Or use your browser's BACK button
Following are biographies of a number of people related to the Voynich MS. These biographies are not exhaustive, but attempt to emphasise areas for their subjects potential connections with the history of the Voynich MS. More complete biographies are certainly available in the printed literature.
A portrait gallery including the people discussed in this page is available via this link. Links to portraits below are directly to the individual images.
IMAGE: Portrait of Emperor Rudolf
(Sources, see note 1).
Rudolf II was born in Vienna on 18 Juli 1552 as the son of Maximilian II and Maria, daughter of emperor Charles V. At the age of 11 he moved to the court of his uncle, King Philip II. He stayed in Spain from 1564 to 1571, and both the Spanish ceremony used at the court, and the art collections of Philip II made an everlasting impression on him. In 1572 Rudolf became the King of Hungary and in 1576 he was crowned king of Bohemia in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. On 27 October of the same year he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the Cathedral of Regensburg (Ratisbona).
In 1578 he suffered a stomach ailment and this marked the start of his melancholic depressions. His first serious depression occurred in 1582. One year later he decided to make Prague his permanent residence.
Rudolf II had a long list of imperial physicians taking care of him over the several decades till his death. Jacobus de Tepenec, who reputedly cured him from a grave disease, is, however, not one of them.
Rudolf also collected a large group of artists and scientists at his court. Wilfrid Voynich writes that he has studied the lives of many of them in order to identify the one(s) most likely to have sold the Voynich MS to Rudolf. He concluded that John Dee was the one, and this conclusion is propagated in almost all literature about the Voynich MS. However, this is no longer considered likely.
Following is just an initial list of names (sorted alphabetically) of people who have been in contact with Rudolf or his court. This is primarily to show that Dee and Kelly are by no means the only candidates. The list could be extended almost arbitrarily, and currently just includes some people who had something to do with books, medicine, botany, came from Italy and/or had some scientific training. (This list still needs a lot of work.)
IMAGE: portrait of Jacobus Horcicky
(Sources, see note 2).
The life of Jacobus Horcicky up to 1608 appears to be derieved primarily from his own testimony, and will be exaggerated to some extent. As from 1608, other sources also become available.
Jakub Horcicky was born in or near Krumlov, S. Bohemia (3), in 1575 as son of lower-class parents. He served with Krumlov's Jesuits as a scullion for some time, but the rector Bernard Koch found out his capabilities and young Horcicky was admitted to the Krumlov Seminary of poor students in 1590.
Here, he spent most of his time in Krumlov's college pharmacy, which was managed at the time by a lay father who was very well versed in chemistry and pharmacy: Martin Schaffner (born in Olomouc around 1564, died in Krumlov in 1608), who not only cured the members and students of the college with the medicine he prepared, but also had a flourishing practice in the city and its surroundings. Under the guidance of this experienced man, after having graduated from the Krumlov Gymnasium, Horcicky completed his training in the art of pharmacy in two years.
After that, (probably) in 1598 he was sent to the Clementinum in Prague, where he was to study Aristotelian philosophy. He was not impressed by the manner of teaching there and preferred to continue his chemical work. The Jesuits finally allowed him to grow various herbs in their gardens in Smichov - the later botanical garden of the University (4) - to set up a laboratory there, and to sell his distillations, which were popularly known as 'Aqua Sinapis'. His sales were good, and he was no charlatan (5). The Aqua Sinapis brought him such wealth that he was able to lend the emperor enormous sums of money (6), see also note 8.
At the Jesuit properties of Nebusic and Kopanina he acquired some knowledge of economy, as a result of which in 1600 he became the administrator of the new college in Jindrichuv Hradec (Neuhaus in German), not far from Cesky Krumlov. From there, probably through the influence of the main landowner of Neuhaus: Wilhelm Slavata, he became, shortly before 1606, 'capitaneus' and administrator of the properties of the St. Georg monestary of the Prague Castle. Here, he continued spending most of his spare time in the alchemist laboratory.
