Athanasius Kircher

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Athanasius Kircher, Mundus subterraneus (1664/65): "Systema Ideale PYRO-PHYLACIORUM Subterraneorum, quorum montes Vulcanii, veluti spiracula quaedam existant"


Athanasius Kircher. 17th century German Jesuit scholar who published around 40 works in the fields of oriental studies, geology, and medicine. He was was born in 1601 or 1602 in Geisa, Buchonia (currently Hesse) Germany. He attended the Jesuit College in Fulda from 1614 to 1618, when he joined the order himself.

He made an early study of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and has been considered the founder of Egyptology. One of the first people to observe microbes through a microscope, he was thus ahead of his time in proposing that the plague was caused by an infectious microorganism and in suggesting effective measures to prevent the spread of the disease. He also invented the first megaphone.

The youngest of nine children, Kircher was a precocious youngster who was taught Hebrew by a rabbi in addition to his studies at school. He studied philosophy and theology at Paderborn, but fled to Cologne in 1622 to escape advancing Protestant forces. On the journey, he narrowly escaped death after falling through the ice crossing the frozen Rhine.

In 1661, Kircher discovered the ruins of a church said to have been constructed by Constantine on the site of Saint Eustace's vision of Jesus Christ in a stag's horns. He raised money to pay for the church’s reconstruction as the Santuario della Mentorella, and his heart was buried in the church on his death.

Kircher published a large number of substantial books on a very wide variety of subjects, such as Egyptology, geology, and music theory. His Magnes was ostensibly a discussion of magnetism, but also explored other forms of attraction such as gravity and love. Perhaps Kircher's best-known work is his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652–54) a vast study of Egyptology and comparative religion. His books, written in Latin, had a wide circulation in the 17th century, and they contributed to the dissemination of scientific information to a broader circle of readers. A number of discoveries and inventions (e.g., the magic lantern) have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to him.


Athanasius Kircher, Dude of Wonders

By Scott McLemee, New York City, "Athanasius Kircher is having a very good year"

This month marks the 400th birthday of the Jesuit polymath—who, by the time he died in 1680, had published enough encyclopedic works to fill a small library. But now--unlike in previous centuries, when his worldwide reputation declined sharply, his name becoming something of a joke to the few who remembered him--Kircher's astounding career is being celebrated in suitably awestruck terms. Last Thursday, at a symposium at New York University sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities, experts gathered to ponder a burning question previous generations of cultural historians have neglected to confront: "Was Athanasius Kircher Just About the Coolest Guy Ever, or What?"

The consensus is unambiguous: Athanasius Kircher was, indeed, very cool. A dude of wonders, even. Even a partial catalog of Kircher's accomplishments tends to make one's jaw drop. A German-born Jesuit priest, he served as a professor of mathematics at the Jesuit training institute in Rome. Nicknamed "the master of a hundred arts," Kircher also knew dozens of languages, including Chinese and Coptic. His scientific writings—studied with rapt interest by scholars (Roman Catholic and otherwise) around the world--included works on acoustics, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, and optics. He also published some of the earliest scholarship on ancient Egypt. His theories about the hieroglyphics turned out to be wrong, for the most part; but Kircher had enough insights and suggestive ideas to make him a recognized pioneer.

And for almost a century after his death, no learned traveler would consider his or her trip to Rome complete without a tour of Father Kircher's museum: a collection of ancient artifacts and stuffed beasts (including such exotic creatures as the aardvark) as well as the master's own inventions. There was, for example, a statue whose eyes and lips began to move in an uncannily lifelike way as it addressed visitors, who were momentarily startled out of their wits. (A concealed assistant operated the proto-robot.)

Not merely erudite, Kircher was also a sort of intellectual daredevil. He entered the mouth of an active volcano, and published a vivid account of what he saw: "The whole area was lit up by the fires, and the glowing sulphur and bitumen produced an intolerable vapor. It was just like hell, only lacking the demons to complete the picture." Examining the blood of plague victims with a microscope, Kircher developed what must have seemed, at the time, like a bizarre theory: Disease might be caused by very tiny organisms entering the body from the outside. And while Kircher was the most respected intellectual in his church, with the full backing of the Pope, some of his intellectual explorations tested the very limits of acceptable thought. His cosmological theories, for example, appeared suspiciously compatible with the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo. The Inquisition prepared an internal document listing the worrisome passages, just in case.

