Athanasius Kircher’s Cabinet of Wonder: The Man Who Believed in Everything and His Museum of the Miraculous, Universal, and Absurd
When Kircher was a young man, he was admitted to the Jesuit College at Paderborn, where he studied Greek and Hebrew and, in less than two months, mastered the natural philosophy curriculum and completed his novitiate in 1620 — an impressive achievement in such a short time. Indeed, in his autobiography, published posthumously in 1684, Kircher was hardly modest about his own life achievements…not all of which were scholarly in nature. He included stories about childhood and teenage miracles where he survived impossible situations by divine intervention, including escaping a stampede of horses and entrapment in a water wheel where he almost drowned, healing without treatment from a potentially deadly hernia, and successfully evading a mentally unstable bishop’s army.
As these accounts illustrate, Kircher had a predilection for the mystical: a trait which bled into his written philosophical and scholarly works. Kircher’s works on topics such as magnetism and miraculous plants, stones, and machines captured imaginations but also infuriated scholars who found Kircher’s work to be factually flawed and too reliant on an idea that every form of knowledge could be connected by universal philosophies involving hidden, mystical elements of the natural world.
Kircher’s growing visibility in the scholarly community attracted wealthy patrons who consisted of noblemen, rulers, and other members of the academic community. He claimed to possess objects that drew on nature’s mystical properties. One of the most famous of these was his “miraculous” sunflower clock that was said to run on the mysterious power of a sunflower seed adhered to a cork floating in water that would move with the sun’s motions.
Kircher also claimed to possess a manuscript that deciphered the ancient languages of the world, supposedly written by Babylonian rabbi Barachias Nephi. French lawyer, scholar and antiquarian Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), who had been captivated by Kircher’s sunflower clock, hoped that the manuscript could be used to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Peiresc and other academics and noblemen had begun to believe Kircher capable of unlocking mysteries in nature.
This confidence was short-lived, however. By late 1633, Peiresc began to doubt the existence of the Barachias Nephi manuscript, as Kircher never produced it to Peiresc (or anyone). Peiresc also came to believe that the sunflower clock was also an illusion, guessing that the clock was really a magnet. He was correct.
Nevertheless, hoping to secure Kircher’s help with the publication of Pietro della Valle’s (1586-1652) Coptic grammar and dictionary in Rome, Peiresc used his contact with the naturalist, collector and antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) to get Kircher transferred to Rome. In mid-November of 1633, Kircher arrived in Rome to teach mathematics at the Collegio Romano, a Jesuit scholarly institution.
It was at the Collegio Romano that Kircher finally had a place to create a museum, a veritable cabinet of wonder. The museum was created when, in 1651, Roman patrician Alfonso Donnino’s collection containing antiquities and paintings was donated to the Collegio Romano. The institution wanted to create a physical space worthy to house the items given by such a respected man. Kircher curated the museum, adding his own created machines and curious artifacts, including objects from nature, that he had received from his Jesuit contacts over the years.
With the advertisement across Europe that Kircher’s own curiosities and inventions were also contained in the museum, it became a destination for scholars, rulers, and others taking a Grand Tour of Europe. Contemporaries knew Kircher as a famous collector and author, and by surrounding himself in the museum with antiquities, natural objects, and mysterious machines which he invented, Kircher was immersed in a physical representation of his universal philosophy about the underlying, divine properties connecting all knowledge and joining together disparate items and ideas.
Kircher invited visitors to the museum to interact with the machines, read the many books, and ponder the natural items. This invitation to engage with the collections was a unique quality of Kircher’s, demonstrating a desire to connect people to both existence and the natural world through the process of creation of knowledge — yet more of his universalism in practice.
Some of the items contained in Kircher’s museum included: “vomiting statues”, one an eagle, one a lobster, each of which vomited from a cup into another vessel, and were both funny and also showed the principles of hydraulics (the movement of water); “snakestones” from India which were supposed to draw out the venom of a snake when pressed to the bite (there was no proof that these worked); bones from an ancient race of giants (which were actually mastodon bones, unknown at the time); an organ driven by a drum that played every kind of birdsong; a very large concavo-convex mirror together with a series of other mirrors which appeared to show ghosts in the air; and many more inventions, machines, statues, and other curiosities (Giorgio de Sepi created a catalog of the items in 1678).