His fame finally reached Rudolf who called him to his court and named him imperial chemist in 1607. He became a favourite of the emperor and received numerous presents. When, in 1608, he managed through his botanical knowledge to cure the emperor from a grave disease, he was raised to the nobility and received the title 'de Tepenec'
In spite of this, Horcicky stayed a modest person
(see note 5).
From Rudolf's court records it is known that Jacobus Horcicky was enrolled by the emperor as a 'knight with two horses', and a monthly remuneration of 20 florins, from June to October 1608. (He was paid in 1612).
The record of his nobilitation, dated 20 October 1608, has been preserved.
In the religious fights that then broke out, he took a staunch Catholic position and in 1609 he even wrote a book titled "The Catholic Confession, or Description of the Right Common Christian Confession, About Hope, Credence and Love" (with the help of some doctor from the Clementinum, dedicated to chancellor Lobkowitz) which went through several editions.
Under the rule of Emperor Matthias he became the leader of the township of Melnik in 1616 (8), in compensation for Rudolf's debts, but he made himself hated by the Utraquists. In 1618 he is found in prison in the 'white tower' (9) where he writes several pleas for his release to the empress. Later (in January 1620?) he was exchanged, together with a Dr. Ponzon, for Jessenius (who was imprisoned in Vienna), and thrown out of the country (10).
He came back after the battle of White Mountain made it possible and lived at his Melnik estate until he died in 1622, as a result of falling from his horse. He died in the Jesuit college in Prague (Clementinum) on 25 September 1622 (11), leaving the Jesuits the sum of 50,000 gold coins and his Melnik estate. His grave is in the St.Salvator church in the Clementinum, near the altar of Maria's annunciation.
Some of the books once owned by Jacobus can be recognised by his Ex Libris which he apparently tended to write on the first page, just as he did with the Voynich MS. This is described in more detail on a dedicated page. According to Pelzel, in 1777 there existed several manuscript writings by Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec on the subject of chemistry and botany (12).
IMAGE: portrait of Dr. Raphael
(Sources, see note 13).
The Doctor in Law, Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky de Sebuzin & de Horstein, Czech lawyer and writer, was born in 1580 in Horsuv Tyn, in W. Bohemia. He studied in Prague with the Jesuits. At the age of 20 he became acquainted to Barthelemy Paprocky de Hlohol & de Paprocka Vule, exiled Polish writer, whom he helped with the composition of the Czech text of the latter's work 'Diadochus, or the succession of princes and kings in Bohemia' (appeared in Prague in 1602). Raphael completed the work himself with a dissertation about the cloisters and abbeys of the Bohemian kingdom.
After that, he continued his studies in Paris and Rome (14) and he became doctor in law abroad. At this time he changed his name from Sobiehrd to Mnishovsky.
After his return he became royal secretary to the famous diplomat and politician cardinal Melchior Klesl, who at that time was gouvernor in Austria. In this fuction he delivered important services as a political agent, during the war of Ferdinand II (then duke of Styria) with the Venetians. In return for his services he was appointed counsel to the government in Styria. At this time he was instructed to teach the young archduke (later emperor) Ferdinand III the Czech language.
During the troubled years of 1618-1620 he was employed by Ferdinand II for state affairs. On 1 January 1621 he obtained the title 'de Sebuzin', on 2 May 1622 he was installed as counsel in the royal appeals court of Prague "on the doctors' bench".
He was also sent to various towns in Moravia and in the Glatz County, as a commissioner of reformation, to force the protestant population to become catholic. In recompense the emperor gave him 4000 florins from the royal chamber, for which sum he was given the domain of Bulikov near Dacice in Moravia, which had been confiscated from Jean Dvorecky of Olbramovice.
In 1628 he was named secretary to the aulic [=court] chancellery where he translated into Czech the ordinances, laws and patents concerning the kingdom of Bohemia and its incorporated territory. In 1635 he became royal procurator (15).
When the Saxon invasion was repelled, the imperial general Albert of Wallenstein, duke of Friedland named him meber of the "Friedland commission of confiscation", which was charged in 1632-1634 to punish the emigrants and those Czech nobles who had accompanied and helped the Saxons in their expedition into Bohemia. When, on 25 February 1634, Albert of Wallenstein, duke of Friedland, and his general Adam Erdman Trcka count of Lipa were murdered in Cheb, being suspected of high treason, Raphael was put in charge of the criminal process of both men, with the aim to justify the confiscation of their goods.
