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Fr Athanasius Kircher

Gregory DiPippo

One of the most notable figures of Rome’s intellectual history, Fr Athanasius Kircher, was born on this day in 1602, in a small town in central Germany. As was so often the case in those days, he was baptized immediately, and given the name of the Saint on the liturgical calendar, Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 373). Although the Jesuit order, which he entered at the age of 16, had and deserved a reputation for learning from its very foundation, Kircher did much to solidify and perpetuate that reputation. He was known and respected by both Catholics and Protestants alike as one of the most learned men of his age, corresponding with hundreds of other scientists and scholars throughout Europe. For several years, beginning in 1634, he taught physics, mathematics, and oriental languages at the Jesuit college in Rome, a position from which he was later released to devote himself full time to research.

(Portrait of Fr Kircher, ca. 1664)

Fr Kircher’s interests covered an extraordinary breadth of subjects; he published forty lengthy books, all in Latin, of course, to guarantee their accessibility to fellow scholars throughout the world. Among them are works on medicine and biology, including a description of plague-causing agents which he identified with a very primitive microscope; on geology, volcanism, a subject in which he took a special interest from an early age (he even had himself lowered into the crater of Mt Vesuvius when it showed signs of an imminent eruption); the study of fossils; and magnetism. He was also known for putting these studies to practical, or at least interesting, applications, constructing improved versions of the projection device known as a “magic lantern” (the invention of which is often mistakenly attributed to him), a magnetic clock, a wind harp, and a speaking automaton. Gathering together reports sent back to Rome by his fellow Jesuits serving as missionaries in China, he compiled an encyclopedia known as “China Illustrata”, which was immediately translated into several languages, including English and Dutch, notwithstanding the deep hostility of both the English and the Dutch to his religious order.

Over the course of his long career (he died in 1680 at the age of 78), Fr Kircher amassed an enormous collection of plant, animal and geological specimens, antiquities of various kinds, archeology and technological curiosities, artworks, musical instruments (sound being another field of his interest, and the subject of one of his books), etc. This collection, known as the Museum Kircherianum, was housed at the Jesuit college, and one of the most popular attractions in Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries, but was subsequently dispersed through various other museums owned by the Italian state.

Today, he is perhaps best known as a pioneer in the field of Egyptology; he was first scholar to identify Coptic as the last stage in the history of the ancient Egyptian language, and the author of the first Coptic grammar. He also created a system for deciphering hieroglyphs, and “translated” several ancient Egyptian inscriptions, including those on the obelisk which was raised on top of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome. These purported translations have no real relationship to the original texts, and his method, which based on a rather fanciful guess, has been sharply criticized by later scholars. Nevertheless, the information which Fr Kircher gathered about hieroglyphs would later prove very useful to Jean-François Champollion, who correctly deciphered them after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

(The Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, Rome. Fr Kircher’s purported translation of the each of the four inscriptions is carved into the square base on which it rests. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Tango 7174, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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