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28 November 2019

Athanasius Kircher, the Last Renaissance Man or the First Showman?

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

If he were alive today, Athanasius Kircher would have taken a lot of abuse on social media for having suggested the idea of making a music organ out of a collection of cats locked in boxes, ordered by the musical scale of their meows, which would be heard when a needle jabbed their tails as the organist pressed the corresponding key. But he would have cared little for the diatribes, for he made it very clear in his writing that those who praised him were “intelligent readers,” while those who criticized him were “stupid or obtuse.”

Portrait of Athanasius Kircher. Source: Wikimedia

Kircher (May 2, 1602 – November 28, 1680) invented vomiting machines, talking statues, watches operated by sunflowers, and a magnetic Jesus that walked on water to embrace his disciple Peter. And he proudly displayed it all in his own Kircherianum in Rome, like a Phineas Taylor Barnum ahead of his time. And like that 19th century American, he must have possessed some showmanship before this concept was invented. But Kircher was much more than that: he has been called the last Renaissance man, the last man who knew everything, the Master of a Hundred Arts or the greatest polymath in the age of polymaths. And although his contemporary René Descartes thought him rather a “charlatan” with an “aberrant imagination,” how many can boast of having been dismissed by Descartes himself.

Kircher was different and a risk taker almost from the cradle. He was a Catholic born in Geisa, now Germany, the land of Protestants, and as a young man was almost hanged for it. His ordination as a Jesuit and his training in mathematics and other disciplines, along with various vicissitudes, led him to make a stop in Rome, where he ended up residing for the rest of his life. There he taught at the Collegio Romano, until he was able to free himself to fully attend to his unfathomably diverse interests: geology, volcanology, music, magnetism, technology, biology, acoustics, optics, medicine, combinatorics, Egyptology, theology, philology, astronomy, sinology…

The two-headed imperial eagle and other vomiting machines displayed in Kircher’s museum. Fuente: Universidad de Stanford

The dozens of works he wrote must not have filled all his time, because he also exchanged thousands of letters with some 800 correspondents and in 30 different languages, including the one he himself invented. His illustrated books were sold like today’s coffee table books, and were so popular all over the world, from China to the Americas, that they allowed him to make a living from their sales. It is said that his volumes were to be found in the library of anyone who considered himself an intellectual, and among his legion of readers were names such as Locke, Huygens, Espinoza and Leibniz—and, of course, Descartes.

Successes and blunders

Some successes remain in his legacy: he helped Bernini in his design of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome. He was the first to use a microscope to study the blood of plague sufferers, where he found tiny “worms”; although what he probably saw were the blood cells themselves, he was right to suppose that the cause of the disease was a microscopic organism and that certain hygiene and isolation measures could prevent infection. He studied fossils, and was fascinated by volcanoes; on one occasion he had to be hauled up from inside the crater of Vesuvius when it appeared that an eruption was imminent. He correctly drew the so-called Pacific ring of fire on a map. His studies of Egypt, which some consider to be the first stone of Egyptology, correctly established the Coptic language as the last link in the ancient Egyptian language.

Kircher’s translation of the hieroglyphics turned out to be absolute nonsense. Source: Wikimedia

But in this last field he also made one of his greatest blunders: his supposed translation of the hieroglyphics turned out to be absolute nonsense. Just like his theory that the tides were caused by an underground ocean, or that magnetism was the cause of the movements of planets and love between people, or his discovery of the location of Atlantis, or his plans of Noah’s Ark, or his idea that an armadillo was a hybrid between a hedgehog and a turtle, or that a giraffe was obtained from a camel and a leopard—which, in fact, reduced the number of species that had to be accommodated in the Ark—or that mountain ranges were the skeleton of the Earth unearthed by erosion, not to mention his belief in unicorns, griffins and dragons. At least, in his favour it must be said that he expressly denied the existence of winged turtles and flying cats.

Javier Yanes


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