In 1637 he was named counsel in the royal appeals court of Prague "on the royal bench" and in 1640 he became vice-chamberlain of the cadastre of the noble countries in the Bohemian Kingdom.
Apart from Bulikov he owned Lochkov, which he had bought from Venceslas Michna in 1637, two houses in Prague, vineyards near Prague and near Litomerice, end finally a farm at Vrsovice. All this was inherited by his wife Rozina de Hirsov and two daughters, one of which was married to Daniel Pachta de Rajov.
He died on 21 November 1644 and was buried in the St. Salvator church in the Clementinum in Prague.
Mnishovsky was strongly interested in alchemy and in secret writing. Possibly for Ferdinand III he wrote the Latin work: Constructio seu strues Tritemiana. Qui nullum unquam idiomatis bohemici calluit verbum, per eam in momento scribet convenienter bohemice quantum volet. This is an adaptation of the method of Trithemius using the Czech language. The manuscript is now preserved in the library of the University of Uppsala, where it was transported by the Swedes during the 30-years war (16).
In 1630 he wrote two letters, to Vilem Slavata and to emperor Ferdinand II, to seek support for the famous alchemist Michael Sendivogius (17). In the second letter, we find many interesting statements: that he had studied alchemy for more than 30 years, that he studied many MSs of Rudolf, both in plaintext and cipher, and that he himself found many such MSs in the cloisters of Braunau and Kremsmünster. Furthermore, that he is one of the very few people with whom Sendivogius speaks freely.
The little known Bohemian poet Daisigner wrote a Latin epigram about Mnishovsky, in which he writes about the latter: Vincit Trithemium atque Gebrum: he defeats Trithemius and Geber. Daisigner was in Italy in 1639, and the Czech historian J.Smolka considers he may have been a travel companion of Marci.
Mnisovsky was an apt Latin poet who has composed 540 Latin poems, mostly epigrams. Shortly before his death he composed a funerary poem for himself. All are collected in: "Funebria Raphaelis - Mnissovsky de Sebuzin, quae sibi vivens adhuc valensque fecit". He had his own funerary poem printed with the instruction to distribute it at his funeral.
(Sources, see note 18).
Relatively little is known about Baresch. Most of what we know we owe to Rafal Prinke and Josef Smolka. Baresch was born in the village Synkov, which belongs to Castolovice in Bohemia (19). His birth year is certainly between about 1576 and about 1592, given that he lived to be about 70 (20), and he was still alive in 1646 (21), but died before 1662 (see note 20). He was born most probably between 1580 and 1585, knowing that he received his baccalaureate in 1602 (see note 19).
Despite his rural origin, he studied at the Jesuit college of the Clementinum and received his bachelor's degree on 9 May 1602 and his doctorate on 14 May 1603, both in "liberal arts and philosphy" (see note 19). On 27 April 1605 he started studies in Rome, at the Sapienza (22).
Baresch must have first met Marci around 1622 (23) at a time when Marci's whereabouts and activities are relatively unknown, but this is the year Marci started his studies at the Charles University. Since that time they have been engaged in philosophical discussions. As from 1624, Baresch was registered in the Prague old city (24). It could well be that this is the time he met Marci. Due to the absence of Baresch's name in the tax rolls called 'Berní Rula' (25), we know that he did not own a house there.
From 1630 to 1646 Baresch worked as relator at the Highest Prague Burgrave court of justice (soud nejvyssiho purkrabstvi prazskeho) (26).
In 1637 Baresch wrote his first letter to Kircher using the famous mathematician Theodor Moretus S.J. as an intermediary, and from his later reference to it we may conclude that he was familiar with Kircher's Prodromus Coptus, which appeared in 1636. This letter (which should have been accompanied by some transcriptions of the Voynich MS) is lost. After no reply was initially forthcoming from Kircher, he sent a second letter in 1639. This letter has been preserved (27), though another batch of transcription material of the Voynich MS, which he sent to Kircher with this letter, is also lost.
