The Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher

Primary Contributors:

Mapping the Republic of Letters, Stanford University

Athanasius Kircher. Frontispiece, Mundus Subterraneus (1664). (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Douce K 148; image: Marc Kolakowski)

Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680)

During his lifetime, the Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher was regarded as a physical embodiment of the learning of his age. A refugee from war-torn Germany, where he had been born in Fulda, Kircher arrived in Rome just after Galileo’s condemnation and was heralded there as possessing the secret of deciphering hieroglyphics. He wrote over thirty separate works dealing with subjects that ranged from optics to music and from Egyptology to magnetism. He invented a universal language scheme, attacked the possibility of alchemical transmutation, and devised a host of remarkable pneumatic, hydraulic, catoptric, and magnetic machines, which he displayed to visitors to his famous museum in the Jesuit Collegio Romano. His books, lavishly illustrated volumes destined for Baroque princes with a love of the curious and the exotic, are permeated with a strong element of the Hermetic philosophy of the Renaissance and synthesized with the Christianized Aristotelianism of the Jesuit order to which Kircher belonged.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The Athanasius Kircher correspondence project at Stanford was set up with the intention of making the manuscript correspondence of Athanasius Kircher available online to the international research community. The project had begun as a collaboration between the Museo Galileo in Florence, the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and the European University Institute in Fiesole under the direction of Michael John Gorman and Nick Wilding. From September 2000, the project moved to Stanford University under the sponsorship of Paula Findlen, where a searchable version of the correspondence using Luna Insight software was developed, and it is here that it may be accessed today.

In 2008, the Kircher correspondence became part of Stanford’s ground-breaking Mapping the Republic of Letters project. The intention was to update and improve the digital correspondence archive and to extract a pre-existing database of letters from a digital archive in order to visualize its contents. Under supervision of Paula Findlen, Suzanne Sutherland-Duchacek, and Iva Lelková enhanced the original database — most specifically with prosopographic and geographic information — and prepared the data for visualization. Transition from the database into EMLO of this enhanced metadata was arranged in 2013 as a result of a close collaboration between the Mapping the Republic of Letters and the Cultures of Knowledge projects, and it would not have been possible without the technical support of Glen Worthey from the Stanford University Libraries, Nicole Coleman from the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis and the Stanford University Libraries, and Culture’s of Knowledge’s post-doctoral fellow Iva Lelková, together with the technical and editorial teams, at EMLO.

EMLO would like to thank Thomas E. Conlon and Philip Neal for making available within the union catalogue their transcriptions and translations of the letters from Gottfried Alois Kinner von Löwenthurn (b. 1610) and Kircher.


The total catalogue comprised of the surviving correspondence sent or received by Kircher contains 2,686 records from which 2,259 letters are in the care of the Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University. The majority of the remaining 422 letters are housed in a number archives scattered across Europe, with one or two repsitories more further afield.

A small additional catalogue of Kircher-related correspondence was created in order to capture letters attached to the Kircher collection in the Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University. This additional catalogue contains 55 entries.

Future work is planned to link between the Kircher letter records in EMLO and images of manuscripts hosted at Stanford.

Detail from the verso of the letter below.

Letter of 3 December 1672 from Athanasius Kircher to an unknown recipient (Strahovská knihovna [Library of the Royal Canonry of Premonstratensians at Strahov], Prague, shelfmark DH I 22v) in which Kircher praises the work of an addressee and gives an account of his own works: Principis christiani archetypon politicum (1672) is already out of print and Arca Noë (1675) will be ready for publication in six months. Kircher plans to send to print Turis Babel (1679) and Iter Hetruscum (the latter never appeared), which are both very costly, but Kircher does not dare to send them to Amsterdam in such turbulent times. He does not wish to let the printing press stand idle, however, and in Kempten he plans to print Phonurgia nova (1673), in which he describes the character of sounds, acoustic instruments, and experiments with sound propagation and how these may be used in warfare. The work is to be dedicated to the emperor Leopold I who awaits it keenly. There is nothing in the book Kircher would not be able to prove experimentally, and there is a detailed description and summary drawing of the famous ‘speaking tube’ he had introduced just over two decades before in Musurgia universalis (1650) and which, during the ensuing years, had begun to be used by the English.

Detail of the ‘speaking tube’
from the verso of the letter above.