Portions of that memo are quoted by Ingrid D. Rowland, a professor in the humanities at the American Academy in Rome, in The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome, the catalog from an exhibit held in the spring of 2000 by the University of Chicago Library. The following year, the Stanford University Library published its own catalog, The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher, in connection with an exhibit and conference held in the spring of 2001. (Stanford holds an almost complete collection of books by and about Kircher, including works by his students.)

Although the Jesuit scholar made a cameo appearance in Umberto Eco's novel The Island of the Day Before (Harcourt Brace, 1995), the public rediscovery of Kircher in the United States is a strictly 21st-century phenomenon. The volumes from Chicago and Stanford, while making sober contributions to the field of Renaissance scholarship, prove almost irresistibly appealing to the nonspecialist as well -- simply for the pictures. Kircher, who enjoyed both papal and secular patronage, could afford to have his work lavishly illustrated with engravings. His books are filled with striking images, a cross-section of his fertile, not to say fevered, curiosity. There are pictures of mummies, tarantulas, imaginary cities, Chinese ideograms, complex mechanical devices, and the basic structures of the cosmos, among other wonders.

On Thursday, at the NYU symposium, any trace of academic reserve vanished as the audience looked at the gorgeous and sometimes baffling images, projected on a screen behind the speakers. "Athanasius Kircher wrote more books than the modern scholar can read, in a mellifluous Latin," said Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton University, during his introductory remarks. "In the age of polymaths, he was the most polymathic of all." The modern reader exploring "the staggeringly strange dark continent of Kircher's work" finds in it, Mr. Grafton said, "the setting for a Borges story that was never written."

In a talk based on a longer paper delivered at Stanford last year, Mr. Grafton considered a dimension of Kircher's intellectual world unfamiliar to later generations of readers: the long-lost enterprise known as "chronology." Scholars devoted enormous energy to assembling a single, continuous narrative of human history -- with the Bible, of course, as the basic framework. As if sorting the events recorded by Greek and Roman historians were not challenge enough, chronologers found themselves wrestling with a constantly growing mass of new data: the information reported by explorers. If only 2,500 years passed between Noah's flood and Jesus's birth, how could one account for ancient civilizations in, say, Mesopotamia or the jungles of the New World?

"In the late 16th and early 17th centuries," Mr. Grafton said, "this was the hottest intellectual field in Europe." Around 1600, the first-known research professorship at a university was created, specifically to advance chronological studies. As Mr. Grafton shows, Kircher was well-versed in the discipline. It formed the matrix of his speculations on ancient Egypt and China. (Although he never got to travel to China as he wished, his student Martino Martini did; so Kircher kept up with the cutting edge of Orientalist scholarship, including the first Western encounter with the annals of ancient Chinese history.)

A close analysis of Kircher's work suggests that he may have entertained doubts about the literal accuracy of the Biblical narrative. "Sitting in the citadel of God's soldiers," says Mr. Grafton of the Jesuit professor, "he thought his way into a sense of history that was radical and innovative, a discovery of the past as unfolding in 'deep time.'"

Discussing the prolific author's relationship with his readers, Paula Findlen, a professor of history at Stanford University, pointed out that Kircher was "the first scholar with a global reputation" -- his books eagerly awaited as far away as Russia and the Americas. In Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (University of California Press, 1994), Ms. Findlen analyzed the role of Kircher's famous museum in the creation of a humanistic "republic of letters." Her presentation at NYU considered the impact of his books on the international community of scholars (and vice versa). Images of the Internet came to mind in hearing Ms. Findlen's account of "the global writing network of the Jesuits" -- an order of highly educated men, whose work as missionaries included gathering and exchanging information. Some of Kircher's far-flung enthusiasts (religious professionals and otherwise) adored him with a slightly creepy kind of reverence, bordering on the unhinged. One reader had a full-sized painting of Kircher made, based on the portrait in one of his books, and sent him long letters and gifts of chocolate.

One of Kircher's most devoted readers was Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, the brilliant Mexican woman of letters (arguably the most learned person in the New World) who drew on Kircher's work in her poetry. Ms. Findlen showed slides of a portrait of Sor Juana, in which the nun stands in front of an imposing wall of books. The spine of one slender volume reads The Works of Kircher. Perhaps it was a joke by the painter. After all, as Ms. Findlen pointed out, any edition of his works would have run to 54 volumes, most of them sizable.

