A Stony Mass of Not Small Size

Regular Believer contributor John Glassie’s new book, A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, which is being released this week, tells the story of the seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. Kircher was the original nutty professor: an eccentric, obsessive, accident-prone intellectual, who promulgated many ideas — secret knots of magnetic influence, universal sperm — that from a modern point of view just seem strange. But he was also an utterly brilliant and erudite man: he published thirty books on subjects including geology, mathematics, history, cryptography, and acoustics; he was probably the first person to examine blood through a microscope; and, as this excerpt from the book shows, he also sometimes collaborated with the baroque artist Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Athanasius Kircher’s successful investigations into magnetism, optics, and music in the 1640s were “grounds for praise of God,” as he later put it, but they also offered surprising “fodder for tribulation,” and may have even brought about some paranoia on his part. (Around this time, Kircher outfitted his bedchamber at the Jesuit college in Rome with a “speaking tube” through which he could eavesdrop on conversations in the courtyard below.) Those who had always been skeptical of him, he recalled, “attacked me anew with fresh accusations.” The charge: he’d been concentrating on those other subjects because he wasn’t getting anywhere with his most important work, “as if abandoning all hope of addressing Hieroglyphics on account of its impenetrable difficulty.”

Kircher was approaching middle age, and it had been many years since he’d taken on the project of trying to decipher the texts of the ancient Egyptians, more than a decade since he’d promised in an earlier work that he would soon be able reveal the secret mystical wisdom that he and many others believed was encoded in the hieroglyphic inscriptions. During this time his vision for Egyptian Oedipus, the masterwork that would contain it all, had only grown more and more ambitious, and more and more expensive to execute. It would have to be longer than he originally thought. Many exotic typefaces were required. More artists and engravers were needed to render the illustrations.

But now, he said, God provided “an utterly marvelous manner” for him to resume his hieroglyphic activities and to “elude the empty machinations” of his enemies. Events led to not only the publication of Egyptian Oedipus but to Kircher’s collaboration with Gianlorenzo Bernini on what many people regard as Bernini’s greatest work, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Rome’s Piazza Navona.

In 1647, Pope Innocent X decided, “for the immortality of his own name,” as Kircher wrote, to re-erect an Egyptian obelisk in the center of the piazza, which occupies the oblong site of the old Forum Agonale, a stadium where ancient Roman games were held. Innocent and other members of the Pamphilj family—including his powerful sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia, called the papessa, or “the female pope”—were in the process of combining their existing properties on the piazza into one great palazzo appropriate to their exalted station. The obelisk was meant to elevate the aesthetics and the stature of the entire square in advance of the church’s jubilee year celebration in 1650.

“Since he had heard that I possessed skill in the Egyptian alphabet and Hieroglyphics, and that I was called to Rome for that reason,” Kircher remembered, referring to Innocent, “he fetched me to himself.”

Those who met the pope tended not to forget it; Innocent was ugly. (“He was tall in stature, thin, choleric, splenetic, with a red face, bald in front with thick eyebrows bent above the nose,” a Roman of the time reported. “His face was the most deformed ever born among men.”)

Father,” Innocent said to Kircher, “we have decided to erect an obelisk, a stony mass of not small size. Yours will be the task of transforming it to life with your interpretation.”

At the time, this obelisk still “lay thrown to the ground and broken into five parts” outside of town at the Circus of Maxentius, where it had been erected about twelve-hundred years before. It was going to have to be made whole again. “And since from the corrosion of its letters the obelisk was greatly defective and several outlines of figures were lacking,” Kircher explained, “His Holiness wished that it be restored to its unimpaired condition by putting upon me the task of filling in all the missing portions in accordance with my knowledge.”

Kircher imagined his detractors whispering to each other: “Let us just see if he has experience in the knowledge of Hieroglyphics or if he can genuinely be of good use in addressing these figures.” As if to prove to these skeptics just how much “experience in the knowledge of Hieroglyphics” he had, he quickly produced five hundred pages on the subject.

Meanwhile, it was Francesco Borromini, Bernini’s gloomy nemesis, who was expected to receive the commission for the obelisk’s base. Innocent wanted a big fountain; he’d already put Borromini in charge of diverting water to the site from the Acqua Vergine, a still-functioning ancient Roman aqueduct, and he’d already given tacit approval to Borromini’s concept: a fountain that would represent the four principal rivers of the four continents known at the time. Bernini was out of favor, not least because of his association with the Barberinis, the family of the previous pope, but Innocent changed his mind about the commission after seeing a model of Bernini’s stunning design. Today it’s even more stunning to consider, given that Kircher, who has not always been remembered in the most positive light, played an important role in its development. “I would even venture to say,” writes one modern Bernini scholar, “that it was only through Kircher that Bernini… managed to displace Borromini.”

Bernini stuck to the four-rivers idea, which was meant to represent the centrality of the church and the flow of faith to all the corners of the globe, as if carried along on the waters of the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges, and the Rio de la Plata. And he consulted Kircher for details on the animal and plant life along the rivers he’d never seen.