In his 1639 letter he presents Kircher with his view that the Voynich MS represents 'Egyptian medicine' and shows that he may have been familiar with botany. This letter was sent from Prague.
In Marci's 1640 letter to Kircher, he describes Baresch as his friend. He also called Baresch a 'man well-versed in alchemy', the same epithet that he used in 'Philosophia Vetus Restituta'. With this letter, Marci sent some drawings of Baresch to Kircher, but also these have been lost. It is not certain that these drawings were copies of Voynich MS pages. Baresch was primarily a spagyric alchemist, interested in extracting medicine using alchemical procedures. He managed to convince Marci of the value and usefulness of this, though Marci was originally opposed to alchemy (28).
Both in a letter written in 1641, and in his book of 1662, Marci mentions Baresch 'in the same breath' as Martinus Santinus S.J.. The relation between these two men has not yet been fully explored, but we know that Th. Moretus, when sending Barschius' letter to Kircher was introduced to Kircher by Santinus. Furthermore, Baresch, possibly aided by Marci, also managed to convince Santinus of the usefulness of (spagyric) alchemy, after he was also originally skeptical
(see note 28).
Note that they never managed to convince Kircher of the same.
Santini also wrote to Kircher about an alchemical puzzle, using the usual 'Oedipus' terminology (29).
J. Fletcher mentions in the article "Johannes Marcus Marci writes to Athanasius Kircher" that Baresch had visited Kircher in Rome and on his way back wrote that he "admired Kircher's apparatus", but this quote has not been found back in the correspondence. It seems that Fletcher was mistaken, but this needs to be further investigated.
Apart from the one letter to Kircher, there is no extant writing of Baresch, and he seems to have spent the last years of his life studying the Voynich MS (30). At Baresch' death he left Marci his alchemical collection and library (31) and we know that he died before 1662, but we don't know how long before. Extrapolating his most probable birth years results in the time frame 1650-1655. No references to his death have been found in the Marci letters.
IMAGES: portrait 1, 2, 3, 4.
(Sources, see note 32).
Marci was born on 13 June 1595 in Landskron (German: Kronland). At this time, Rudolf was 43 years old and had in front of him another 17 years of life. In 1608 he began his studies at the Jesuit college of Jindrichuv Hradec, and after that he studied philosophy and theology at Olomouc, which he completed in 1618.
Some time after 1618 (but we don't know how long) he came to Prague to study medicine, but there was no medical faculty before 1622. There is some controversy about the reason why he moved from a philosophical study or a Jesuit career to medicine. It has been suggested that this was because of his poor health and weak voice, so that he would never be able to deliver a sermon, but currently this is no longer believed. Marci only had some eye problems and reached the advanced age of 70.
What Marci did between 1618 and 1622 is unknown. As soon as the Prague University came into the hands of the Jesuits, in 1622, the medical faculty was opened and Marci became one of its first students. He graduated on 17 April 1625 with the defence of his outstanding thesis De temperamento in genere.
He had important protectors such as the family of Zdenek Lobkovic and the Archbishop Harrach. Immediately after receiving his doctor's degree he was lecturing at the medical faculty of the university, which would remain his place of work for the rest of his life. Also in 1626 he was appointed Chief Physician of the Bohemian Kingdom. (He eventually passed this office to his son Johannes Georgius.) In 1630 he became professor at the Charles University.
In 1631 Marci's first son was born.
In 1635 he published his book "Idearum Operatricium Idea", on the questions of conception and the development of the embryo. It was heavily attacked by the Jesuits and in particular the philosopher Rodericus de Arriaga S.J. This was the start of a long-lasting difference of opinion between these two men. Marci was branded a heretic, and the book could only be published after the intervention of the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Harrach.
In 1638 he first became dean of the faculty of medicine, after the separation of the Charles University from the Clementinum. He held this office for many years.
By the end of 1638 Marci undertook a journey to Rome as member of a mission whose task it was to get support from the church hierarchy in the fight against the Jesuits. On his way, he met the mathematician Paul Guldin in Graz and had a chance to read Galilei's freshly published 'Discorsi'. It was during this journey that he met Athanasius Kircher and this marked the start of their long friendship. While in Rome, Kircher introduced him to the study of Oriental languages, in particular Arabic.