That did not include Kircher's letters to princes, popes, and fellow scholars. Michael John Gorman, a lecturer in the program on science and technology at Stanford, reported on an international project to make Kircher's correspondence available on the Web. Most of the incoming messages, including letters from more than 700 correspondents, in numerous languages, are held by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (one of the participants in the online project). Efforts are under way to prepare a complete collection of Kircher's own letters, now scattered in libraries and archives around the world.

Mr. Gorman also discussed some of the numerous devices the savant built, based on his study of physics. Among them was an instrument that would (the inventor said) answer almost any mathematical problem the user might need solved. But (as is so often the case) there were certain bugs in the software.

"Unfortunately," reports Mr. Gorman, "it required memorizing long poems in Latin to perform the most elementary functions." (If all else failed, one could consult the 850-page treatise that Kircher provided as an instruction manual.)

In the final presentation of the evening, David Wilson, director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, described efforts to revive Kircher's legacy in the field of museology. By the 20th century, the field of curating had become as professionalized and rationalized as any other endeavor governed by bureaucracies and double-entry bookkeeping. The exhibits at Mr. Wilson's institution are a return to the origins of museum-keeping: the eccentric collections of gentlemen who once took pride in the title of "dilettante" (a term derived from a Latin word meaning "delight"). Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (Random House, 1995).

Mr. Wilson calls his collection a "small natural-history museum with an emphasis on curiosities and technological innovations" -- a fitting description of Kircher's once-famous museum in Rome, as well. After the Jurassic opened its doors in 1989, Mr. Wilson began to hear about the great polymath and inventor from visiting scholars. In late 2000, Mr. Wilson mounted an exhibit called "The World Is Bound With Secret Knots: The Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher." The title referred to Kircher's lifelong preoccupation with magnetism. ("Magnetism was the golden chain," writes Ms. Findlen in Possessing Nature, "that manifestly linked together all the segments of the universe. The objects in [Kircher's] Roman College museum served to make these connections apparent.")

Mr. Wilson may not have been able to show his visitors such Kircherian wonders as the bones of a mermaid. But his exhibit reproduced a number of the master's inventions. Perhaps the most beautifully elegant and efficient in design was his sunflower clock. Kircher floated a potted sunflower in a vat of water and stuck a needle in the stem, which then pointed to the hour marked on the edge of the device as the plant rotated freely to follow the sun across the sky.

So how was it that a titan of learning, once known around the world, fell so completely out of view? And why does Kircher's exotic blend of information and imagination have such appeal today?

Mr. Grafton notes that the era of Kircher's predominance as a cultural hero, the 17th century, also saw the rise of intellectual tendencies that would swiftly bury the Jesuit's wild-and-woolly erudition. René Descartes provided a methodology (including a new sort of mathematics) that helped make natural science a field of rational inquiry, rather than mind-boggling marvels. By the 18th century, scarcely anyone bothered with the laborious efforts to create a universal history of mankind built around Scripture. "Chronology," says Mr. Grafton, "became a synonym in the age of reason for mindless pedantry and foolish efforts to solve insoluble problems. The very name of the discipline seemed, and seems, to demand the adjective 'mere.'" And Kircher's "magnetic philosophy" -- like his interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics as the repositories of profound scientific and philosophical wisdom of the ancients -- sounded like hocus-pocus.

But even his more outlandish flights of scholarly fancy are now being rescued from what E.P. Thompson once called "the enormous condescension of history." As Umberto Eco writes, Kircher was "the father of Egyptology ... in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken. By following a false hypothesis he collected real archeological material." And Ms. Findlen noted during her talk that Sor Juana once coined a neologism: "to kircherize." It referred to the sense of intellectual excitement generated by the great scholar's works -- from plugging one's brain into a vast data grid, crackling with creative energy, glowing with previously unimaginable possibilities.

The Kircher Code

By Scott McLemee, May 17, 2006

The table sits at the front of the bookshop, near the door. That way it will get maximum exposure as people come and go. “If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code,” the sign over it says, “you might also like...” The store is part of a national chain, meaning there are hundreds of these tables around the country. Thousands, even.

