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Renaissance Man

In his hugely popular book Turris Babel, the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher considered the biblical story of the tower of Babel, wherein the tyrant Nimrod dreamed of building a tower as high as the heavens. A Jesuit living in an age still rocked by the storms of the Reformation, Kircher heeded seriously the Scripture‘s every word; nonetheless, from a scientific viewpoint Nimrod’s ambition struck him as impractical. Calculation revealed to Kircher that, indeed, the tyrant‘s plan to storm the heavens could not have succeeded: By his reckoning, the structure would have required some 3 million tons of material and, just to reach the moon (the lowest heavenly body), would have had to be 178,682 miles high. Besides its economic unfeasibility, Kircher reasoned, it would have the effect of pulling the Earth from its place at the center of the universe, causing catastrophic disruption of the cosmic order.

Turris Babel formed a pair with Kircher’s other work of speculative history, Arca Noe, in which his vivid imagination ran wild with details of life aboard the ship of human salvation. Among the myriad things Kircher (pronounced Kir-kur) discussed in it was the existence of hybrids, creatures such as the leopard (which he saw as the spawn of a mating between lion and panther), as well gryphons, and mermaids, which must exist, he said, for he had the tail end and bones of one in his own museum. The Kircherian Museum at the Jesuit College in Rome was one of the first publicly accessible museums, and one of the most famous institutions of its day. Along with the bones of a mermaid could also be found a vast array of natural and anthropological curiosities from around the world, as well as the marvelous inventions of its eponymous proprietor, himself one of the greater curiosities of the age.

Jesuit priest, historian, linguist, philosopher, naturalist, geologist, physicist, Egyptologist, musicologist, composer and mechanical inventor, Athanasius Kircher was the quintessential Renaissance man. Insatiably curious and possessed of limitless energy, he wrote more than 40 major treatises on everything from the Noachian flood to magnetism and acoustics. A contemporary of Galileo, Descartes and Newton, Kircher lived at that seminal time when modern science was being formulated, and he saw himself as a primary contributor to this project. On a trip to southern Italy, where he witnessed the eruptions of Etna and Stromboli, Kircher had himself lowered into the smoking crater of Vesuvius in order to study its workings, an experience so exciting that he developed from it an entire theory of geology.

What historian Rene Taylor has called ”the vast and terrifying subject of Athanasius Kircher“ is the focus of a new exhibition in the recently opened extension to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. More than seven years in the making, the show features among its exquisitely crafted exhibits vitrines devoted to Kircher‘s geological theory and his analysis of Nimrod’s architectural hubris. The theories, originally presented via detailed drawings in his books, are here rendered as three-dimensional models. A miniature sectioned Earth, all redly aglow, reveals Kircher‘s view of the inner planet honeycombed with cavities and channels through which water and fire course; volcanoes are the escape valves through which this fire is sometimes released.

Many curators might feel daunted by the sheer eclecticism of Kircher’s oeuvre, but in the cascading polyphony of this Renaissance mind the MJT‘s David Wilson seems to have found his soul mate. That Wilson and Kircher are both proprietors of singular museums is just one bond that unites them. Like Kircher, Wilson too is pioneering a new kind of public institution; he too is interested in a new kind of knowledge, a knowledge at once rigorous and wondrous. In Kircher he could not have found a more perfectly ”Jurassic“ subject. Even before this exhibition, Kircher has clearly been an influence on the MJT’s development -- aficionados will be interested to note that the model of the Ark which has long graced the first vitrine on entering the museum is patterned after the one in Kircher‘s lushly illustrated book.

Of all the subjects that exercised Kircher, none excited him more than magnetism, which he saw as ”the golden chain that links together all the sections of the universe.“ Magnetism was the lingua franca of creation, governing physical phenomena such as tides and planetary action, plus the heliotropic powers of plants like the sunflower; it also served as a metaphor for nonphysical attraction, including human love and friendship. For Kircher, who was deeply influenced by Hermetic philosophy, the entire universe participated in a web of invisible influences of which magnetism served as the exemplar. ”The world is bound with secret knots,“ he wrote, and for him every object reaffirmed this invisible network of interconnection.

Several exhibits in the MJT show are devoted to Kircher’s ideas about magnetic sympathy, including a marvelous sculptural simulacra of his sunflower clock -- in the original, a sunflower mounted on a cork floating in water told the hours as the blossom sympathetically tracked the motion of the sun. Most notably, Wilson has re-created a device Kircher designed for ”magnetic divination,“ a mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful mechanism in which tiny wax figures embedded with magnets rotate within water-filled spheres of glass etched with various letters and symbols. Watching the peregrinations of these little merdogs and aquatic fowl as they stopped in their rotations to point enigmatically at some particular symbol, I could not help wondering if Wilson himself might not be signaling to the attentive viewer. What messages might be emanating from these delicate depths?

Kircher saw not only nature, but also human culture, as bound together by invisible chains of influence. Following biblical tradition, he believed that all people had once shared a common language and religion, the linguistic unity broken only by God‘s wrath at Nimrod. Traits of man’s unity were still to be found among the various languages, cultures and religions of the world, and Kircher avidly collected accounts of distant peoples from his peripatetic Jesuit colleagues. A legacy of their efforts is to be seen in Wilson‘s rendition of Kircher’s ”Idol of Fombum,“ a bizarre version of Buddha. Here, as with a number of the other exhibits, the 3-D model is enhanced by a shimmering optical projection, an elegant illusion that echoes the technological playfulness of Kircher‘s own museum.

Along with magnetism, linguistics and the search for cultural origins, the other chief obsession of Kircher’s life was acoustics, including the study of music. His museum in Rome contained a wide range of acoustical and musical devices he had designed, including megaphones, talking statues, musical automata, and a mechanical computer that could compose tunes from preset patterns and rhythms. Sadly, this device has not been re-created for the MJT exhibition, although a wonderful Kircherian bell-wheel fills the space with angelic tinkling, and several of his megaphones are also represented. As with everything Kircherian, some underlying principle must guide the design -- here, it was the spiral.

Kircher lived at a time when the dividing line between ”magic“ and ”science“ had still to be clearly drawn. Although he strongly condemned alchemy, promoting instead what he called a ”true chemistry,“ many of his beliefs and theories were out of step with the directions in which the new science would ultimately go. An age increasingly besotted on the parsimonious beauty of Newtonian mechanics had little time for invisible webs of cosmic influence, and Kircher wound up, as one scholar has put it, a footnote in the history of science. Yet like Giordano Bruno and Robert Fludd, two other Renaissance scholars who were also seen to overstep the boundary of emerging scientific orthodoxy, interest in Kircher is again flourishing. This year, London hosted an international Bruno conference, and next April, Stanford will host a conference on Kircher, as well as an exhibition of his publications. In Rome, part of his museum is now being re-created.

In a time of ever more arcane specialization, there is something deeply appealing in the holistic visions of these expansive thinkers. Across the centuries they infuse us again with a sense of wonder, an almost dreamlike presentment of a grand cosmic net lying just beyond our awareness. This sense of wonder is precisely what the Museum of Jurassic Technology aims to arouse, and, with this marvelous exhibition, David Wilson so succeeds in evoking.