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The last man to know everything

Joscelyn Godwin, the author of this vast and beautiful book, admits at the outset that while Athanasius Kircher was held in awe during his lifetime in the 17th century as ‘some rugged headland jutting out to sea’, when he died this had been eroded to the point of collapse: ‘the seas wash over it as if it had never been.’ Kircher’s triumph and tragedy was that his work was the final complete expression of magic, arcana and dogma, and when he died the world was moving into the Age of Reason.

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World Joscelyn Godwin

Thames & Hudson, pp.304, 40

Joscelyn Godwin, the author of this vast and beautiful book, admits at the outset that while Athanasius Kircher was held in awe during his lifetime in the 17th century as ‘some rugged headland jutting out to sea’, when he died this had been eroded to the point of collapse: ‘the seas wash over it as if it had never been.’ Kircher’s triumph and tragedy was that his work was the final complete expression of magic, arcana and dogma, and when he died the world was moving into the Age of Reason.

Joscelyn Godwin, the author of this vast and beautiful book, admits at the outset that while Athanasius Kircher was held in awe during his lifetime in the 17th century as ‘some rugged headland jutting out to sea’, when he died this had been eroded to the point of collapse: ‘the seas wash over it as if it had never been.’ Kircher’s triumph and tragedy was that his work was the final complete expression of magic, arcana and dogma, and when he died the world was moving into the Age of Reason.


Kircher was a Jesuit priest driven by the admixture of extraordinary genius and religious obligation to become the most learned and active savant of his age. While he may not, as traditionally claimed, have been the last man to know everything, he did hold the world’s knowledge in his hands and cherished it all, publishing on every subject under the sun.

In the chaos of northern Europe shattered by religious and military strife, Kircher led a charmed life that spanned the Thirty Years War and the Counter-Reformation. Godwin’s definitive book reveals the duty and purpose that drove this towering polymath: Kircher not only had the intellectual capacity, but also the organising genius to prospect a route through knowledge and its accumulation, to its expression and distribution. Despite the constraints of his religious order, Kircher and his publishers engaged engravers, printers and patrons to finance and produce a series of learned volumes on his subjects. He was at the heart of a global system of knowledge transfer, and was usually the first to hear of geographical or scientific discoveries, as missionaries sent reports to him from all over the world.

He did not, however, only expect others to send information home, but sought it out for himself. Being near Naples when Vesuvius was on the point of erupting in 1638, Kircher had himself lowered into the crater to see how volcanos behaved. Investigations of this bold and omnivorous kind led to volumes On Sound; On Light; On Obelisks; On the World Underground; On Arithmetic; On China. Published initially in Latin, the books were produced in many editions and translated into French, Dutch, German and English, thus carrying scholarship and wonder around the known world. Now they are unreadable, abounding in ‘superfluities, repetitions and sermonising,’ as Godwin puts it. He describes Arithmologia (1665) as one of Kircher’s most difficult books, adding disarmingly, ‘I do not pretend to explain it here’; and he wrestles with the hermetic nature of Kircher’s symbolism. Much of this is expressed in a lost visual language: ‘I cannot explain the presence of the cat,’ Godwin adds, after discussing the frontispiece of Arithmologia.

The illustrations remain breathtaking: the Tower of Babel; Noah’s Ark and passengers; maps of the entire known world; a diagram for telling the time across the globe; an explosive sundial, fired by gunpowder detonated hourly by the heat of the sun. Simply listing them brings joy and fascination in equal measure. An intercom built into the walls of a palace so that ‘two princes would be able to converse over a distance of 200 feet’; a music amplifier; an Aeolian harp that flies; a walking statue driven by magnets. And so on. The sheer scale of Kircher’s operation, stretching over 50 years from first publication to last, was such that he demanded thousands of woodcuts and copper engravings from perhaps hundreds of artists spread across Europe. While the majority of these are unknown, one or two, such as Romeyn de Hooghe and Coenraet Decker, were the finest of their generation.

Not content with the limitations imposed by the printed book, Kircher set up his own museum in the Jesuit College in Rome, comprised of objects and curiosities sent in by his world-wide network, and apparatus that performed scientific tricks. The museum no longer exists, having been looted and then distributed around Italian museums in the 19th century. But the odd piece of Kircherian arcana may yet survive in a corner of a provincial museum, a last crumbling physical monument to this mighty intellect.

James Hamilton is the biographer of Turner and Faraday, and author of London Lights: The Minds that Moved the City that Shook the World (2007).


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