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.

Rome was a powerhouse of architecture and urbanism in Kircher’s heyday, the middle years of the 17th century. The popes had lost much of their political and military power, as Innocent X saw in 1648, when the Catholic powers signed the treaty of Münster, which he denounced as iniquitous. But in the realm of culture Rome remained the centre of the world. Churches soared, stone saints swooned in ecstasy and piazzas of many different shapes offered stunning public stages for buskers, tourists and the local aristos, who whizzed through them in their carriages. Kircher’s hand lay heavy on the city’s ever-changing fabric. He advised Bernini on the Piazza Navona fountain as well as the elephant, and these spectacular creations reflected his theories as well as his taste. Look into the stony mass on which animals and river gods tumble in the Piazza Navona, and you glimpse an underground world where fiery energy plays – the very world that Kircher studied in his full-length treatise, Mundus subterraneus. As in Kircher’s museum, so in the city outside it, art and science, nature and creation were constantly linked. Even today the ‘living statues’ hoping for money from the tourists in the Piazza Navona feel they are doing something appropriate in this magical place.

Many scholars before Stolzenberg have studied Kircher’s work on Egyptian hieroglyphs and obelisks. Most have found it easy to mock the elaborate structures of interpretation he contrived every time he glimpsed an image of a bee, or a snake biting its own tail. They have shown that Kircher was in thrall to ancient Neoplatonic tradition and misunderstood the hieroglyphs as a symbolic language, in which every image worked more profoundly and directly than alphabetical language could. He mistook the dialogues of Hermes Trismegistus, a supposed ancient sage who explained the mysteries of cosmos and creation, for translations from inscriptions of deep antiquity, and used them as a key to the hieroglyphs. They were actually written in Greek, not Egyptian, and in the Christian era, not under the ancient dynasties of the pharaohs, as Isaac Casaubon, the Huguenot Hellenist, had demonstrated with depressing finality much earlier, in 1614. Kircher was oblivious: he never realised that genuine obelisks had stood at royal tombs, or that their inscriptions commemorated rulers. Instead, he read the inscriptions on the obelisks Roman emperors had floated to Rome, or that local imitators carved, as complex presentations of Egyptian natural and moral philosophy. By the time they appeared, these speculative interpretations were past their philological sell-by date.

Kircher’s theories were doomed from the outset. He took up the study of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs after a chance encounter in a college library with a collection of images, probably the Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum published in 1610 by Herwart von Hohenburg, the chancellor of Bavaria. Herwart had done more than assemble illustrations of obelisks and intersperse them with other visionary images: he had interpreted them. Ancient myths, he argued, encoded the global travels of the ancients – especially the triennial voyages with which Solomon’s fleets had fetched home the gold of Ophir, known in Herwart’s time as Peru. Every mythical conveyance – such as Pegasus, the winged horse of Bellerophon – stood for a real ship. And every mythical object with a point – such as the spears of the Greeks at Troy – represented one of the real lodestones by which Solomon’s pilots plotted their courses. Using this dazzlingly original Key to All Mythologies, Herwart reconfigured the entire history of the ancient world. To refine his new chronology he tried to enlist the help of Johannes Kepler, whom he asked to fix the dates of the Homeric poems on the assumption that the love affairs and tiffs of the gods were actually celestial conjunctions and oppositions, the times and days of which a skilled astronomer could determine (Kepler balked). Though Kircher plunged far deeper into Egyptian traditions, his approach resembled Herwart’s. He too argued that the ruined hieroglyphs and fragmentary texts which preserved Egyptian wisdom could be decoded, to reveal a story about the movement of ideas.

Ancient wisdom, revealed to Adam and the other patriarchs, had inspired the rulers of Egypt before the Flood – a lineage of erudite and powerful natural magicians. The original Hermes, who lived in their time, built the first pyramids, which were levelled by the Flood. But a cult of black magic and idolatry, created by Cain, had superseded the true Adamic tradition. After the Flood, Ham, Noah’s evil son, combined the two traditions into a corrupt form of the ancient philosophy, which he taught to his children. They took it with them into the nations they founded. Centuries later, in the age of Abraham, a second Hermes recovered the fragments of the true ancient religion. He invented a new form of writing, the hieroglyphs, with which he hoped to preserve the ancient wisdom while keeping ordinary, ignorant people from profaning it further. And he devised the obelisk as a durable, practical medium on which he inscribed them. For Kircher that explained why the obelisks should be read as a record of the true Egyptian theology, as the creators of Greek philosophy had read them when they visited Egypt.

