Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637)

It is hard to disagree with the astronomers. They clearly felt that naming a single lunar crater after Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc in 1935 was insufficient and, in 1993, honoured him again, this time with an asteroid. But astronomy is only part of the story, for Peiresc was the very model of an early modern intellectual – even so far as acquiring a monastic stipend late in life that enabled him to focus on his unbounded quest for knowledge.

above Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, in a 1637 engraving by Claude Mellan.
Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, in a 1637 engraving by Claude Mellan.

Peiresc’s beginnings were prosperous, if not entirely propitious: his parents were forced out of Aix-en-Provence by plague, settling in Belgentier, near Toulon, where Nicolas-Claude was born. Initially educated by Jesuits, Peiresc was seduced by archaeology during his studies as a lawyer. He pursued that interest through France, Switzerland, and Italy, where he also became an early admirer of Caravaggio’s paintings. In London, he met the antiquarian William Camden; in the Netherlands, the humanist Hugo Grotius – foundational theorist of modern international law – and the Calvinist classical historian Joseph Justus Scaliger. Notwithstanding his Counter Reformation upbringing, Peiresc was notably free of dogma, as later underlined by letters he wrote in defence of Galileo and Tommaso Campanella against charges of blasphemy.

In the early 1600s, Peiresc replaced his uncle as a prominent legal official for the regional government in Aix, but still made time to pursue astronomical researches, discovering the Orion Nebula in 1610. Having disappeared back into the ferment of Paris, he resumed a career in Provençal politics in 1623. By now receiving income from the Benedictine abbey of Guîtres, Peiresc was able to make his rural retreat at Belgentier into a stunning repository of ancient sculpture and contemporary art, of fossils, manuscripts, and perhaps 18,000 medallions and coins.

Among his artefacts were the Barberini ivory, a vivid c.6th-century Byzantine bas-relief (now in the Louvre), and the Codex Luxemburgensis, which he had carefully copied – just as well, since the original disappeared after his death. His meticulously organised notes provided material that was, according to scholar of antiquarianism Peter Miller, valuable to ‘almost every field studied in that period, with the exception of doctrinal theology and some areas of scholastic philosophy’.

BELOW The c.6th-century Byzantine relief known as the Barberini ivory.
The c.6th-century Byzantine relief known as the Barberini ivory.

Yet Peiresc published nothing in his lifetime. Instead, his considerable influence was felt through personal contacts that reached from contemporaries including Cardinal Richelieu’s eminent elder brother and artist Peter Paul Rubens (see pp.26-27) to a bold new generation of intellectuals: mathematician Marin Mersenne, astronomer Pierre Gassendi, and polymath Athanasius Kircher (our Antiquarian for May/June 2021). How was this extraordinary network maintained? Peiresc’s voluminous correspondence has been estimated at more than 10,000 surviving letters – the equivalent of a letter each day of his adult life.

IMAGES: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0]; Flickr/Jean-Pierre Dalbéra [CC by 2.0].
Text: Simon Coppock.