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Athanasius Kircher, Mundus subterraneus & Naples

In terms of wide-ranging interests and abilities, Athanasius Kircher has been compared to Avicenna, Leonardo, Giambattista della Porta and almost everyone else who thought that curiosity and brains were all you needed to learn everything. The last time that described a century was the 1600s. Kircher was born in 1602 and died in 1680. That period also put him as a young man smack in the middle of the Thirty Years War, not good if you were a Catholic, born and living in Germany. He was a good Catholic (later to become a Jesuit) from Fulda (about halfway up modern Germany in the middle), and he spent a good deal of his young life dodging rampaging Protestants.

He moved away from all that to Avignon in France and then to Rome to become a priest and to study everything that interested him, which was everything. During his life he published in theology, philosophy, medicine, music theory, acoustics, mechanics, geology, sinology, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and—go ahead, pick a card. He was, so say many, the last Renaissance Man. He was wrong about a lot of things—for example, he did not successfully decipher hieroglyphics, even though he thought he had. (That's ok. I'm wrong sometimes, too.) He got some things right, though; he had looked through those new-fangled microscopes and figured that the bubonic plague, the dreaded Black Death, was transmitted
by microrganisms on rats. He was in favor of hygienic measures to prevent the spread of disease: quarantine, burning clothes worn by the infected and even wearing face masks to prevent the inhalation of germs. In Rome he set up and ran his own museum to display objects sent back from China by Christian missionaries, all supplemented by his grand encyclopedia on China. He notated bird song, invented an artificial language, a magnetic clock and other gizmos, some looney, some not, and, I am sorry to say, apparently was behind the "cat piano", a musical instrument that would have driven keyboard-operated nails into the tails of cats to elicit shrieks of pain at specific pitches (he hoped). (So I guess he invented Jr. High School Beginning Band, too!) There is also a crater on the moon named for him. Interestingly, most of his writings have never been translated (from Latin) because his incredible eclecticism went out of fashion when cooler (and duller) Rationalists such as Descartes came along. Yet, Kircher is coming back into favor now that our culture has once again accepted eclecticism—no longer known as Everything but the Kitchen Sink, but rather as post-Modernism.


The focus of this brief entry is Kircher's interest and work in geology as manifested in his 1665 work Mundus subterraneus (Underground World), an illustration from which is seen here on the left. He had long known of the Flegrean (Fiery) Fields of Naples, where a new mountain had erupted onto the surface in 1538, and in volcanoes such as Vesuvius, Etna (Sicily) and Stromboli (on one of the Aeolian islands above Sicily) He travelled to Naples in 1638. That was only seven years after the greatest eruption of Vesuvius since 79 AD, the one that killed Pompeii. The eruption of 1631 is regarded as the beginning of the current eruptive cycle of Vesuvius (currently asleep, they tell me). With Vesuvius still smoldering, Kirchner had himself lowered into the crater to measure the temperature. The result of all this interest in geology was the lavishly illustrated Mundus subterraneus, a truly magnificent work, in which Kirchner concluded that
“The whole Earth is not solid but everywhere gaping, and hollowed with empty chambers and spaces, and hidden burrows." He thought that there were strange things going on deep below, great oceans and fires, interacting with one another through passageways that reached all the way to the planet's core. In his view, volcanoes were "nothing but the vent-holes, or breath-pipes of Nature," while earthquakes were the "proper effects of sub-terrestrial cumbustions."

Quaint, I guess, but not all that wrong. Some say that it inspired Jules Verne to write Journey to the Center of the Earth.
John Glassie, in his 2012 book on Kircher, A Man of Misconceptions, writes that while "many of Kircher's actual ideas today seem wildly off-base, "he was "a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness," whose work was read "by the smartest minds of the times.”

Athanasius Kircher got in his three score and ten and then some
—and he certainly didn't waste his time. His remains are in a tiny chapel near Rome named Santuario della Mentorella. Apparently he discovered this ancient church in ruins and paid for it to be rebuilt. There is a path on the premises named for him.


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