Book Review: Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World, by Joscelyn Godwin

Between the expansive scholarship of the Renaissance and the emerging scientific age, all knowledge was his domain

Frontispiece (Mundus Subterraneus) | Photo courtesy of Thames & Hudson

The Lost Brilliance of Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World,
by Joscelyn Godwin
Thames & Hudson (2009)

‘The world is bound by secret knots’
– Athanasius Kircher

On the face of it, Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) presents a somewhat baffling figure. A respected Professor of Ethics and Mathematics at the University of Würzburg, he was brought to Vienna in 1633 by Emperor Ferdinand II to succeed Johannes Kepler as Mathematician to the Habsburg court.

But mathematics was just the beginning. Kicher was fascinated by all aspects of the sciences – a primary selection of his interests includes mathematics, physics, magnetism, music, philosophy, astronomy, geology, cartography, zoology, archaeology, Egyptology and Sinology. He was possessed of a profound erudition, achieved great renown in his time, and yet, in the eyes of history, has vanished into near total obscurity.

As Alan Cutler tells us in The Seashell on the Mountaintop, “Hardly remembered today, Kircher was a giant among seventeenth-century scholars. Straddling the divide between the expansive scholarship of the Renaissance and the focused data-collecting of the emerging scientific age, he was one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain.”

Kircher’s lasting legacy has been his prodigious outpouring of scientific tomes, copiously – at times fantastically so – illustrated by a variety of highly-skilled artists to help articulate his often startling and marvelous postulations.

Thus, it is the rich imagery, as well as the man behind them that form the focus of Joscelyn Godwin’s recent book, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. Godwin, a Professor of Music at Colgate University, is a long-time Kircher scholar, and proves to be a charming, hugely knowledgeable and delightfully droll guide to this fascinating seventeenth-century personage who embodied the intersection of science, art and the imagination.

And a guide is imperative: as Godwin tells us, “… in order for modern people to enjoy this kind of activity, most of them need a helping hand across the gulf of history, culture, religion and erudition that yawns between Kircher’s age and ours.”

Subterranean waters heated by subterranean fire (Mundus Subterraneus) | Photo courtesy of Thames & Hudson

One has to wonder as to how a figure of such esteemed standing could disappear so completely from popular scientific history. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, one of the few contemporary institutions to feature a long-standing exhibit dedicated to Kircher, throws some light on this:

“A contemporary of Newton, Boyle, Leibniz and Descartes, Kircher’s rightful place in the history of science has been shrouded by his attempt to forge a unified world view out of traditional Biblical historicism and the emerging secular scientific theory of knowledge.”

And this is worth dwelling on: his unending quest for knowledge was inextricably coupled with a strictly Catholic background, at a time when Western science was beginning to loosen itself from the shackles of the church. This proved disastrous for Kircher’s scientific standing in the long run, as he became increasingly isolated within an archaic tradition that insisted on subsuming science to further the ends of religion. In addition to this, his very way of working was to fall by the wayside:

“The academies instituted a new way of gathering and diffusing knowledge that has remained valid to the present day,” Godwin writes. “Through collaborative research, peer review (instituted by Oldenburg) and periodical publication, findings could be shared, commented on and added to in a continuous self-correcting process.”

“Kircher’s method of compiling facts through erudition and correspondence and enshrining them in encyclopedic works could not compete. While the motor of the new science was conversation, Kircher’s was a monologue.”

Dragon and Tiger Mountain (China Illustrata) | Photo courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Some of Kircher’s better-known theories include proposing that the earth was riddled with subterranean channels of fire and water, an idea he developed after lowering himself into an active volcano to observe its inner workings. Another was a scientific demonstration of the folly of the tower of Babel – a tower so large would surely cause the very earth to drop out of its position. A third, perhaps the most impressive in hindsight, was determining, with the help of a microscope, that germs were the cause of disease.

Of course, the vaster portion of his writings has become a curiosity, since his self-imposed obligation to take the bible literally “… acted as a straitjacket on Kircher’s brilliant mind.” At times, his work “… resembles science fiction, in which an idea with a scientific basis is developed into a chain of fantasies, to entertain the reader or arouse his awestruck admiration.”

Though so evidently fascinated by the world and its workings, he was never able to fulfill his ambition of becoming a traveling missionary. This may explain why although Kircher was at the centre of what Godwin calls “the world’s most efficient and best-educated network,” he was also “prone to believe every report that came in his mailbag.” But it is precisely this that makes him so intriguing to us today. “For all his apparent oddness,” writes Godwin, he was perhaps “more representative of his times than any of the canonized saints of progress.”

In the end, it is his unrelenting spirit of enquiry that stands out as the thing that we, as present-day readers, can learn from. Making the utmost of his situation, station, and formidable intellect, Athanasius Kircher embarked on a life-long, all-encompassing scientific enterprise on a scale that is nothing short of staggering. Though the empirical value of his work has long been consigned to dusty hallways of forgotten science, his books nonetheless embody a palpable, indefatigable spirit, one that seamlessly blends the worlds of science, theology and the fantastic.

Mount Etna erupting (Mundus Subterraneus) | Photo courtesy of Thames & Hudson

And now, a note of particular interest to readers in Vienna: on discovering this book, it dawned on me that Kircher worked at a time when the Habsburg monarchy – along with their generous patronage of the arts and sciences, of which he partook freely – was in full flower.

And presently he was in the Habsburg’s world. The catalogue of the Austrian National Library indeed lists all his major works, and all that is required to access them is a library card for the main reading room at Heldenplatz, available for €10, plus a photo-ID and a valid proof of residence.

These books are masterpieces of binding and design. Alone to see the illustrations, etchings and woodcuts – as they were intended to be seen – are breathtaking. One can almost imagine the gasps of delight issuing from a nobleman of the Renaissance, upon seeing such an abundance of marvels – subterranean fires and waters coursing through the earth; the tower of Babel in all its glory; the dragons of China – made so vividly real.

 

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www.onb.at and www.mjt.or

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