We have too little space even just to list all Athanasius Kircher’s interests: Egyptology and Sinology, geology and astronomy, religion, medicine, mathematics, music… His was a time when the boundaries between fact and belief were vague, enabling Kircher’s intellect to roam: in Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica (1641) alone, he canters from inquiries into magnetism and gravity to divine love, that other great attractor – of souls. In fossilised sauropod bones, Kircher saw the remains of giants; in Plato, he discovered the location of Atlantis. Hermes Trismegistus – great favourite of occultists and alchemists – was unmasked by him as both Moses and Confucius.
In the context of this glorious fantasia, Kircher’s enduring achievements may seem slight. Yet he did robust – occasionally fearless – research. In 1638, he was lowered into an awakening Vesuvius to advance his geological knowledge, while his microscope studies of the blood of plague victims led him correctly to identify the cause as microorganisms. In 1651, Bernini sought Kircher’s translations for plaques on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, the same year that Kircher opened one of the first modern museums, his Wunderkammer of natural history, archaeology, curiosities, and mechanical experiments. Most significantly, Kircher produced the first Coptic grammar in 1636, which, along with his diligent library research on hieroglyphs, laid the groundwork for Champollion’s later achievements.
Born in what is now Thuringia in Germany, Kircher began training as a Jesuit in 1614 – an increasingly hazardous pursuit as religious tensions exploded into the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Fleeing a Protestant attack on Paderborn in 1622, Kircher almost drowned in the frozen Rhine. He was later captured and only narrowly escaped being hanged. Then, after spending a peaceful decade teaching mathematics, Hebrew, and Aramaic in Würzburg, Kircher saw a vision of armed men – and was thus able to flee the attack of Gustavus Adolphus in 1631. He would end up, after his ship was diverted there by a storm, in Rome, where he could focus on research, funded by the international success of his books.
These books are simply extraordinary. Kircher’s encyclopaedic China Illustrata (1667) attempted to synthesise all current Sinological knowledge, combining accurate cartography with speculation about dragons, while his Musurgia Universalis (1650) assembled a musical theory of the universe from notated birdsong and outlandish musical instruments. He published the first drawings of the Katzenklavier, a piano that ordered cats by the pitch of their meow, then ‘played’ them with the prod of a spike. On one frontispiece, Kircher had written in Greek: ‘Nothing is more beautiful than to know everything.’ Although the increasing rationalism of science had begun to undermine his reputation by his death in 1680, Athanasius had surely earnt his name: athánatos is Greek for ‘immortal’.
Images: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam [CC0]; Wellcome Collection, London [CC by 4.0]
Text: Simon Coppock.