In 1639 he published his first work as a physicist: De proportione motus, which deals with motion and dynamics.
Marci also could not escape becoming involved in the war. Some time in 1641 Marci tried to decipher some intercepted code letters from the Swedish army commander Gustav Banner, and eventually sent them on to Kircher for decipherment, being certain that this omniscient man would be up to that task. (We do not know if he was). In 1648, when Prague was besieged by the Swedish army, Marci in person took part in the defence of the city, at the command of a student military unit which he himself had organised. For merit gained in the field he was promoted to the nobility in 1654 and given the title 'de Kronland'.
In his fight against the Jesuit supremacy over the Prague University he was less successful. He was delegate of a special commission of the medical faculty to negotiate the merge of both parts of the university (the secular Charles University and the Jesuit Clementinum). The Jesuits favoured the merge and the seculars declined it. Marci had worked out new statutes for the university on the assumption that authority be given to the emperor. Anyway, in 1654, the merge did take place, by command of the emperor Ferdinand III.
As a doctor, Marci was very successful. He was appointed official physician to Ferdinand III, and after he soon died, to his successor Leopold I. In 1655 he cured the historian Bohuslaus Balbin from smallpox, a serious illness, after he had already been given up by three other doctors. Since that time the two men became good friends and Balbin started to write extensively about Marci's medical practices (33).
In 1648-1650 Marci published three books on optics. These, as well as his earlier work on dynamics have been accused of lacking clarity and the precision of observation and the genius that would have allowed him to make the discoveries that eventually befell to Newton. The most famous of the three was "Thaumantias, liber de arcu coelesti". Marci was also very much aware of his isolation in Prague, and the lack of contact with the main scientists of his days. His correspondence with Kircher shows a continuous stream of requests for books, mostly, but not uniquely, the ones written by Kircher himself.
After a few minor publications, including works on squaring the circle, on longitude and a polemic against the Jesuit B.Conrad, Marci abandoned publication for a long period, until 1662.
In his book "Philosophia vetus restituta" of 1662 Marci confirms his original philosophical ideas that had upset the Jesuits, particularly Arriaga. In this book he also mentions that Baresch had been his friend for 40 years, had died and had left him his alchemical library, which apparently included the Voynich MS (34).
There is a gap in the correspondence to Kircher from 1658 to 1665. It is not clear whether Marci did not write to Kircher during these years, or whether these letters have been lost since. Marci's penultimate letter to Kircher is the one accompanying the Voynich MS, written in August 1665 (35). In December 1666 he wrote his last will, in which he bequeathed his entire valuable library to his son Johannes Ludwig (36). He could not sign his will because of weak eye sight. It was signed only by 3 witnesses - 2 professors of the medical faculty (Marci's former students Forberger and Franchimont) and one lawyer (37). A two letters written by G.A. Kinner to Kircher in eary 1666 and early 1667 include a question by the ailing Marci about the Voynich MS (38).
Marci died on the 10th of April 1667, in the 72nd year of his life. The cause of his death was a cerebreal haemorrage. A few days before his death he became a member of the Society of Jesus under rather obscure circumstances. It is considered possible, but by no means certain, that he was no longer conscious when he entered the Society. The Jesuit biographer of Marci wrote that he had asked for the robe. He was buried in the Jesuit crypt in the S.Salvator church in the Clementinum, close to his adversary Arriaga, who died at about the same time. His grave is no longer there (39).
Some works of Marci have been published posthumously by his student J. Dobrzensky de Nigro Ponte (himself later Rector Magnificus of the Charles University), who used Balbín's notes. This included Liturgia Mensis, devoted partly to epilepsy, published 11 years after Marci's death.
Marci's library was inherited by his son Johannes Ludwig, but it is not known what happened to it. The letters he should have received from Kircher were never found. Marci was survived by his pupils Sebastian Christian Zeidler, Jacobus Forberger and Nicolaus Franchimont of Franckenfeldt. None of them have written to Kircher, or at least no such letters are extant. One letter from Dobrzensky to Kircher has been preserved (40). It has not yet been studied.
