September 26, 2005

Kircher’s Obelisks

I’m grateful to Mr K. for renewing my interest in Athanasius Kircher, the 17th-century Jesuit writer and scholar. Mr K., also the proprietor of the outstanding new weblog Bibliodyssey, put together a rich selection of links about Kircher at metafilter, and was kind enough to point them out to me, by e-mail, after I returned from vacation, rightly assuming that I’d be interested. Perusing these links, I wondered if there were any new books on Kircher since I’d last checked some five or six years earlier: sure enough there were, and before long I was reading Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, a diverse and interesting collection of essays by various authors, edited by Paula Findlen. Mention of Kircher in a recent post here elicited a recommendation of another book: Athanasius Kircher. Itinerario del Éxtasis o Las Imágenes de un Saber Universal; by Ignacio Gómez de Liaño, which I also ordered, and which arrived here the week before last. This is a big, beautifully-produced volume which reproduces hundreds of the fascinating engraved illustrations from Kircher’s many works. The present images were scanned from the pages of this book.

Detail from the frontispiece to de Sepibus's 'Musæum Celeberrimum.'

Strictly speaking, these images are from a volume about Kircher, rather than by him, namely: Romani Collegii Societas Jesu Musæum Celeberrimum, edited by one Georgius de Sepibus, and published in Amterdam in 1678.

The first published catalogue of Kircher’s museum, the frontispiece of which can be seen [above], advertised it as a “theatre of nature and art.” Here Kircher displayed perpetual-motion machines, optical tricks, a mermaid’s tail, the bones of a giant, and a host of other natural and artificial marvels to learned visitors to the Jesuit college in Rome. In the frontispiece are the five wooden obelisks, some of which still survive, constructed by Kircher and his assistants in imitation of the Egyptian obelisks scattered around Rome—source here.
Detail from the illustration of the Lateran obelisk from de Sepibus's 'Musæum Celeberrimum. Detail from the illustration of the Sallustian obelisk from de Sepibus's 'Musæum Celeberrimum.

The obelisks of Rome, and the hieroglyphs upon them, were a lifelong fascination of Kircher’s. As early as 1633, at which time Kircher was based in Avignon, he had boasted to the scholar Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Pereisc that he held in his possession a key to decoding the inscriptions on these monuments, in the shape of an ancient manuscript written by a Bablylonian rabbi. Pereisc was intrigued, but came to suspect Kircher was lying, suspicions confirmed in the course of an awkward interview between the two men, in which Kircher agreed only to show Pereisc a single page from the manuscript, a page, in any case, that Pereisc was convinced was not authentic. It was not the only rash and unsubstantiated boast that Kircher had made, and this and other embarrassments may have contributed to his decision to leave Avignon later that year. Kircher ended up in Rome, where he landed squarely on his feet, obtaining a prestigious post at the Collegio Romano. Curiously, this appointment had been encouraged by the influential Pereisc, who continued to support the younger scholar despite having been disappointed by him: we must suppose that the breadth of Kircher’s knowledge, and his intellectual energy, sufficed to propel him past the difficulties caused by his frequent lapses of interpretation and judgement.

Detail from the illustration of the Constantinopolitan obelisk from de Sepibus's 'Musæum Celeberrimum. Detail from the illustration of the Pamphilian obelisk from de Sepibus's 'Musæum Celeberrimum.

Kircher’s studies of the Coptic language and the nature of hieroglyphs throughout the 1630s and ’40s culminated in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus of 1652-4, which detailed at length his over-interpretation of hieroglyphs, which he considered as the highly symbolic encodings of a recondite antediluvian language. For example, ‘this led him to translate simple hieroglyphic texts now known to read as […] “Osiris says” as “The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis.” The three-volume Oedipus Aegyptiacus was preceded by a lesser work entitled Obeliscus Pamphilius, issued in the jubilee year of 1650, which celebrated the erection of the obelisk at the centre of Bernini’s famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona. Kircher was unaware that this particular obelisk was not even Egyptian, but rather a 1st-Century Roman copy.

Detail from the illustration of the Minervan obelisk, and its elephantine base, from de Sepibus's 'Musæum Celeberrimum.

A further obelisk-related book, Obeliscus Aegyptiacus, was published in 1666, nearly coinciding with the completion of another obelisk in a sculptural setting by Bernini, that of the elephant in the Piazza dell Minerva—see the image immediately above. This was one of the Obelisci Isei Campensis: a group of ‘several small obelisks found at different times near the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, which were probably brought to Rome during the first century and grouped in pairs, with others, at the entrances of the temple of Isis’—(source). The paired images further above show details of the Lateran obelisk (the oldest and tallest in Rome), the ‘Sallustian’ oeblisk (another Roman copy), and the ‘Constantinopolitan’ and Pamphilian obelisks. Click on the details to see the source images in full.

Posted by misteraitch at September 26, 2005 12:05 PM

Of course it would be selfdefeating not to compliment the clarity and perceptiveness of this post, so please consider it done.

In my usual stumbling fashion I just came across some Kircher scans from the Obelisk (?series of) book(s). Down towards the bottom of this Hungarian Zrinyi Library page. There's about 9 or so images inside of pretty good resolution. Shame about the cutoff at the top of the ?eagles holding a banner atop the obelisk. Maybe not good enough for a poster, but it could be quite excellent on the desktop.

Posted by: peacay on September 30, 2005 04:48 PM

Thanks peacay! It looks like those scans at the Hungarian site are taken from the third volume of the Oedipus Aegyptiacus, which, if that’s right, has at least a couple of images in common with the later Musæum Celeberrimum. This image, for example, is the same as one of those I scanned above, whereas this one doesn’t seem to have been included in the Siruela volume.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 30, 2005 06:07 PM

That last one you linked there is wonderful. It's almost illusorily 3-D when you look at the buildings in the background or the people in the piazza (or whatever it is) around the obelisk. Just beautiful.

If I sign my signature the same way twice, we call that art.

Posted by: peacay on September 30, 2005 06:42 PM

I've just returned from Rome yesterday, and it was a nice surprise seeing old roman and egiptian sculptures that came from the Museum Kircherianum at the Vatican museums.

I hope you enjoyed the book of Siruela.

Posted by: C. Rancio on October 2, 2005 09:23 PM
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