After Kircher died on 27 November 1680, Filippo Buonanni (1638-1723), a Jesuit scholar who had studied under Kircher, became curator of Kircher’s museum. In 1709, Buonanni published Musaeum Kircherianum sive musaeum a p. Athanasio Kirchero in Collegio Romano Societatis Jesu […], a lavishly illustrated catalog of the museum’s collections. When there were no longer any Kircherian disciples to attend to the museum and its contents, Kircher’s inventions housed in the museum eventually stopped working. Various museums in Rome acquired pieces from Kircher’s museum after his death.
Today, the Collegio Romano has the Wunder Musaeum, dedicated to highlighting Kircher’s own collection and continuing the tradition of the wunderkammer — or “cabinet of wonders” — that Kircher had created in his museum by amassing objects of wonder from around the world (in addition to Kircher’s own fascinating machines, some of which are currently being rebuilt by those studying him).
Kircher has had a resurgence in the academic community, which now sees his universal philosophies about existence and the secrets of history and nature as an important form of thinking that differed and competed with other philosophies of his time: Aristotelian, Platonic, Galilean, Cartesian, and Newtonian, to name a few.
In 1660, Kircher published Itinerarium exstaticum coeleste (‘Ecstatic Celestial Journey’), which was based on a dream he had in which he traveled from the earth to outer space (space was a fluid, rather than a solid). This work dispelled almost all of the Aristotelian ideas about cosmology. In it, the angel Cosmiel reveals all the secrets of heaven and earth to Kircher, as the character “Theodidactus” (“taught by God”). To write such a book would have been against the Jesuit mandate to teach Aristotelian cosmology. Cosmiel described an immeasurable universe, in contradiction to what other philosophers such as Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) would dare to posit.
In a time when scholars sought to create hard and fast scientific rules and philosophies about how the world worked, Athanasius Kircher believed the world still contained divine mysteries and magical properties — inspiring wonder in contemporaneous and modern readers of his works.
Buonanni, R., & Kircher, A. (1709). Musaeum Kircherianum sive musaeum a p. Athanasio Kirchero in Collegio Romano Societatis Jesu jam pridem incoeptum nuper restitutum, auctum, descriptum, & iconibus illustratum [. . .]. Romae: Typis Georgii Plachi Caelaturam [. . .]. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.98588
Findlen, P. (Ed.). (2004). Athanasius Kircher: The last man who knew everything. New York: Routledge.
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Godwin, J. (2009). Athanasius Kircher’s theatre of the world: His life, work, and the search for universal knowledge. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Kircher, A. (1678). Athanasii Kircheri e Soc. Jesu Mundus subterraneus, in XII libros digestus; quo divinum subterrestris mundi opificium, mira ergasteriorum naturae in eo distributio, verbo [Pantamorphon] protei regnum, uniuersae denique naturae majestas & divitiae summa rerum varietate exponuntur, abditorum effectuum causae acri indagine inquisitae demonstrantur, cognitae per artis & naturae conjugium ad humanae vitae necessarium usum vario experimentorum apparatu, necnon novo modo & ratione applicantur. Amstelodami: Apud Joannem Janssonium à Waesberge & filios. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.109544
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Rech, C. (n.d.). Wunder Musaeum: The new construction project of the Museum of Art and Science of the Liceo EQ Visconti. Retrieved from: http://www.wundermusaeum.com/introduzione.html
Schott, G. (1662). P. Gasparis Schotti, regis curtani [. . .] Physica curiosa, sive, Mirabilia naturæ et artis libris XII. comprehensa : quibus pleraq[ue], quæ de angelis, dæmonibus, hominibus, spectris, energumenis, monstris, portentis, animalibus, meteoris, &c. rara, arcana, curiosaq[ue] circumferuntur, ad veritatis trutinam expenduntur : variis ex historia ac philosophia petitis disquisitionibus excutiuntur, & innumeris exemplis illustrantur [. . .]. Herbipoli: Sumptibus Johannis Andreæ Endteri & Wolfgangi Jun. hæredum, excudebat Jobus Hertz Typographus Herbipol. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.63881
Wonderful post. I had no idea the Collegio Romano had an Kircher exhibit. Thanks for your thoughtful, well-researched post on one of my heroes.