IMAGE: portrait of Athanasius Kircher
(Sources, see note 41).
Athanasius Kircher was a contemporary of Marci, and while he was significantly more famous than Marci in his days, also he has left little impact on modern times. He began life at three in the morning on 2 May 1602 (the Feast of St Athanasios) at Geisa near Fulda, just inside what is now East Germany. His father Johann was also something of a polymath and possessed a large library which was lost in the Thirty Years' War; he was a Doctor of Divinity, and taught the Benedictine monks at nearby Heiligenstadt. Athanasius was the last of his nine children, and precocious enough as a boy to be given Hebrew lessons from a Rabbi in addition to the regular curriculum of the local Jesuit school in Fulda. Athanasius' childhood was full of incidents which he recounts with all the relish of favorite tales. At least four times he escaped an early death. Once while swimming in a mill-pond he was suddenly caught by the current and swept towards the mill-wheel, and his companions expected to see him emerge mangled from the machinery. He passed through harmed by nothing worse than a bad shock. A little later, at a horse race, the pressure of the crowd pushed him under the feet of the oncoming horses. The spectators feared the worst, but he crouched motionless and emerged untouched. The spirit of adventure must have been strong in him, for once he made a two-day journey to see a play in a neighboring town. On the way back he lost himself in a forest and for fear of robbers, wild boars and bears spent the whole night up a tree. When he was fifteen he caught chilblains and contracted a hernia while skating. In those pre-antiseptic times his chilblains had still not healed after several months: his skin turned gangrenous and his life was despaired of. But he prayed earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, and the next morning he was cured. Kircher says, when recording these incidents, that his early deliverances from death were nothing short of miraculous, and that already in his youth he felt favored by God and marked out for some special destiny (42).
After failing in his first application to the Jesuit College in Mainz, he was admitted as a novice to the College at Paderborn in 1618. For reasons of misplaced humility he disguised the fact that his intelligence was far above that of his fellows, and his teachers actually thought him rather a dull youth. By 1620 his novitiate was completed, his first vows taken, and he began the study of scholastic philosophy. But soon his education was interrupted by the onset of the Thirty Years' War. In late 1621 Duke Christian of Brunswick, a notorious Jesuit-hater, was approaching Paderborn. In January 1622 Kircher and two others could wait no longer to see what would happen: they fled the city and thus escaped while many other Jesuits were caught and gaoled. Yet their lot was hard enough: for three days they struggled through deep snow, ill-clad and penniless, begging their food, until a friendly Catholic nobleman gave them shelter and aid. After a week at the Jesuit College at Munster they were advised to continue their journey to Cologne. Passing through Düsseldorf they came to the frozen Rhine and proceeded to cross on the ice. The locals had assured them that it was safe, but as they were half way across a piece of ice broke off and Kircher was borne away downstream. His companions lost sight of him and, like the playmates of his youth, felt sure that they would never see him alive again. But his resilience triumphed he swam through the freezing water to the bank and walked for three hours, until he reached the haven of the Jesuit College in Neuss.
Three days later he was ready to go on to Cologne, where he resumed his education and completed his course in philosophy. In 1623 he was transferred to Koblenz to pursue his studies in the humanities and teach Greek at the Jesuit School there. Abandoning his pose of mediocrity he now allowed his true intellect to show; but the general astonishment soon turned to envy, and he was transferred again to the College at Heiligenstadt, the town where his father had taught. The journey there was a dangerous one through Protestant territory, but Kircher obstinately refused to travel disguised in lay clothes, saying " I would rather die in the robes of my order than travel undisturbed in worldly dress ..." This is what nearly transpired, for a party of Protestant soldiers ambushed him, he was stripped and beaten, and they prepared to hang him from the nearest tree, while he commended his soul to God. His calm demeanor so moved one of the soldiers that he spoke out for the young novice and persuaded his comrades to spare Kircher's life. Not only did they leave him with his clothes and books intact, but the compassionate soldier returned, gave him money, and urged immediate flight.