And yet the display, however eyecatching, is by no means a triumph of mass-marketing genius. The bookseller is denying itself a chance to appeal to an enormous pool of consumer dollars. I’m referring to all the people who haven’t read Dan Brown’s globe-bestriding best-seller — and have no intention of seeing the new movie — yet are already sick to death of the whole phenomenon.

“If you never want to hear about The Da Vinci Code again,” the sign could say, “you might like....”

The book’s historical thesis (if that is the word for it) has become the cultural equivalent of e-mail spam. You just can’t keep it out. The premise sounds more preposterous than thrilling: Leonardo da Vinci was the head of a secret society (with connections to the Knights Templar) that guarded the hidden knowledge that Mary Magdeleine fled Jerusalem, carrying Jesus’s child, and settled in France....

All of this is packaged as a contribution to the revival of feminine spirituality. Which is, in itself, enough to make the jaw drop, at least for anyone with a clue about the actual roots of this little bit of esoteric hokum.

Fantasies about the divine bloodlines of certain aristocratic families are a staple of the extreme right wing in Europe. (The adherents usually also possess “secret knowledge” about Jewish bankers.) And anyone contending that the Knights Templar were a major factor behind the scenes of world history will turn out to be a simpleton, a lunatic, or some blend of the two — unless, of course, it’s Umberto Eco goofing on the whole thing, as he did in Foucault’s Pendulum.

It’s not that Dan Brown is writing crypto-fascist novels. He just has really bad taste in crackpot theories. (Unlike Eco, who has good taste in crackpot theories.)

And Leonardo doesn’t need the publicity — whereas my man Athanasius Kircher, the brilliant and altogether improbable Jesuit polymath, does.

Everybody has heard of the Italian painter and inventor. As universal geniuses go, he is definitely on the A list. Yet we Kircher enthusiasts feel duty-bound to point out that Leonardo started a lot more projects than he ever finished — and that some of his bright ideas wouldn’t have worked.

Sure, Leonardo studied birds in order to design a flying machine. But if you built it and jumped off the side of a mountain, they’d be scrapping you off the bottom of the valley. Of course very few people could have painted “Mona Lisa.” But hell, anybody can come up with a device permitting you to plunge to your death while waving your arms.

Why should he get all the press, while Athanasius Kircher remains in relative obscurity? He has just as much claim to the title of universal genius. Born in Germany in 1602, he was the son of a gentleman-scholar with an impressive library (most of it destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War). By the time Kircher became a monk at the age of 16, he had already become as broadly informed as someone twice his age.

He joined the faculty of the Collegio Romano in 1634, his title was Professor of Mathematics. But by no means is that a good indicator of his range of scholarly accomplishments. He studied everything. Thanks to his access to the network of Jesuit scholars, Kircher kept in touch with the latest discoveries taking place in the most far-flung parts of the world. And a constant stream of learned visitors to Rome came to see his museum at the Vatican, where Kircher exhibited curious items such as fossils and stuffed wildlife alongside his own inventions.

Leonardo kept most of his more interesting thoughts hidden in notebooks. By contrast, Kircher was all about voluminous publication. His work appeared in dozens of lavishly illustrated folios, the publication of which was often funded by wealthy and powerful figures. The word “generalist” is much too feeble for someone like Kircher. He prepared dictionaries, studied the effects of earthquakes, theorized about musical acoustics, and engineered various robot-like devices that startled tourists with their lifelike motions.

He was also enthusiastic about the microscope. In a book published in 1646, Kircher mentioned having discovered “ the verminous blood of those sick with fever, and numberless other facts not known or understood by a single physician.” He speculated that very small animals “with a vast number and variety of motions, colors, and almost invisible parts” might float up from from “the putrid vapors” emitted by sick people or corpses.

There has long been a scholarly debate over whether or not Kircher deserves recognition as the inventor of the germ theory of disease. True, he seems not to have had a very clear notion of what was involved in experimentation (then a new idea). And he threw off his idea about the very tiny animals almost in passing, rather than developing it in a rigorous manner. But then again, Kircher was a busy guy. He managed to stay on the good side of three popes, while some of his colleagues in the sciences had trouble keeping the good will of even one. Among Kircher’s passions was the study of ancient Egypt. As a young man, he read an account of the hieroglyphics that presented the idea that they were decorative inscriptions — the equivalent of stone wallpaper, perhaps. (After all, they looked like tiny pictures.) This struck him as unlikely. Kircher suspected the hieroglyphics were actually a language of some kind, setting himself the task of figuring out how to read it.

