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Reviewed by:
  • Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything
  • Darin Hayton
Paula Findlen , ed. Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. xii + 466 pp. index. append. illus. bibl. $29.95. ISBN: 0–415–94016–8.

Athanasius Kircher continues to attract scholarly attention. His wide-ranging interests and voluminous publications provide endless opportunity to sample the intellectual currents of the seventeenth century. Kircher's efforts to write on every subject that he encountered, to build correspondence networks, to collect and display all manner of objects, and to attract powerful patrons make him "a barometer of virtually every intellectual transformation of the seventeenth century" (41). The present collection of essays on this erudite and fascinating polymath complements Daniel Stolzenberg's catalogue The Great Art of Knowing: TheBaroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher (reviewed in RQ 56.3 [2003]). Both arise from an exhibition and conference held at Stanford University in 2001. The present volume contains nineteen short essays that illustrate the multifarious ways that Kircher was a barometer not just for the seventeenth century, but for much of the early modern period.

This short review cannot do justice to the essays presented in this volume; instead, it focuses on a few important themes that recur throughout the text. Findlen's introductory essay sets the stage for the remainder of the book by offering less a biography of Kircher than a survey of his reputation from brilliant young scholar to discredited liar. Most of the chapters likewise focus on Kircher's place in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discussions, revealing simultaneouslyKircher's debt to his predecessors and his originality. Anthony Grafton locates Kircher within the early modern debates over ancient chronology and indicates the extent to which Kircher acknowledged and ignored sixteenth-century chronologers such as Joseph Scaliger, Johannes Carion, and Phillip Melanchthon. IngridRowland argues that Kircher's concept of panspermia originated in Giordano Bruno's writings, but that Kircher adapted it for his own purposes and thereby avoided the troubles that beset Bruno. Peter Miller looks to Kircher's older contemporary Pieresc to find the inspiration and model for Kircher's Coptic studies. However, as Miller points out, a gulf separated Pieresc's methods and goals from those of his younger colleague. Where Pieresc viewed the history of languages as reflecting the history of civilization, Kircher equated the history of language to the history of the church. What emerges from these essays is the fact that Kircher never simply adopted a practice or concept. He adapted and modified them to address his own concerns and questions. [End Page 1003]

The questions and concerns that motivated Kircher were those of a Jesuit in Rome: most importantly, the local Roman context and the global Jesuit missionary project. Eugenio Lo Sardo and Antonella Romano fill in the immediate Roman context, while Martha Baldwin, Harald Siebert, and Angel Mayer-Deutsch depict aspects of Kircher's efforts to establish patronage relationships throughout Europe. The last four essays follow Kircher's works into China and New Spain. Here, as elsewhere in this volume, Kircher's ideal of a Catholic universalism provides the key for understanding his works. In a fascinating chapter, J. Michelle Molina demonstrates how Kircher's China illustrata, made possible by the Jesuit missionary activities, dictated the narrative structure of hagiographic texts in New Spain. Drawing on portraits and engravings as well as texts, Findlen offers an insightful analysis of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun in New Spain whose works reflect Kircher's cultural and scientific authority in the New World.

Finally, several chapters explore Kircher's efforts to publish and circulate knowledge. Siebert's detailed study of censorship reports from the College of Revisors General suggests that Kircher exploited personal relationships and his growing fame to avoid harsh censorship, particularly after his Great Art of Knowing had received stern reproach in 1660. Nick Wilding's contribution extends his work on Kircher's cryptography and universal languages, arguing that Kircher adapted his works to address the interests of particular patrons and to create the appearance of a network of readers. Noel Malcolm traces the contours of Kircher's correspondence network to challenge the easy assumption that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0236
Print ISSN
0034-4338
Pages
pp. 1003-1004
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-27
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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