Anthony Grafton

  • Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity by Daniel Stolzenberg
    Chicago, 307 pp, £35.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 226 92414 4
  • Exploring the Kingdom of Saturn: Kircher’s Latium and Its Legacy by Harry Evans
    Michigan, 236 pp, £63.50, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 472 11815 1

Even in the middle years of the 17th century, when Athanasius Kircher’s career reached its peak, nobody knew exactly what to make of him. Descartes, who described him as ‘more charlatan than scholar’, classed his enormous erudite books among the many that he refused on principle to read. John Evelyn, visiting Rome in 1644, was impressed when ‘with Dutch patience, he showed us his perpetual motions, catoptrics, magnetical experiments, models, and a thousand other crotchets and devices.’ He predicted that in a forthcoming book on obelisks Kircher would publish ‘all the recondite and abstruse learning’ of the Egyptians, and sent him a drawing of the hieroglyphs inscribed on an Egyptian stone, ‘with the true dimensions’. Eleven years later, though, when Evelyn met Archbishop Usher, he recorded his learned compatriot’s view that ‘Kircher was a mountebank.’ Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc helped Kircher find preferment in Rome and gain access to the great collections and libraries. From their first contact, however, Peiresc was puzzled by his brilliant young German friend’s careless streak. Kircher had devised an elegant interpretation of some of the hieroglyphs on the obelisk by the Lateran Basilica, but could only confess his embarrassment when Peiresc pointed out that he had worked from the wrong engraving, a fanciful one, instead of the accurate image that appeared in the same book. Peiresc, who never quite withdrew his support, spent years gnashing his teeth over similar episodes.

Kircher carried carelessness to the point where it looks like something worse. He never managed to produce the great Egyptological treasure that had won Peiresc’s interest: a treatise on the hieroglyphs in Arabic by an author whose name mutated over time, in Kircher’s references, from Rabbi Barachias Nephi to Abenephius. The bits Kircher quoted were largely derivative, their style crude, and no subsequent researcher has turned up the actual book. Daniel Stolzenberg, a historian (and historian of science) at Davis, gives good reasons for believing that Kircher did not invent it wholesale, but the possibility remains. Even fellow Jesuits who read and censored his massive books complained about his sloppy references and wild hypotheses – as well as his refusal to make more than surface changes in response to their criticisms. Kircher devoted much of his late autobiography to complaining about the critics who had slandered him. He may have been a little paranoid, but he had real enemies. More would spring up after his death, including the 18th-century Dutch and German scholars who told stories late at night, as pipes were smoked and liqueurs drunk, of the jokers who had fooled Kircher by creating a fake Egyptian object, looking on with delight as he rushed to explain the hieroglyphs. Did he truly belong to the Republic of Letters, or was he a charlatan who secretly defied its rules of honourable intellectual inquiry? Even those who knew him weren’t sure.

Yet Kircher enjoyed enormous prestige, and it’s easy to see why. His superiors in the Jesuit order never allowed him to go hunting for literary treasures in North Africa or China, but he still became one of the great adventurers of an adventurous age. Nothing natural or human, it seemed, was alien to him. Born in central Germany, he barely escaped the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, but after he obtained a post in Avignon in 1631 and found his way to Peiresc, he prospered. His charm won over the good and the great, from the Barberini family to Queen Christina of Sweden, and he made a rapid ascent of the greasy pole of precedence in the world of letters. He went spelunking in the crater of Mount Vesuvius; explored ancient Egyptian science, technology and magic; reconstructed ancient devices such as the flying model dove of Archytas, the Tarentine philosopher, and built astonishing modern ones, including the sunflower clock, a timekeeping device powered entirely by the sun. On a more ambitious scale he accepted the Copernican system and speculated daringly that diseases might be spread by tiny creatures.

As trade routes girdled the globe and Catholic missionaries preached everywhere from the rice paddies of China to the Andean cities of Peru, Kircher went global, though his life remained local. Even when constrained to stay in Rome, he consoled himself by remembering that the land occupied by the Jesuits’ Collegio Romano had once belonged to the Roman Temple of Isis, and by examining the manuscripts in many languages and specimens of plants and animals that merchants, travellers and fellow Jesuits sent or brought to him. He assembled massive, magnificent books on obelisks and hieroglyphs, ancient Babylon and contemporary China, which the Amsterdam printers published in style and turned into bestsellers. He took physical journeys into the land of baths and villas near Rome, surveying the ruins and the topography of Latium for one of his books, and mental journeys into the heavens, on which he was accompanied by an angel who looked strikingly like his assistant, Kaspar Schott. He built up a splendid museum, which every well-informed Grand Tourist had to visit. Ancient artefacts and articulated skeletons, models of the obelisks and a preserved armadillo with puffy, curling lips – the same one whose stone effigy adorns the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona – taught them to appreciate the marvellous energy and ingenuity of nature and human artisans alike. Above all, he had fun. The cosmopolitan Kircher not only enjoyed playing football against the narrow-minded Dominicans: he also helped Bernini design and place the monumental obelisk-bearing elephant at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which points its bottom at what was then a Dominican residence and bends its trunk in an obscene gesture directed at the same target.

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