In tracing this Eastern genealogy of wisdom, Kircher continued a tradition founded in late antiquity, preserved in Byzantium and brilliantly developed by Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the 15th century. But Kircher lived in an age dominated by Bacon, Descartes and Galileo, who believed that the moderns had already surpassed the ancients and would do so again in the future. On this view Kircher was yelling ‘get a horse’ at the first motorists or evoking the richness of face to face teaching in the age of MOOCs. Or so many of his later readers argued, as they stabbed his book with their bent nibs. William Warburton, who saw hieroglyphs as a primitive rather than profound form of writing, found it ‘pleasant’ to watch Kircher ‘labouring through half a dozen folios with the writings of late Greek Platonists, and the forged books of Hermes, which contain a philosophy, not Egyptian, to explain and illustrate old monuments, not philosophical’.


Shortly after the Second World War, Herbert Butterfield argued that scholars must learn to ‘put on a different kind of thinking-cap’ before they try to understand, for example, why Aristotle explained motion and fall as he did. Historians of science have now grasped that it is pointless to condemn past thinkers for what now seem obvious mistakes, and more rewarding to tease out the assumptions that make sense of what looks like nonsense to us. In recent years, gifted historians such as Ingrid Rowland and Eugenio Lo Sardo have applied this approach to Kircher. They have argued that he was not a reactionary dinosaur, vainly gnashing his teeth as clever little Cartesian raptors ran rings around him, but an up-to-date natural philosopher whose fame was in keeping with his accomplishments. Egyptian Oedipus brings a similar perspective to the history of learning – the only term broad enough to encompass all the forms of knowledge about the past Kircher pursued. The results are extraordinary: Kircher, the figure of fun, emerges from Stolzenberg’s impressive analysis as a serious scholar, whose work appealed to many of his contemporaries.

Stolzenberg places Kircher in a recognised discipline and a real social world. The 17th century was the heyday of antiquarianism: a new brand of historical scholarship, whose practitioners set out to reconstruct ancient rituals and beliefs. They studied the material evidence of coins and inscriptions, buildings and works of art as well as written texts, and turned themselves into connoisseurs of everything from granite and marble to parchment and script. In the city of Rome, antiquarians were surrounded by technical puzzles of the sort that still fascinate archaeologists and ancient historians: how to collate the evidence of Roman inscriptions with that of Latin historians, for example, and what to do when they disagreed. They were also faced with a pullulating mass of coins and bas-reliefs, diptychs and obelisks, covered with sculpted figures that required interpretation.

Most antiquarians took on both tasks, and delighted as much in hermeneutical adventures as they did in archaeological ones. Some, like the Paduan Lorenzo Pignoria, refused to float the sorts of allegorical readings Kircher loved, but used other methods, which look no more credible today. A euhemerist, Pignoria thought he could tease out the forgotten historical facts, rather than the hidden doctrines, that underlay ancient myths. The antiquarians, in other words, were the ancestors of modern scholarship in its grimmest, most positivist mode – but also of Romantic scholarship in its most colourful and speculative forms. Kircher found the Roman obelisks fascinating both as objects that could be studied in gritty detail in their material presence and as texts that could be read in the light of a millennial tradition. For Stolzenberg, he exemplifies the tensions and contradictions of the antiquarian.

Kircher was fascinated by reports, medieval and modern as well as ancient, about the ideas and powers of the Egyptians, and his vast tomes on the obelisks gradually mutated into something like encyclopedias of information and misinformation on Egyptian science and magic. Much of the material he collected was not new: a good bit came from Muslim writers who imagined ancient Egypt in the spirit of The Magic Flute. But the point of his enterprise – as Stolzenberg argues with great force – was not philosophical or magical, but historical. As newly discovered facts collided with old systems of ideas – as the exploration of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the New World dismantled traditional geography, and Galileo’s telescope dismantled traditional cosmology – the world of learning underwent dramatic shifts. One effort to find a firm place to stand – a collective project that appealed to Bacon and erudite men like Kircher (though not to Descartes) – was called historia litteraria (the history of letters, or culture). Its practitioners inquired systematically about what the ancients had known and how it compared to what the moderns knew. Had Egyptian engineers possessed practical powers now lost, technological secrets now forgotten? Had Egyptian literature embodied genuine truths of philosophy and theology? Could the ancients have known, and concealed, the true contours of the surface of the earth and the true nature of the heavens? Kircher’s effort to trace the whole genealogy of learning was only one of many efforts to recreate the arcs of literary and philosophical history in the hope of answering questions like these – and providing a new foundation for university teaching and study.

