Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity

Anthony Grafton writes:

Even in the middle years of the 17th century, when Athanasius Kircher’s career reached its peak, nobody knew exactly what to make of him. Descartes, who described him as ‘more charlatan than scholar’, classed his enormous erudite books among the many that he refused on principle to read. John Evelyn, visiting Rome in 1644, was impressed when ‘with Dutch patience, he showed us his perpetual motions, catoptrics, magnetical experiments, models, and a thousand other crotchets and devices.’ He predicted that in a forthcoming book on obelisks Kircher would publish ‘all the recondite and abstruse learning’ of the Egyptians, and sent him a drawing of the hieroglyphs inscribed on an Egyptian stone, ‘with the true dimensions’. Eleven years later, though, when Evelyn met Archbishop Usher, he recorded his learned compatriot’s view that ‘Kircher was a mountebank.’ Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc helped Kircher find preferment in Rome and gain access to the great collections and libraries. From their first contact, however, Peiresc was puzzled by his brilliant young German friend’s careless streak. Kircher had devised an elegant interpretation of some of the hieroglyphs on the obelisk by the Lateran Basilica, but could only confess his embarrassment when Peiresc pointed out that he had worked from the wrong engraving, a fanciful one, instead of the accurate image that appeared in the same book. Peiresc, who never quite withdrew his support, spent years gnashing his teeth over similar episodes.

(LRB 7 November 2013)

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