by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Jesuit's Quest for Wisdom

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 17 March 2001


If Athanasius Kircher had never existed, Jorge Luis Borges would surely have invented him.

Polyglot, orientalist, mathematician, antiquarian, cabalist, vulcanologist, microbiologist and deviser of instruments and machines (he is generally credited with having invented the magic lantern), Kircher bestrode the 17th-century Roman Catholic intellectual stage with one foot in the age of belief and the other in the age of science.

Kircher was made for the Jesuits, the most intellectual of Counter-Reformation orders, and the Jesuits for him. He was born in Fulda in central Germany in 1602. His phenomenal memory and multiplicitous talents won him professorships while he was still a young man. By 1633, he had been called to take up a post at the Collegio Romano, the headquarters of the Jesuits' worldwide evangelical mission.

Reports of discoveries of new lands and peoples, maps and samples of weird and wonderful artifacts and creatures were continually flowing into this nerve-center from Jesuits in the field, as their expeditions pushed toward the remotest inhabited corners of the globe. Meanwhile, Rome was rediscovering herself, as excavations brought to light the remains of her own ancient past, and that of the Greeks and Egyptians, the two great civilizations she had conquered.

The man of the moment was Kircher, his mastery of a dozen languages -- he was already preparing to publish the first Western grammar and lexicon of Coptic, the modern survivor of ancient Egyptian -- and his universalist interest in every aspect of human and natural history, made him the ideal sifter of the avalanche of multifarious data.

In 1651, the Jesuits received the gift of a collection of antique Roman finds, and Kircher seized the opportunity to create within the Collegio a museum not only of archaeological remains, but of all conceivable arts and sciences.

The new institution was a hit, and turned both Kircher and his museum into international celebrities, attracting the great and the good from far and wide. So it continued until his death in 1680, after which its fame declined until, in 1773, the pope suppressed the Jesuits and their property was dispersed.

Thanks to surviving inventories, a good number of the original exhibits have been traced to the places where they ended up, including the Vatican, the National Roman Museum, "La Sapienza" University, Palazzo Venezia itself and a local lycee.

Now, 300 items have been gathered together for a diverting and intriguing exhibition, "The Museum of the World: Athanasius Kircher, S.J.," at Palazzo Venezia. where it continues until April 22.

In truly Borgesian fashion, nobody knows for certain where Kircher's museum was located within the vast, labyrinthine edifice of the Collegio Romano (part of the building is now occupied by the Ministry of Culture).

A 1678 engraving depicts Kircher welcoming a pair of visitors into an impressive high-vaulted space, showing in part the zodiacal frescoes that once decorated the museum's ceilings. The artist has clearly exaggerated the scale by reducing the size of the figures. Thus, the armadillo suspended from the vault (a prize exhibit) seems at least twice as big as it is in reality, and the reduced copies of obelisks Kircher had constructed appear several times taller than they actually are.

But the draughtsman was very much in tune with Kircher's intentions. Just as Jesuit churches were designed to overawe by their grandeur and magnificence, so Kircher's museum was styled to amaze by its setting and exotic contents. And just as, for example, Father Matteo Ricci and his colleagues' knowledge of sciences (hinting even at magical powers) gained them access to the Chinese court and the upper echelons of Mandarin society, so too were the polymath Kircher and his extraordinary collection (which itself contained purportedly magical texts and objects) a sensational advertisement for the order and its activities.

It was a characteristic Kircherian touch that he had an acoustic tube installed to link his study with the gallery, which alerted him to the arrival of visitors to the museum and also, presumably, enabled him to address them with an eerily disembodied voice.

Although not shown in the print, we know that an inscription on the vault read: "Wisdom is an inexhaustible treasure. Blessed the man that finds it, for beneath his outward human form he shall have a divine countenance." This motto in many ways sums up the eternal conflict between Kircher's omnivorous appetite for knowledge and the limits imposed on his interpretations of it by the necessity to conform with prevailing Catholic doctrine.

Galileo had convinced leading Jesuit astronomers of the correctness of the Copernican system as early as 1611, but Kircher arrived in Rome only a few months after the Italian's condemnation by the Inquisition there. With his advanced command of mathematics and astronomy, it is likely that Kircher would have concurred with Galileo. But, understandably in the circumstances, he embraced the compromise solution of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who argued that the other planets revolved around the sun, but the whole of this solar system made an annual orbit around a stationary earth.

Similarly, one of Kircher's publications examined the story of Noah's Ark. With dogged determination, he calculated the proportions of the vessel and how the animals could have been compartmentalized (to stop them eating each other) and with sufficient provisions for the duration of the Flood. He realized that if biblical testimony on the Ark's measurements were to be followed, it was absolutely impossible that every species could have been saved.

Kircher overcame this stumbling block through diverse explanations, such as the assertion that lower species like frogs, spiders, snakes and other reptiles were "self-generating," and that other animals were later hybrids (the giraffe, for example, being a cross between a camel and a leopard). Other species he reckoned to have developed later, from the basic primary species, thereby accidentally establishing himself as a proto-evolutionist.

Kircher and his museum had an impact on the contemporary art scene, the celebrated stuffed armadillo inspiring the splendid fluvial monster beneath the personification of the River Plate on Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona. Kircher was recruited as the expert consultant on the obelisk that crowned this monument, as he was for Bernini's obelisk-bearing elephant in front of S. Maria Sopra Minerva, although he never managed to crack the true meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In the end, it is impossible to resist Kircher's prodigious energy, curiosity and breathtaking, sometimes bizarre, ingenuity. He was a one-off by the standards of any era, but at the same time he gives us unparalleled insights into the mentality of an age see-sawing between religiosity and rationalism, and on the brink of the scientific revolution.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016