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© April 2005
revised 8 March 2007

Kircher’s renowned Musæum

Kircher brought the nucleus of what would become Rome’s Museo Kircheriano with him from Aix, in the South of France.

Kircher’s friend and mentor, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (d. 1637?), had been exceedingly generous when Kircher departed Avignon, giving Kircher a great part of his Egyptian collections so that Kircher could continue to study Peiresc’s prize possession: the hieroglyphic writings on a papyrus which had been “found in a box at the feet of a certain mumie” and was thought to “be above two thousand years old.” To Peiresc’s starting gift of Egyptian antiquities, Kircher added the natural history and other collections he made on a later journey to Sicily and Malta (with Frederick of Hesse). Geological specimens, preserved birds and animals, skeletons, mechanical models, antiquities, and works of art of all kinds continued to be added as the years passed, along with Kicher’s many inventions, his musical instruments and machines, alchemical glassware and furnaces, telescopes, and microscopes.

As Kircher’s fame grew and visitors began to come from all over to see his “gallery of curiosities,” additional items were donated from across Europe and from mission lands. Kircher’s fellow Jesuits sent him all sorts of valuable ethnographical, historical and biological material from the Americas, Africa, India, China, Japan and elsewhere.

It didn’t take long for the burgeoning collection to overflow Kircher’s study, and a new exhibition hall, three hundred feet long, with three side galleries, was provided in the Roman College. As was the custom back then, a printed catalogue of the Museo Kircheriano contents was published by George de Sepibus (self-described “mathematician, mechanic and unworthy disciple of Father Kircher in his Museum”) in 1678, with a frontispiece illustration showing the artful arrangement of exhibits in the main hall. The Egyptian obelisks in Kircher’s collection were, of course, on prominent display, but the range and presentation of exotica is staggering: statues, pictures, stuffed animals, a human skeleton, scientific instruments, weapons, ceiling frescos displaying the signs of the Zodiac and the heavenly spheres ... even a crocodile suspended from the ceiling.

As Ingrid Rowland has pointed out, Sepibus’ text was never intended to be

a catalogue of the collection itself, but rather an introductory anthology of Kircher’s works, to encourage purchase of the complete volumes available from the Jansson and Weyerstraet press.

(Rowland, The Ecstatic Journey 35)

Sepibus’ introduction to Kircher and his thought used the Musæum — described by Sepibus as “This workshop of Art and Nature, this treasury of the Mathematical Disciplines, this Epitome of practical philosophy, the Musæum Kircherianum” — as its guiding theme. Nonetheless, the book’s engraved frontispiece and separate plates illustrating specific exhibits are the only visual record we now have of Kircher’s renowned museum.

Two years after Sepibus published his catalog, Kircher died, and the museum began to deteriorate almost immediately. There are numerous accounts from this period documenting the decay of exhibits, visitor pilfering, and general growing disorder. The museum was put in the care of another distinguished Jesuit scientist, Filippo Buonanni, in 1680, and he published another catalogue of its contents in 1709, but by then its collections had begun to be dispersed.

Still, despite continuing losses, the Musaeum’s holdings were important enough in the early twentieth century to provide seed collections for several national museums in Rome, including the Villa Giulia museum of Etruscan antiquities, the Luigi Pigorini Ethnographic Museum, and the museum of classical antiquities originally housed in the Baths of Diocletian and now relocated to the Palazzo Massimo. Many of Kircher’s curiosities, including his wooden models of obelisks, are still preserved in the laboratories of the Liceo Visconti, the high school that occupies much of the site of the former Collegio Romano.

(Rowland, The Ecstatic Journey 35)

Written visitor accounts, such as John Evelyn’s, indicate that in its heyday, the Museo Kircheriano was one of the must-have experiences of 17th-century Europe. All sorts of virtuosi visited while in Rome on Grand Tour (a rite of manhood for all who could afford it). Indeed, Robert Boyle would express regret at having himself missed Kircher’s Musæum when in Rome on his own European grand tour during the spring/early summer of 1642 (Boyle was 15 at the time). In his New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall (Oxford, 1660), Boyle quotes from Kircher’s description in Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650) of an extraordinary “musical engine” (an hydraulic organ), wishing

I had had the good fortune when I was at Rome, to take notice of these organs; or that I had now the opportunity of examining of such an experiment. For, if upon a strict enquiry I should find that the breath that blows the organs doth not really upon the ceasing of its unusual agitation by little and little relapse into water, I should strongly suspect that it is possible for water to be easily turned into air.

By the 1660s, Boyle’s growing interest in the properties of water vapor gave new significance to such technological marvels as Kircher’s hydraulic organ, for Boyle had himself

found by experience that a vapid air, or water rarefied into vapour, may at least for a while emulate the elastical power of that which is generally acknowledged to be true air.

