Athanasius Kircher S.I.: A German Jesuit’s Almost Involuntary Expatriation to Rome
Since the posthumous 1684 publication of Kircher’s Vita and its recent translations the Jesuit’s account of his “forced expatriation” has been well known and accepted at face value. We learn that the Jesuit’s flight from marauding Protestant troops in Germany led to his reassignment to southern France, where he met Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc in Aix in 1631. A learned man in his own right, Peiresc was a mycaenas of many scholars and became interested in Kircher’s early attempts at deciphering hieroglyphs. In 1633 Kircher was called back to his homeland to assume the position of mathematician at the imperial court in Vienna. At this point—Kircher reports—Peiresc used his connections in Rome to have the young scholar’s assignment changed. After a last visit with Peiresc in Aix Kircher set out for Germany by boat from Marseilles via Genoa—“without the slightest suspicion that Peiresc was negotiating with Cardinal Barberini for my journey to take the opposite direction.”
During the last decade, a number of publications along with electronic access to his voluminous correspondence at the Jesuit University in Rome and the edition of Peiresc’s letters have cast a different light on this change of Kircher’s assignment. Contrary to the Jesuit’s account of a cordial last visit to Peiresc, the Frenchman was greatly disappointed by what he considered Kircher’s superficial knowledge of matters hieroglyphical, as he noted in a personal memoir of this visit. It is now clear that Kircher hastily left his sponsor without even taking along the letters of recommendation Peiresc had prepared for him for Rome—he was that ashamed of his performance and sought salvation in the mathematical assignment to Vienna. Fate would have it otherwise: After several disastrous boat trips he ended up in Civitavecchia (instead of Genoa)—and made his way to Rome, where he was most cordially welcomed as Peiresc’s recommendations had reached Barberini and the Pope by mail. They were—and this shows the other, calculating side of Peiresc—highly commendatory as he nonetheless felt that Kircher was the only person he knew who could solve the riddle of the hieroglyphs with the help of his studies of Coptic, where he had indeed made some decisive progress.
Kircher’s reassignment to Vienna—an escape from the burden of proof, so to speak, from deciphering the hieroglyphs? His hasty departure from Aix points in that direction although the Jesuit found research opportunities in Rome so unique that he soon developed his own problematic reading of these Egyptian symbols—and spent the remaining 36 years of his life there as a reasonably comfortable expatriot.
Dr. Gerhard F. Strasser