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Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World * Joscelyn Godwin (2009)

Quite a while ago I saw this book laying in the most beautiful bookshop of the Netherlands (Selexys Maastricht, soon bankrupt I am afraid). A massive book about Kircher for a massive price. When I got a load of book-coupons much later, my first idea was to go and get this book and so I did. I know Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) mostly for his magnificent images as they are often reproduced in books about hermeticism, Renaissance esotericism, alchemy and similar subjects. I knew Kircher was more of a “homo universalis” and that he was the last of the Renaissance men, but I had this romantised idea that Kircher was an esotericist with a broad interest. Godwin’s book first appears as a look-through book. Over 400 images of Kircher have been reproduced. When I had the book home, I noticed that Godwin discusses them all, so this book is a reading book after all. Well, a reading book. With its over 300 heavy pages, 30x30cm size and +2 kg in weight, this is not a book to read all night while laying on your couch. Godwin took the wide interests of Kircher and divided them over the different chapters of the book. Instead of esotericism, you will read about archaeology, geology, science, medicine, wonder-machines (Kircher liked to show off with weird machines that were magic to the unknowing spectator), music, Egyptology (Kircher was the first to translate hieroglyphs), information about the religions of the world (from China and Japan to South America) and much, much more. Indeed, Kircher was a man who wanted to know everything. So how did he come about knowing about all these things? Kircher was a devout Jesuit and his masters realised that he was more valuable at home than in some far country converting people. Thus Kircher became the spider in the web of Jesuit missionaries worldwide who sent him artifacts, stories, drawings, texts to translate, etc. and Kircher investigated them all and wrote about it. He set up a museum with exotics and weird machines and thought he was superiour in knowledge to his fellow man. However this book is a nice read, not all subjects interest me equally. I mostly enjoyed the first chapters with Kircher’s religious and symbolic drawings (Godwin goes nicely into detail) and the last chapter with didactic images. Indeed, do not expect too much alchemy, Kabbalah and hermeticism as suggested on Amazon (Kircher did not want to have too much to do with such subjects), but more a book showing the pursuits of early science.
2009 Thames & Hudson, isbn 0500258600)

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