In the 17th century Athanasius Kircher was a phenomenon. In the 21st he has become a cult. By profession a Jesuit priest, he made himself an authority on almost every subject under the sun. His most vaunted achievement was to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and though he got them wrong his work marked the beginning of Egyptology.
Kircher was the first to map ocean currents; the first to offer a comprehensive theory of vulcanism; the first to compile an encyclopaedia on China, a dictionary of Coptic, a book dedicated solely to acoustics; the first to construct a machine for coding messages and another for composing music. Other interests included biblical archaeology and Christian and non-Christian history, the machinery of illusionism, the Kabbalah, the planets and the biology of animals and plants. His museum in Rome was among the most famous ‘cabinets of curiosities’, visited by everybody in the intellectual world.
In recent years the study of this fascinating man and his works has become an industry. His peculiar mind, his instinct for mystical meanings and the occult, and his talent for finding visual equivalents for his theories continue to intrigue. But while every other aspect of Kircher’s thought has been exhaustively analysed, his prolific illustrations have been left largely unexplained. Kircher had an extraordinary imagination, comparable to the most avant-garde modern artist, even (or often especially) when he was wrong.
The present book fills that gap. It proves how much more we still have to learn from this eccentric genius. Joscelyn Godwin’s unrivalled mastery of his subject gives a sure underpinning to the presentation of hundreds of engravings through which Kircher prepared his ideas and through which we can see the mind of one of the most memorable thinkers who has ever lived.
'An enchanting compendium of curiosities ... a stupendously good piece of design. Every illustration is reproduced in exactly the right place; the captions are superbly apt and very clearly signalled; the sidebars are tactfully positioned and filled with exactly the right amount of information. The author and the publisher have taken real, prolonged, and exhaustive pains to make a beautiful book, and succeeded'
Philip Pullman, Guardian
'Magisterial ... a beautiful, absorbing and utterly wonderful book'
Times Higher Education