Even royalty came from far and near to visit Kircher and tour his public museum, including the foremost celebrity of the day, Christina, former queen of Sweden (she abdicated in 1654 and was received into the Roman Catholic Church the following year, after which she settled in Rome). Among the entertainments Kircher prepared for Christina’s visit to the Museo Kircheriano in 1655 was an allegorical play performed by students at the Roman College, some of whom (coached by Kircher) made orations in various oriental languages.

Kircher’s parting gift to Christina was a museum memento — a little silver obelisk, engraved with hieroglyphic characters, which Kircher designed specially himself.

It was a clever marketing strategy, of course, linked with Kircher’s publication of the formidable, 2000-page Oedipus Ægyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus) in 1652–4. The prefatory matter to vol. 1 of this text included a flattering mention of Christina (“the Most Serene and Most Wise Queen of Sweden Christina”), thus connecting her as early as 1652 with Kircher’s unwavering passion for Egyptology. And Christina would return the compliment with bountiful patronage, e.g., supporting the publication of Kircher’s Itinerarium Exstaticum (Ecstatic Voyage) in 1656 — a (mystical) astronomical travel narrative, in the early-modern style of SciFi, which he dedicated to her.

Today, there is a tendency to disdain Baroque collections of natural and artificial wonders, on prominent display in both public and private places, as a kind of naïve exercise in the primitive accumulation of knowledge. But these collections of curiosities had a tremendous effect on the scientific imagination, and on the growth of science in general. Even while living on credit during his long exile in Antwerp, William Cavendish still managed to come up with the £1,000 needed to purchase the “museum” that had formerly belonged to the Flemish master painter and enterprising art dealer, Peter Paul Rubens. No doubt, the artist’s collection of rarities stimulated Margaret’s scientific imagination on more than one occasion.

What Robert Hooke knew (and recommended) as autopsia — investigating for oneself, rather than taking the designated experts’ word on it — was not then, nor is it now, a simple, one-way process of mindless consumption.

As documented by Robert Burton, the “galleries of the Roman cardinals” and cabinets of curiosities in noblemen’s houses had genuine psychological value for those fortunate enough to enjoy access to them:

... But amongst those exercises or recreations of the mind within doors, there is none so general, so aptly to be applied to all sorts of men, so fit and proper to expel idleness and melancholy, as that of study.... What so full of content, as to read, walk, and see maps, pictures, statues, jewels, marbles ... Who will not be affected so ... to see those well-furnished cloisters and galleries of the Roman cardinals, so richly stored with all modern pictures, old statues and antiquities? ... Or in some prince’s cabinets, like that of the great duke’s in Florence, of Felix Platerus in Basil, or noblemen’s houses, to see such variety of attires, faces, so many, so rare, and such exquisite pieces, of men, birds, beasts, etc., to see those excellent landskips, Dutch works, and curious cuts of Sadeler of Prague, Albertus Durer, Goltzius, Vrintes, etc., such pleasant pieces of perspective, Indian pictures made of feathers, China works, frames, thaumaturgical motions, exotic toys, etc....

(Anatomy of Melancholy, Partition 2, Section 2, Member 4)


more pictures of the Museo Kircheriano, and discussion of John Evelyn’s visit there during 1644, in the GALLERY exhibit on Chambers’ Cyclopædia

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discussion of the celebrated Museum Tradescantianum in London, a collection of “rarities” for scientific research — including an extensive botanical garden — that rivalled Kircher’s own (see the GALLERY exhibit on Powhatan’s mantle)

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discussion of two curiosities on display in the eight “Kings Chambers of Rarities ... built over the Royal Library” at Copenhagen, as noted by Dr. William Oliver and published in the Royal Society’s scientific journal: an engraved cherry-pit (see the GALLERY exhibit, Portraits of Melancholy — I) and a trick perspective painting of the Danish royal family (see the GALLERY exhibit, Portraits of Melancholy — II)

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Rubens’ portrait of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, whose own art collection was unsurpassed in Europe, and whose family had close and continuing ties with the new science

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a digital transcription of Burton’s entire passage on the pleasures of studying natural and artificial rarities in the LIBRARY

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an IN BRIEF biography of Kircher

< Illustration of the Museo Kircheriano, with Kircher in foreground (center right) greeting two visiting scholars.

Kircher was the consummate host, and so popular with visitors that the many museum tours “cut in on his time for study and writing, as he was forced to complain more than once in letters to friends.” (P. Conor Reilly, Athanasius Kircher S.J. 160)

Detail from engraved frontispiece for Giorgio de Sepibus, Romani Collegii Societatus Jesu Musæum Celeberrimum (Amsterdam, 1678).

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< One of Kircher’s hydraulic organs, with dancing figurines, closely studied by Robert Boyle.

Engraved plate from Kircher’s two-volume Musurgia universalis sive Ars Magna Consoni et Dissoni in X libros digestos (Rome, 1650).

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