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Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century. (Reviews).

Peter N. Miller, Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. xv + 18 b/w pls. + 256 pp., 20 illus. $40. ISBN: 0-300-08252-5.

Antiquaries are a curious lot. Peter N. Miller's illuminating study of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, organized around the cultural function of the antiquary, makes an excellent contribution to early modern intellectual and social history. In treating Peiresc as a representative, if extraordinarily accomplished, figure of the late humanist world of seventeenth-century Europe, Miller shows the development, impact, and eventual decline of antiquarian thought in civil, social, political, religious, and literary spheres. He manages both to preserve the particulars of Peiresc's life -- his correspondence, his collezionismo, and the scientific and historical work for which he is today remembered -- and to present his philosophical attitudes and social practices as typical of a larger and relatively coherent intellectual community.

Among the many appealing elements of Peiresc's Europe is the tension between those lively early seventeenth-century antiquaries and the splendidly moribund figures of fun they would so soon become. Miller begins with the obvious question of how it was that Peiresc, central to an immense range of intellectual interests at the moment of his death in 1637, suffered such complete oblivion before the century's end. The short, always available, and rather uninteresting answer would be his relative failure to publish; the longer and more informative response is this book.

Miller's first chapter has as its focus Pierre Gassendi's biography of Peiresc, published in Latin in 1641, and in English as The Mirrour of True Nobility and Gentility in 1657. Miller's emphasis on Peiresc's implicit connection with Gassendi's other biographical subject, Tycho Brahe, is surely correct; the pairing of the antiquarian with the astronomer, both masters of observation, foreshadows the comic debut of such figures as Thomas Nabbes's Horten, "an owner of rarities and antiquities," who proudly displays "A weatherbeaten stone with an inscription / That is not legible but through an optick," convinced by its minute markings that it was once an altar "in some Sibills cave / Three thousand years ago" (Thomas Nabbes, The Bride, A Comedie (1640) IV: I:47-49). Like Gassendi, Miller is careful to point out that Peiresc's rational, methodical, and rigorous antiquarianism did not preclude a marked interest in the marvelous and the grotesque, and it is no surprise that by 1641 antiquaries were popularly associ ated with mountebanks, both groups having studios "Adorn'd with the sowr sight of Sceletons / Embalmed Limbs, strange Beasts, and pendant Bones" (Thomas Jordan, A Mountebanck (1641): 60-62). It was that supreme and sometimes successful effort to record and even to revive the dead past, in fact, that eventually led Samuel Butler, once tutored by Peiresc's friend and fellow scholar John Selden, to mock the antiquary as one "Who has no Busnes for the Intellect / But to Transcribe and Copy, and Collect; / ... An Antiquated Ghost that Haunts / The Charnel-Houses of the Antients / And calls the Dead Deponents up, to Answer / And solve all Questions of the Necromancer" (Samuel Butler, "Antiquity," (1928) 3-4, 5-8).

As useless and marginalized as the stage and satirical versions of the antiquary appear to be, however, Gassendi's Peiresc is characterized above all by his active contributions to a number of scholarly communities and by his great gift for friendship. Miller makes an excellent case, in his first and second chapters, for the fundamental importance of Peiresc's "learned sociability" (40) and measured, neo-Stoic magnanimity; they served him well in this age of strife amongst confessional enemies, and ruinous gift-giving rituals among friends, patrons, and clients. What Miller traces out in these remarkable chapters is not merely Peiresc's exemplarity, but the way in which his collegiality fits into the early modern ideal of "civil conversation," (57) a flexible social medium that knit together, for a time, those of diverse backgrounds and interests. This community, of course, had its limits, and though it welcomed scholarly Catholics, Protestants and the occasional Jew and Muslim, it was relatively hostile to t he court and especially to the emergent salon, the locus of the fashionable, the studiedly inerudite, the pleasurable, and the sentimental. That Peiresc's generosity of spirit did not extend to women in the early seventeenth century is not surprising; the same sort of opposition of tradition to novelty, of rigorous canons to random inclusivity, of apparent objectivity to sustained subjectivity, often with the same gendered language, has colored much academic discussion since that period.

Miller's third chapter, devoted to the importance of antiquarian knowledge for issues of early modern statecraft, presents Peiresc as both an archivist skilled enough to find centuries-old evidence, at the behest of Louis XIII, for French sovereignty over the principality of Orange, and as enlightened defender of civil rather than ecclesiastical authority. This latter aspect, articulated through examination of texts cherished by Peiresc -- Paolo Sarpi's prospectus for a work on church government, and Hugo Grotius' De imperio summarum potestatum circa sacra -- is further developed in Miller's subsequent discussion of the antiquary's spiritual life. In this absorbing fourth chapter, Miller establishes connections between the spare doctrinal beliefs of Grotius and Peiresc, their implicit inclusion of non-Christians such as the Stoics in this spiritual community, their confidence that neither antiquarian research nor scientific advances could threaten religious beliefs, and the eventual practice of accommodation by Christian missionaries in the Far East such as Matteo Ricci S.J. Miller argues persuasively that these two sorts of accommodation -- the intellectual effort of the antiquarian and the astronomer, and the proselytizing activity of the priest -- derive from the same neo-Stoic stance, and that those thinkers hostile to the very notion of ecclesiastical antiquities and virtuous pagans, focused on this single and potent philosophical source.

Miller ends his study with a philosophical question and a literary answer. In trying to show "why the antiquaries did what they did," (131) he examines personal and more immediate meditations on the detritus of the past in Montaigne's Essays, in the poetry of Martin Opitz, in Thomas Browne's Urne Burriall, and in a telling episode from Tristram Shandy. Though Peiresc's curious activity, like "any other morsel of sound knowledge," was warmly defended by Sterne's equally curious Walter Shandy, by 1760 antiquarianism seemed to most an increasingly obscure route to Antiquity (Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1980) II: 14, 83). While in this same decade the learned Avignonais doctor and collector Esprit Calvet would write, as if his professional and leisurely pursuits both involved the preservation of life, that "the antiquary and the physician alike should beware any impressions that raise their hopes," his was a rare confidence, and his description of the minute characters of an inscription as "tres lisibles" f inished with the observation that its actual meaning remained, in fact, "au rang des inconnues." (Esprit Calvet to Caylus, Lettres inedites d'Henri IV et de plusieurs personages celebres (An X [1802]) 376, 382). As Miller points out, by 1820 Keats would address that "still unravished bride of quietness" as the "foster-child of silence and slow time," quite certain that no amount of antiquarian activity would reveal the original subject of his Grecian Urn. And by 1837 Prosper Merimee's Monsieur de Peyrehorade -- like Peiresc, wealthy, enthusiastic, and generous with his time and artifacts, but primitive, utterly provincial, unskilled in philology, and clumsily pagan in his impulses -- would see his only son somehow crushed to death on his wedding night by an ancient statue of Venus, with an unintelligible inscription. Miller's persuasive and enjoyable study, in undoing much of that burdensome legacy; will be of interest to all students of early modern intellectual history.
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Author:Reeves, Eileen
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:1262
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