Heiligenstadt was reached without further incident, and here Kircher taught mathematics, Hebrew and Syrian. Being only twenty-three, he quickly attracted the attention of his superiors. When the Elector Archbishop of Mainz paid a visit to the College, Kircher, who already loved mechanical inventions, arranged an astonishing display of moving scenery and fireworks. So impressive were they that there were whispers of black magic until he explained their workings. The Elector relieved the Jesuits of their promising student, summoning him to his court at Aschaffenburg to make more such curiosities and to draw up a survey of the Principality, which Kircher completed in only three months. He also pursued researches into the phenomena of magnetism, out of which was to come his first book, Ars Magnesia (1631), and then, on the Elector's death, returned to his college in Mainz for another four years. Although nominally studying theology, he managed to acquire a telescope in 1625 through which he observed the then unexplained phenomenon of sunspots.
In 1628 he was ordained priest, and entered his Tertianship at Speier. Until now his leanings had been scientific, but a new world of humanistic learning opened for him when, in a book on the Sistine Obelisk, he saw for the first time pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This planted the seed that was one day to flower as Oedipus Aegyptiacus; but for the time being it had to lie dormant: he was moved yet again, this time to teach in Würzburg. Doubtless frustrated by this, in 1630 he petitioned the Superior General of the Order to let him go as a missionary to China; but his request was refused and he had to rest content with collecting materials sent back by other missionaries. Excitement was not far off, however, for in 1631 the Swedish army entered the region. One night Kircher had a premonition: he looked out of the window and saw armed men drilling in the courtyard. Wakening his colleagues, he found that it must have been an hallucination, for no one else saw or believed anything amiss. But almost immediately Gustavus Adolphus invaded with his Protestant troops, the College was hastily disbanded, and Kircher had to flee to Mainz with his disciple Caspar Schott, leaving behind all his manuscripts.
In those difficult times there was obviously no future in Germany for a bright Jesuit scholar. Kircher's superiors allowed him, presumably in the same year, to go to France, where he passed through Lyons and came to Avignon, there to teach mathematics, philosophy and oriental languages. Accident-prone as ever, he was nearly killed within the very walls of the Jesuit College by getting caught in a water-whoel which his natural inquisitiveness had compelled him to investigate. At Avignon he began his entry into the cosmopolitan world of learning, thanks to meeting Nicolaus Claude Fabri de Peiresc, a wealthy patron of scholarship who had heard of Kircher's linguistic prowess and of his interest in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Peiresc invited him to help in the decipherment of some Egyptian manuscripts in his possession: he provided books and a copy of the Bembine Tablet of Isis, and Kircher in turn was to borrow some rare books from the Jesuits' library in Speier. Their combined researches were well under way when in 1633 Kircher was suddenly given the unwelcome honour of a summons to Vienna, to succeed Johannes Kepler (d. 1631) as Mathematician to the Habsburg Court. While Kircher obediently packed for the journey, Peiresc wrote protesting letters to the authorities, including Pope Urban VIII and Cardinal Barberini.
Since Germany was still dangerous for Jesuits, Kircher was to take the route through North Italy. He embarked with some other brothers for the first stage of the journey, from Avignon to Marseilles. They were all ill, so the captain landed them on an island for a rest - and promptly sailed away with all their possessions. They managed to hail some fishermen who took them the rest of the way to Marseilles, whence they started for Genoa in a more respectable boat. A storm blew up and for tree days they had to shelter in a cove until it subsided. No sooner had they set sail again than a violent storm again drove the boat towards the coast, where the captain only just avoided shipwreck by guiding it into a narrow cavern. When at last Kircher reached Genoa, he stayed there two weeks and, apparently in no hurry to reach Vienna, set out on another boat for Leghorn, ninety miles to the south. His presence alone seems to have been a certain guarantee of a storm, and sure enough, the ship was blown to Corsica and back before docking far past its destination at Civitavecchia, the main port for Rome. Obviously Kircher could not miss the chance of seeing the Eternal City, so he set out on foot for the forty-mile pilgrimage. On reaching Rome in 1635 he found to his amazement that he was expected there: Peiresc's petition had succeeded, his orders had been changed, and he was to stay at the Roman College, the hub of the whole Jesuit Order, with a special commission to study hieroglyphs. This was to be his home now until his death, and here he had at last all the facilities he needed to conduct his scientific and humanistic investigations: leisure, assistants, and money.
