25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
In 2002 was celebrated the 400th anniversary of the birth of Athanasius Kircher. Athanasius Who? That might have been the reaction of everyone except the participants of a symposium on Kircher's life and work that was part of the celebration. Joscelyn Godwin says that he was watching television when a ribbon of words passed under the talking head: "WAS ATHANASIUS KIRCHER THE COOLEST GUY EVER, OR WHAT?" "It seemed for a moment," Godwin writes, "that I had slipped into a parallel universe in which it was not politicians and catastrophes that had made the morning headlines, but subjects of real interest to me." Godwin is a musicologist and translator who has explored Kircher and his works for thirty years, and his publications about Kircher are now crowned with a gorgeous book, _Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge_ (Inner Traditions). This is a coffee table book for those who are interested in the Renaissance or the history of science, or of linguistics, or of music, or of optics, or of the countless other subjects Kircher wrote about. It is a large sized and glossy book, containing over four hundred illustrations that are mostly woodcuts and engravings from Kircher's many publications. The intricate, spectacular pictures range from the bizarre to the practical, and plenty of them have complexities that can only be appreciated with Godwin's notes: "In order for modern people to enjoy this kind of activity," writes Godwin, "most of them need a helping hand across the gulf of history, culture, religion, and erudition that yawns between Kircher's age and ours." The help will be deeply appreciated by anyone spending time on these curious pictures. After all, even Godwin admits, "Kircher's writing abounds in superfluities, repetitions and sermonizing; that is why his books are so long, and why no one translates them," but his pictures are immediately appealing.
It has been said that Kircher could only think in images, but with all the huge body of prose from which these illustrations are taken, this seems unlikely. He did recognize that diagrams had a capacity to attract and instruct, and he used them profusely. We take visual representations for granted now, but each of these images had to be drawn, and then engraved and printed by hand. The degree of detail even in the woodcuts is often astonishing. There are many surprising gadgets illustrated here, like the explosive sundial. The Sun's rays were focused onto a ring, along which the focused beam traveled and every hour it hit a channel of gunpowder. Kircher may be thought of as the founder of Egyptology. He was his age's foremost authority on hieroglyphs, and correctly established that the Coptic language is a descendant of the ancient Egyptian one. His _Oedipus Aegyptiacus_ assembled just about everything known about Egypt at the time, and is a source for many pictures here. He searched diligently for connections that showed that ancient or oriental religions were really something like proto-Christianities. However, he also wrote a dialogue that shows how all Protestants were damned because they belonged to a pseudo-church. Kircher had good arguments against the existence of giants so big they would collapse under their own weight, but he allowed there were dragons, although he thought they were merely phosphorescent and did not truly breathe fire. He accepted that barnacles turned into geese, but he knew that the long, spiral "unicorn" horns were really from narwhals. Stones that seemed to reveal letters inscribed on them he thought were just random lines interpreted by an eager observer. He never drew up horoscopes or did occult magic, although he liked surprising people with gadgets that did things like projecting images; he didn't invent the magic lantern, but helped perfect it and used it in shows. He was skeptical that Archimedes had set enemy ships on fire by a gigantic mirror to focus the sun, and did demonstrations to show how unlikely such a feat would have been. He was fascinated by volcanoes, and was the first observer to study them close up, descending into the crater of Vesuvius.
The great show in this beautifully-produced book are the illustrations themselves, and the huge range of ideas they occupy. Besides all the pictures of obelisks, hieroglyphics, and pyramids, there are illustrations of Noah's Ark, a blueprint of each of three levels showing just where the animals went (and the ropes and spices). There is a gorgeous Tower of Babel (along with a calculation that it would take far too many bricks to have reached the Moon). There is a picture of tarantulas combined with the tune that was for the tarantella, the dance that those bitten could do and thus neutralize the poison. There are designs for a wind harp and for echo chambers. There are maps, some of them quite modern-looking, and there are pictures of impossible beasts and loads of symbolic figures. There is a picture of sunspots. Kircher might not have been hugely influential, might not have been the "Renaissance Man" that, say, Leonardo was, but just looking at these pictures shows he ought to be more widely known. The beauty of many of the pictures is obvious, but with so many of them, covering such a broad array of inquiry, the effect of Godwin's book is to excite admiration for an extraordinary mind.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2010
When I was a boy, nothing was as fascinating as my dad's bookcase. There were books on history, geography, religion, art and architecture, dictionaries, encyclopaedias and picture books with engravings by Gustav Dore. It was a weird and wonderful world, full of foreign fascination, far from the cosiness of home. For a short while I thought my dad knew everything.
Athanasius Kircher wrote nearly 40 books and really attempted to know everything. This one volume expose concentrates on the illustrations used for those books and provides wonderful specimens of the man's work. After all, who would have the patience to plough their way through the originals written in Latin? Not me!
Kircher writes about and the illustrations show, details of an incredible scope of disciplines. Best known for work on oriental studies, geology and medicine, he was considered the father of Egyptology. 200 Years before the Rosetta Stone made things "easy". Kircher had a crack at deciphering hieroglyphics. A composer himself, he knew all about music. He studied map making and his museum in Rome was full of the most wonderful contemporary machinery as well as gadgets from the past. He was a pioneer volcanologist.
Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World is a treasure trove. If you want to know which animal was kept where in Noah's Ark, Kircher is your man. Want to know all about the Tower of Babel? AK can explain. And although uncle Athanasius suspected unicorns did not exist, he does tell us lots about giants and dragons.
Indeed, descriptions of AK's failings and sometimes ludicrous assumptions are a most diverting aspect of this book. The man believed that water vanished down a whirlpool at the North Pole only to re-emerge at the South Pole. Diagrams show you how that "worked". He was so obsessed by Egyptology that he saw ancient Egypt's influence simply everywhere.
Most interesting is Kircher's position in and towards the Catholic Church. As a Jesuit and a scholar he did of course stumble on areas where the rigid teachings of the church did not provide answers. His books were occasionally financed by non catholic potentates and published in the protestant Northern Netherlands. The censors were quite busy examining his writing. Eventually of course he did toe the line, but he must have done so reluctantly.
Nobody of course knows everything, not my dad, not Athanasius Kircher. But leafing through this beautiful book made me once again feel like that boy standing on a chair looking at a top shelf full of exciting books for grown ups. This is full of wonder : wonderful.