Seeing Kircher first and foremost as a scholar and antiquary has several advantages. Stolzenberg shows us that many other scholars who have never been seen as figures of fun hurled themselves into similar quests. Even the sober Isaac Casaubon, half a century before Kircher, had hoped to travel to the Middle East in order to acquire texts in Arabic that contained treasures of lost ancient wisdom. By Kircher’s time, the Church’s missionary efforts were bringing manuscripts of many kinds – and, in some cases, native experts who could read them – back to Rome, where European scholars competed to exploit and publish them. These efforts were not confined to Catholic lands. In Leiden, one of the intellectual citadels of Reformed Protestantism, the Scaliger bequest – a rich collection of Oriental manuscripts, which kept growing after its donor’s death – was a magnet for scholars. In London and Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, the collections of Eastern manuscripts grew, and hopes of enlightenment flickered bright. Across Europe, in other words, scholars believed that they might discover secrets of great power – the secrets of alchemy, for example, by which they meant the serious art of metallic crystal ‘chymistry’ practised by Boyle and Newton – not only on the benches in their laboratories, but also in ancient manuscripts. Kircher, a seeker of ancient wisdom and lord of a modern museum that bulged with esoteric texts and curious machines, is right at the centre of the intellectual world that Stolzenberg recreates, its hopeful gaze turned backwards as often as forwards.

Stolzenberg illuminates Kircher’s scholarly practices, detail by gritty detail, and shows that it wasn’t always a case of ‘fake it till you make it.’ For his readings of the hieroglyphs, Kircher drew on genuine Arabic and Hebrew sources. He even annotated a manuscript of the Pardes Rimmonim (Garden of Pomegranates) by the 16th-century Safed Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. When Cordovero used the numerical values of Hebrew letters as keys to their meaning, Kircher followed him in the margin, number by number. His ‘combinatorial method’, equally painstaking, involved surrounding each symbol in turn with a dense cloud of quotations from multiple sources – the only materials that could imperfectly but accurately bring out the meaning of a symbol that directly expressed a profound truth. In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars, poets and courtiers loved to compose and decipher emblems and imprese, fashionable combinations of text and image. Some inventors of emblems thought, wrongly, that they were recreating Egyptian hieroglyphs. In some of his most arresting and cogent pages, Stolzenberg argues that Kircher learned from the emblematists to hatch his own Romantic, albeit wrong, recreations of Egyptian philosophy.

He takes pains to show that Kircher made genuine discoveries, such as the fact that the Coptic language derived from ancient Egyptian and could yield up information about it. But he also treated texts that other scholars, like Casaubon, had shown to be fake or at least highly problematic, as authoritative. He knew the rules of humanist philology and could play the critical game. As early as 1635, he wrote to Peiresc to thank him for warning him ‘concerning the careful use of citation and concerning the accurate demonstration of authorities’. In the end, though, what he offered in response to Casaubon and other critics was not a refutation of their textual analyses but an argument from authority. The texts he relied on, he maintained, had been ‘accepted by everyone, from so many centuries ago until these times’ and had accrued what he defined as a ‘moral’ authority. To attack them was to prefer a corrosive scepticism to reading rigorously. He pointed out that he could use the critics’ own methods to ‘attack and reject the Pythagoreans, Platonists, and the writings of all the ancients, indeed Holy Scripture itself, and the books of all good authors. This presumption and hateful audacity is intolerable to both God and men.’

Kircher was not a blind reactionary. Like the British Orientalist John Selden, he compared his own historical discoveries to the scientific finds of the ‘lynx-eyed astronomers’ of his time: Galileo and others whose research transformed the traditional picture of the world. When he discussed problems of biblical chronology and other hot but not dogmatically dangerous topics, he pushed at the limits of Catholic orthodoxy. But when it came to fundamentals, he accepted the principles of the Counter-Reformation. Against the humanist appeal to history and textual correctness, he supported the Catholic appeal to tradition and authority even as he sketched arabesques around it. The religious authorities were right to tolerate this distinctive and original thinker, who regularly annoyed them and entertained Protestant visitors with such courtesy. In the end, he and they were on the same side.