And he made great progress in this project – albeit in the wrong direction. He decided that the symbols were somehow related to the writing system of the Chinese, which he did know how to read, more or less. (Drawing on correspondence from his missionary colleagues abroad, Kircher prepared the first book on Chinese vocabulary published in Europe.)

Only in the 19th century was Jean Francois Champollion able to solve the mystery, thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. But the French scholar gave the old Jesuit his due for his pioneering (if misguided) work. In presenting his speculations, Kircher had also provided reliable transcriptions of the hieroglyphic texts. They were valuable even if his guesses about their meaning were off.

Always at the back of Kircher’s mind, I suspect, was the story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel. (It was the subject of one of his books.) As a good Jesuit, he was doubtless confident of belonging to the one true faith — but at the same time, he noticed parallels between the Bible and religious stories from around the world. There were various trinities of dieties, for example. As a gifted philologist, he noticed the similarities among different languages.

So it stood to reason that the seeming multiplicity of cultures was actually rather superficial. At most, it reflected the confusion of tongues following God’s expressed displeasure about that big architectural project. Deep down, even the pagan and barbarous peoples of the world had some rough approximation of the true faith.

That sounds ecumenical and cosmopolitan enough. It was also something like a blueprint for conquest: Missionaries would presumably use this basic similarity as a way to “correct” the beliefs of those they were proselytizing.

But I suspect there is another level of meaning to his musings. Kircher’s research pointed to the fundamental unity of the world. The various scholarly disciplines were, in effect, so many fragments of the Tower of Babel. He was trying to piece them together. (A risky venture, given the precedent.)

He was not content merely to speculate. Kircher tried to make a practical application of his theories by creating a “universal polygraphy” — that is, a system of writing that would permit communication across linguistic barriers. It wasn’t an artificial language like Esperanto, exactly, but rather something like a very low-tech translation software. It would allow you to break a sentence in one language down to units, which were to be represented by symbols. Then someone who knew a different language could decode the message.

Both parties needed access to the key — basically, a set of tables giving the meaning of Kircher’s “polygraphic” symbols. And the technique would place a premium on simple, clear expression. In any case, it would certainly make international communication faster and easier.

Unless (that is) the key were kept secret. Here, Kircher seems to have had a brilliant afterthought. The same tool allowing for speedy, transparent exchange could (with some minor adjustments) also be used to conceal the meaning of a message from prying eyes. He took this insight one step further — working out a technique for embedding a secret message in what might otherwise look like a banal letter. Only the recipient — provided he knew how to crack the code — would be able to extract its hidden meaning.

Even before his death in 1680, there were those who mocked Athanasius Kircher for his vanity, for his gullibility (he practiced alchemy), and for the tendency of his books to wander around their subjects in a rather garrulous and self-indulgent manner. Nor did the passing of time and fashion treat him well. By the 18th century, scholars knew that the path to exact knowledge involved specialization. The wild and woolly encyclopedism of Athanasius Kirscher was definitely a thing of the past.

Some of the disdain may have been envy. Kircher was the embodiment of untamed curiosity, and it is pretty obvious that he was having a very good time. Even granting detractors all their points, it is hard not to be somewhat in awe of the man. Someone who could invent microbiology, multiculturalism, and encryption technology (and in the 17th century no less) at least deserves to be on a T-shirt.

But no! All anybody wants to talk about is da Vinci. (Or rather, a bogus story about him that is the hermeneutic equivalent of putting “The Last Supper” on black velvet.)

Well, if you can’t beat ‘em.... Maybe it’s time for a trashy historical thriller that will give Kircher his due. So here goes:

After reading this column, Tom Hanks rushes off to the Vatican archives and finds proof that Kircher used his “universal polygraphy” to embed secret messages in his the artwork for his gorgeously illustrated books.

But that’s not all. By cracking the code, he finds a cure to the avian flu. Kircher has recognized this as a long-term menace, based on a comment by a Jesuit missionary work. (We learn all this in flashbacks. I see Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Athanasius Kircher.)

Well, it’s a start, anyway. And fair warning to Dan Brown. Help yourself to this plot and I will see you in court. It might be a terrible idea, but clearly that’s not stopped you before.