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Daniel Stolzenberg, ed. The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher.

Stanford: Stanford University Libraries, 2001. xi + 160 pp. append, illus. $35. ISBN: 0-911221-23-9.

Athanasius Kircher, his voluminous publications, and his fabled museum have enjoyed something of a recent vogue, with a number of exhibits and symposia devoted to the learned Jesuit scholar and collector. The present volume forms the catalog of an exhibit and conference held at Stanford University in 2001, celebrating the acquisition of a nearly complete collection of Kircher's published works by Stanford's library (save one, Specula Melitensis, 1638, and even that work can be consulted at Stanford, reprinted in another volume). Proceedings of the symposium are forthcoming separately; this collection of shorter articles, many of whose authors have been associated with Stanford either as faculty or as graduate students, serves primarily to introduce texts and topics central to the study of Kircher.

Many of the reasons for Kircher's recent and well-deserved popularity are just those features of his career and writings that found such disfavor among critics from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, as Daniel Stolzenberg points out in his introductory essay. An apparently limitless range of subjects captured his attention, among them China, hieroglyphics, music, cryptology, magnetism, and automata, filling lengthy tomes complete with eye-catching illustrations. Kircher's texts incorporated the observations and opinions of past writers with those of his own. The latter included creative theories with features that in retrospect could look colorfully, even comically wrong to Enlightenment critics, prescient insights interwoven with facts that came to be disproved (some of them quickly, other less so), and interests in the magical and occult alongside efforts to demonstrate the natural basis of apparently magical marvels. Kircher's long residence in Rome at the Jesuit Collegio Romano provided him with a group of research assistants, collaborators in the form of Jesuits around the globe, and a location for his museum. Both Kircher and his museum attracted attention from visitors to Rome, serving also to showcase Rome's devotion to learning and science. Kircher's museum survived him, though not without continuing alteration, as Paula Findlen describes.

Several very useful chapters present concise analyses of a number of particular topics that interested Kircher, and the texts in which he discussed them. Tara Nummedal presents his theories on geology and volcanism, drawn from ancient authorities such as Plato and Strabo, modern scholars such as George Agricola, current theories of alchemy, and observations. Nick Wilding demonstrates how his interests in cryptography related closely to those in developing a universal language for philosophy. In this instance, Kircher adapted some of his scholarship to the practical needs of particular patrons, another important consideration in evaluating his work. Martha Baldwin identifies in his writings on magnetism a number of intersecting concerns. Here, as in the China scholarship discussed by Haun Saussy, a network of Jesuit scholars provided Kircher with invaluable information and observations. Theories about magnetism related not only to geology, but to the theories of attraction between bodies that accounted for natural magic, and to Platonic notions of cosmology. Hence his continuing engagement with the Hermetic corpus and ancient theology, a theme common to a number of authors (Penelope Gouk on music, Daniel Stolzenberg on magic, Egyptology, and universal history, Saussy on China). For Kircher and many contemporaries active in the decades before these sources suffered their final displacement, these sources and theories presented a complex and tangled web that continued to call for careful evaluation on many fronts, from textual criticism to empirical observation and measurement. They promised interpretive theories that could bring order and coherence to such apparently disparate fields as language change and geology, while they threatened the potential dangers of demonic, not simply natural, magic. Kircher's various efforts to explore, dissect, and reconnect these issues form one of the most interesting threads to run throughout this volume. Just as they helped to link many of his diverse fields of inquiry, they suggest significant avenues for continuing research into Kircher's thought.

Kircher's network of letter-writing was famous both for its volume and for the eminence of his correspondents; the collection of letters to Kircher was long one of the features of his museum. Nick Wilding describes the surviving correspondence as well as a related project to make that correspondence available to scholars through a searchable online database. That database seems still to be a work in progress, but should serve eventually as a highly useful accompaniment to Stanford's collection of Kircheriana, a listing of which completes the volume. This catalogue, then, should prove to be a very useful guide to further research.


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Author:Moyer, Ann E.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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