In 1636 Friedrich, Landgraf of Hesse-Darmstadt, the ruler of Kircher's home state, was converted to Catholicism, largely through Kircher's efforts. He was received into the Church with great solemnity in Rome, and soon afterwards made a Cardinal. Wishing to travel in Italy, he selected Kircher as his father-confessor and traveling companion, and a fascinating one he must have been. The party moved south to Sicily and touched at Malta. Everywhere Kircher took the opportunity to explore new areas of natural science: mirages, zoology, vulcanism and much else. He was eager to see Syracuse, in order to ascertain for himself whether Archimedes could have burned the Roman ships by focusing the sun's rays on them with a mirror (see plate 78). In March 1638, as they were setting out on the return journey, Etna and Stromboli erupted. After they landed at Tropea there was an earthquake, and they witnessed the destruction of the island of St Euphemia. When they reached Naples, Vesuvius threatened to erupt, too. The insatiable Kircher climbed to the top of the volcano and had himself lowered into the crater to observe the process more closely.
That was his last adventure. From 1638 onwards his travels were merely
local. He was made Professor of Mathematics at the Roman College, a post which
he held for eight years before he was completely relieved of teaching duties.
Now he began to publish his major works, apparently concentrating on a different
subject every three or four years. His reputation brought scholars, letters and
specimens to his study from all over the world, and he amassed a veritable
museum of artefacts, curiosities of natural history, and scientific apparatus.
Before his death, in fact, a large hall was provided to house the "Museo
Kircheriano", which ranks with Elias Ashmole's foundation in Oxford as one
of the first public museums.
IMAGE: Kircher's museum
Despite the floods, plagues and civil disturbances that beset Rome, Kircher was able to work steadily, publishing one book after another, writing hundreds of letters and interviewing innumerable visitors. Some of these included princes, who could not be refused when they asked for souvenirs from the collection. Others were more welcome, such as the English Jesuit and Royalist William Gascoignes (inventor of the micrometer eye-piece for telescopes), the French painter Nicolas Poussin, whom Kircher instructed in perspective, and Caspar Schott, Kircher's pupil from Würzburg days and the editor of his unpublished papers.
As he grew older, Kircher's piety was more outwardly expressed. In 1661, while searching for antiquities near Marino, he found the ruins of an old church, pronounced in an inscription to have been built by the Emperor Constantine on the place where St Eustace saw his vision of Christ in a stag's horns. Kircher decided to restore and reinstate it as a place of pilgrimage, and his fame and connections brought ample contributions to the work. He and other Jesuits received pilgrims there every year at Michelmas (29 September), and it became his favorite resort at other times. Here again, his excavations and field trips led to the publication of a book on Latin antiquities.
By the 1670s his work was mainly being published by Schott and others. Johann Stophan Kestler made a digest of his experiments, Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis, an excellently concise textbook which, as Father Reilly says, shows what a good editor could and should have done with the rest of Kircher's works. Kircher himself suffered in his late years from the attacks of alchemists and others who no longer had any fear of disputing Jesuitical authority; he also had his share of the ailments of old age. From 1678 he was mainly occupied with spiritual exercises, and he died on 27 November 1680. His body was buried in the Gesù, and his heart in the church he had so lovingly restored.
The text of Jacobus' Nobilitatio was kindly sent to Wilfrid Voynich in March 1921 by the councellor of the Prague archives of the Ministry of the Interior.
Valuable contributions were gratefully received from the following persons, in alphabetical order:
Lubos Antonin (Prague), Marcela Budíková (Brno), Jan Bedrich Hurych (Ontario, Canada), Denisa Kera (Prague), Philip Neal, Michal Pober (Kutna Hora), Josef Smolka (Prague), Rafal T. Prinke (Poznan, Poland), Jorge Stolfi (University of Campinas, Brazil).
Or use your browser's BACK buttonCopyright René Zandbergen, 2013