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Multi-skilled man; Richard Edmonds examines a fascinating history of the last great Renaissance polymath.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest, was the last Renaissance man, a scholar held in awe during his lifetime, yet, as the 17th century drew to a close Kircher's extreme views were eclipsed by the scientific revolution and the discovery of irrefutable scientific fact.

To address scholars, courts and kings with conviction, you had to be a Jesuit. These were men trained skillfully in the art of prevarication and persuasion. Wasn't it the Jesuit who said give us a child until the age of seven and then he is yours for the rest of his life? Once a Jesuit, always a Jesuit - but Kircher came to maturity as a priest and philosopher in the Baroque period, a time of exuberance and theatrical flair which was reflected in music, interior decoration and church architecture.

Kircher obviously had his books of ideas copiously illustrated with expensive copper engravings often paid for from money gifts given to him by indulgent rulers. They were visual aids for those who struggled to assimilate the words of his teachings. But as Kircher's fame diminished and his reputation as a polymath declined, his books fell by the wayside and were superseded by other authors - new men in the field of philosophy and humanism, such as Locke, Hume, Descartes or Pascal.

But the engravings were largely ignored. But now they are shown to advantage in Joscelyn Godwin's new book, a wonderful theatrical feast of architecture, mythological figures, curiosities such as moon dials and sunflower clocks along with machines which embrace both the past and the future. This is not to mention images of fabulous cities and the deities which were believed to have inhabited them plus a sensational engraving of the Tower of Babel which comes with an explanation telling us why it could not have reached the moon. "Not enough bricks", apparently.

Kircher gives his version of the distance of the moon from the earth, then calculates that for the tower to reach the moon it would take five million men 426 years (presumably working flat out) with billions of bricks to be made and used in the process.

Mad? Of course - but the flat earth theorists were still around at the time and in court circles people believed in the presence of Isis and Osiris which were used in court entertainments throughout Europe.

Sometimes, Kircher's attention is glued to total absurdity. The ancient city of Nineveh he saw as "three days in size", eclipsing Rome, Carthage, London, Lisbon and Paris to name but a few.

But what, he ponders, is the meaning of three days in size. Was it three days from the ocean (the one where the whale had deposited Jonah) or did the ancient architects mean three days from end to end of the city.

But the engraving is still with us and you marvel at its superb detail. We can note, with a modicum of astonishment, that the artist who engraved this beautiful image was only 19-years-old at the time.

Nothing was overlooked by this extraordinary man and everything came under his surveillance. But as a good Jesuit he saw most things as attributable to God. The human body, for example, was seen as a piece of divine creativity, comparable in its clean, clear design with Noah's Ark, the Altar of Moses and Solomon's Temple. Kircher's concept claimed that the architects who designed these legendary buildings were directly inspired by the Supreme Architect himself - namely God, in order that man through direct inspiration from divine reason could find his body reflected in architectural perfection.

It's a cunning idea and in Shakespeare's time strange things were happening in London both in the plays and in the Globe itself since divine number was supposed to have been part of the planning of the theatre before fire reduced it all to ashes.

Clearly, some of the early and wonderfully fanciful maps show fantasy was the stuff of life to men such as Kircher (and Leonardo Da Vinci not to mention Michelangelo) so it is no surprise to find a scaly goddess called Derceto haunting the lonely marshes of ancient Palestine.

But this idea is no more far fetched than the bronze machines which Kircher attributes to the magicians of ancient Egypt. Things which could be used to prevent slaves fleeing from Pharaohs' tyranny.

Yet here was a man who was also quite well aware that the pagan priests (rather like the Wizard of Oz) used special effects based on cunning natural phenomena such as steam, optical illusion and acoustics, to fool the gullible worshipper and exert control through the "miracle" of religion.

Even Japan, a country as far away from Europe as Kircher could possibly imagine, also brought its mysteries into the kin of this curious man who at one point invented a tower with a numerical bronze column to measure the flooding of the Nile. Missionaries had brought back to him tales of remote Japanese valleys where innumerable victims were ritually murdered to appease the gods. Kircher writes at length of the many evils, such as this, for which religion could be held responsible. You wonder what he would have thought about suicide bombers.

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An engraving of the Tower of Babel, which Kircher decided would take too many bricks
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 30, 2009
Words:878
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