Kircher had never seen them, either. But he had an emerging reputation as an authority on just about everything. He was the figure in Rome with whom a growing number of other, some might say “actual,” authorities on a range of subjects chose to correspond, and he was the Jesuit to whom missionaries most frequently sent reports, artifacts, and natural specimens. One of those specimens was the preserved body of what’s now called a giant armadillo, a South American animal that looks even more unpleasant than its smaller cousin, with bony plating, scales, and large claws. In the well-known engraving of Kircher’s museum, it’s hanging from the ceiling. Kircher may not have been entirely clear on this animal’s bearing and habitat, however, because it seems to have inspired the carved creature standing upright in the water on the American side of the fountain, referred to as the “Tatu of the Indies” by a seventeenth-century chronicler of Bernini’s life and work. (Tatú is Spanish for “armadillo.”)

The effect of Bernini’s fountain goes well beyond its fairly straightforward imagery and symbolism (such as the dove on the very top of the obelisk that represents the pope). The rocky travertine base is made to look like a crush of tectonic forces, a mountain in the making. Water shoots from cracks and crevices all around, and it’s carved out in such a way that you can see through it on all four sides. Each main chunk of the base supports one of four giant marble river gods, but the interior of the form on which the fifty-five-foot obelisk contains mostly water and empty space. As the same seventeenth-century writer put it, “One marvels not a little to see the immense mass of the obelisk erected on a rock so hollowed out and divided and observe how—speaking in artistic terms—it seems to stand upon a void.”

The idea apparently comes from conclusions that Kircher had reached after exploring the caves, underground seas, and passageways of Malta and Sicily, not to mention the crater of Mount Vesuvius, in the 1630s. As he later wrote, “the whole Earth is not solid but everywhere gaping, and hollowed with empty rooms and spaces, and hidden burrows.” Great systems of oceans and fires spread throughout the earth’s interior, and there are many openings in the ground and the floor of the ocean, through which enormous quantities of water pass back and forth. “The sea,” he wrote, “by the winds and pressure of the air or the motion of the estuating tides, ejaculates, and casts the waters through subterraneous or underground burrows into the highest waterhouses of the mountains.” In other words, according to Kircher, mountains are like holding tanks, with little leaks: water pushes its way out through the sides of the mountains the way the water of Bernini’s fountain does, flowing down the slopes as rivers and streams.

But the fountain evokes an even larger and more primal natural process, as if capturing the moment when an animating force or a shock of the divine permeates the material world. Bernini may have been aware that obelisks, with their long, tapering shapes, were said to represent rays of sunlight. But Kircher would certainly have told him of the “magnetic” manner in which he believed the rays of the sun gave life, the way in which sunlight acted as “the lodestone of heaven, drawing all to it.” Light “passes through everything,” he wrote in The Great Art of Light and Shadow, his book on optics, and “by so passing through, it shapes and forms everything; it supports, collects, unites, separates everything. All things which either exist or are illuminated or grow warm, or live, or are begotten, or freed, or grow greater, or are completed or are moved, it converts to itself.”

Not by chance, Kircher’s speculation-fueled reading of the hieroglyphics on the obelisk revealed that the ancient Egyptians, ostensible inscribers of sacred wisdom, basically agreed: In brief, his translation describes the emanations of a “Solar Genius” and the lower entities which are “drawn toward,” as well as “fructified” and “enriched” by, the diffusion of its energy.

The important thing is that Bernini would not have been totally bemused by all this. Kircher’s animistic, Neoplatonic, and catholic views were also still somehow Catholic, and they were characteristically baroque. According to art historian Simon Schama, Bernini “was forever inventing new ways in which the unification of matter and spirit, body and soul, could be visualized and physically experienced.” While “it is difficult to trace the exact degree of closeness between the sculptor and the Egyptologist, something like this belief—the revelation of divinely ordained unities, tying together the different elements of living creation—is surely the controlling concept behind Bernini’s immense creation.”

Work on the fountain started—some pieces of the obelisk were dragged by water buffalo, others by horses—as Rome began to suffer from a grain shortage. When taxes were levied to help pay for the project, people became angry, and rhymes of protest famously began to appear overnight on the blocks of travertine and the massive chunks of the obelisk lying in the piazza: the people didn’t want fontane (fountains), they wanted pane (bread). So many people showed up for a Jesuit hand-out one day that “a terrible thing happened,” a Roman man reported. “Some of the poor died, suffocated by the crowd; a pregnant woman fell unconscious, others broke their legs, and in short many were injured.”

General hunger notwithstanding, the fountain kept going up, and the Pamphilj pope paid for the publication of Kircher’s treatise, the lavish Pamphilian Obelisk, a book that served for all intents and purposes as the first volume of his Egyptian Oedipus. Kircher used it as a kind of sales tool. As he told it, when the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna got a look at the handsome tome that Kircher had dedicated to Pope Innocent, “he sent to me most eloquent letters by which he kindly impelled me to take up anew my work on Oedipus Aegypticus.” Through an intermediary, Kircher explained to Ferdinand that because of all the special typefaces and necessarily elaborate engravings, the book “would not be able to be produced for less than three thousand scudi,” almost $200,000 in twenty-first-century money. Ferdinand agreed to release the “worthy amplitude of his munificence” on the project.

Several years later, Kircher finally published the book, a four-volume, two-thousand-page work filled with incredible erudition, impossibly beautiful engravings, and wildly inaccurate translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Mixed results were fairly typical for Kircher. Here in the end you have both a book has been called “one of the most learned monstrosities of all times,” and a public sculpture that is one of the most popular in the world.