Kircher also dedicated himself to the sources for ancient Latium, the area of west central Italy that surrounded Rome. In Exploring the Kingdom of Saturn, Harry Evans, an expert on Ancient Rome’s water supplies, follows him around the lakes and rivers, villas and towns of Latium. Passages from Kircher’s works, beautifully translated, and clearly reproduced maps and illustrations enable us once again to watch Kircher at work. Evans is lucid and appreciative: his Kircher, like Stolzenberg’s, was a serious researcher, who measured distances as he walked the roads and sounded the lakes in the Alban hills to find out how deep they were and whether they could supply warm water for baths. Like Stolzenberg’s Kircher, he did not always make scrupulous distinctions between sources he had found quoted in the work of later scholars and sources he had read himself. He also recycled descriptions and maps even when he claimed to have seen the places in question – and when they contained errors. Evans, in other words, discovers patterns of scholarly practice and radical inconsistency very similar to those that Stolzenberg reconstructs. But he finds them in a book of a very different kind: a monographic study of a single region rather than a comprehensive history of ancient culture, and one in which the defence of tradition need not have played such a central role as it did for Egypt. How did Kircher explain his practices to himself?

Antiquaries, as Peter Miller has pointed out, often resemble W.G. Sebald in their melancholy obsession with time past. Kircher certainly did. Again and again, he meditated on the inevitable damage done by time, the distance between what he could see and what had once been there: ‘Time and decay that eat away everything so alter, change and rework, not only the entire earth, but most of all particular places, so that nothing can long stand in its original spot.’ Buildings, fields, rivers: all were endlessly mutable. The antiquary could never hope to find an ancient temple or grave in its original state, and the drama of his calling was organically connected to his primal sense of loss. At least once, Kircher described his approach to the ancient hieroglyphs as ‘divinatory’ – normally, in his day, a term for the sort of knowledge obtained by divine or diabolic inspiration. His assistant Schott vividly described what the boss might have had in mind. One day, when Kircher was looking at an Egyptian object (actually a Roman knock-off), ‘so clear and uncommon a light appeared to him (as he reported to me) that by a single precise intuition he thereupon clearly knew the whole mystery.’ In his autobiography, Kircher recalled how similar inspirations had revealed not only the meaning of the inscriptions on the Roman obelisks, but the nature of the designs on their buried sides, which he grasped before they were fully excavated.

Historians, my teacher Eric Cochrane used to say, can’t know much about mystics, since historians work inside time and space while mystics escape both. But like the clerical authorities, we can recognise a mystic when we see one. Perhaps we can identify Kircher as a mystical historian and philologist – one who realised that he could not cross the abyss that separated the present from the past by reading texts and grubbing in ruins. And perhaps that realisation set him on a different path: the kind of swooping, dramatic ascent that brought other mystics to their union with the divine. If so, we can begin to understand why Kircher knew so certainly that he was right, while the scholars who depended on mere reason and argument were wrong. He had been there. We can even guess how he made the journey. As part of their discipline, Jesuits learned from the Spiritual Exercises of their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, to practise ‘composition of place’. They visualised in detail the scene of Christ’s crucifixion or the damned suffering in hell, smoke, stench and all, and drew spiritual profit from conversing with and contemplating the figures represented in these images. When Kircher recreated fantastic ancient cities and temples, in Egypt and in Latium, he could have been using this characteristic method, which Jesuits mastered before they became full members of the order. By applying a standard devotional technique in this characteristically original way, he could for a time assuage his antiquarian’s sense of loss.

Mystics make excellent saints and terrific directors of hospitals, but they should probably stay away from the messy, contingent world of history. Historians have long known the pain of loss and felt the inadequacy of what remains. Yet even in Kircher’s time, most of them got over it. Perhaps the roots of Kircher’s brilliant failure as a scholar lay in his effort to pursue two incompatible paths at the same time. The mystical antiquarian could not be true to both his selves: he was a living oxymoron. It is the measure of Stolzenberg’s achievement that he makes us feel the passion and understand the arguments that led Kircher to try.