Further resources

Monumenta Kircheri (Rome, Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University [APUG])
This project is completing the work begun by Stanford University and is transcribing Kircher’s letters in both a diplomatic and an edited format. Additionally, the project will provide full descriptions for and transcriptions of a selection of Kircher’s published works. Monumenta Kircheri includes a Bibliographia Kircheriana where all publications about Kircher brought out over the past 350 years have been recorded (to date this entails more than 650 entries). Additionally, Monumenta Kircheri provides and hosts a collaborative environment within which scholars from all over the world may submit their contributions to the transcription, edition, and annotation of the letters. For further details, please see ‘Monumenta Kircheri’: a collaborative transcription and research project on Athanasius Kircher’, by Lorenzo Mancini and Martín M. Morales (Archivio della Pontificia Università Gregoriana, Rome) posted on the Cultures of Knowledge website, and if you wish to be involved, please contact APUG to request a user account and to begin collaboration.

Michael John Gorman and Nick Wilding, The Correspondence of Athansasius Kircher: The World of a seventeenth-century Jesuit (Institute and Museum of the History of Science [Museo Galileo], Florence); see also Kircher’s museum and Kircher’s mathematical organ.

Hans Vollrath, Der Briefwechsel von Athanasius Kircher mit Herzog August von Braunschweig und Lüneburg von 1650 bis 1666 (Institut für Mathematik, Julius-Maximilians-Universität [JMU], Würzburg, 2018).



Paula Findlen, ed., Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (New York: Routledge, 2004).

John Fletcher, ed., Athanasius Kircher und seine Beziehungen zum gelehrten Europa seiner Zeit (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988). A preliminary list of Kircher’s manuscripts and letters made by John Fletcher may be found on pp. 152–81.

Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance man and the quest for lost knowledge (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979).

Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2009).

Ignacio Gomez de Liano, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), Itinerario del extasis, o Las imagenes de un saber universal (Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 1986).

Thomas Leinkauf, Mundus combinatus. Studien zur Struktur der barocken Universalwissenschaft am Beispiel Athanasius Kirchers SJ (1602–1680) (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993).

Conor Reilly, Athanasius Kircher: a master of a hundred arts, 1602–1680, Studia Kircheriana (Wiesbaden: Edizioni del Mondo, 1974).

Valerio Rivosecchi, Esotismo in Roma Barocca: Studi sul Padre Kircher (Rome: Bulzoni, 1982).


Studies of Kircher’s Correspondence
Kircher’s correspondence has been the subject of a large number of articles by John Fletcher. For a selection, see especially:
John Fletcher, ‘Athanasius Kircher and his correspondence,’ in J. Fletcher, ed., Athanasius Kircher und seine Beziehungen, op. cit., pp. 139–95.

——, ‘A brief Survey of the unpublished Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher, S.J. (1602–1680)’, Manuscripta, 13, 3, (1969), pp. 150–60.

Other relevant articles by Fletcher on more specific aspects of the correspondence include:
——, ‘Astronomy in the life and Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher’, Isis, 61 (1970), pp. 52–67.

——, ‘Johann Marcus Marci writes to Athanasius Kircher’, Janus, 59 (1972), pp. 95–118.

——, ‘Athanasius Kircher and Duke August of Brunswick-Lüneburg. A chronicle of friendship’, in J. Fletcher, ed., Athanasius Kircher und seine Beziehungen, op. cit., pp. 99–138.

On Kircher’s close epistolary relationship with Fabio Chigi, later Pope Alexander VII, see:
Alberto Bartòla, ‘Alessandro VII e Athanasius Kircher S.I. Ricerche e appunti sulla loro corrispondenza erudita e sulla storia di alcuni codici chigiani’, Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae, III (1989), pp. 7–105.

On the importance of Kircher’s correspondence as a source for the history of Jesuit missionary activities, see:
J. Wicki, ‘Die Miscellanea Epistolarum des P. Athanasius Kircher S.J. in missionarischer Sicht’, Euntes Docete, XXI (1968), pp. 221–54.

On Kircher’s correspondents in Mexico, see:
Ignacio Osorio Romero, La Luz Imaginaria: Epistolario de Atanasio Kircher con los novohispanos (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1993).

On Kircher’s epistolary relationship with the Jesuit astronomer Giambattista Riccioli, see:
Ivana Gambaro, Astronomia e Tecniche di Ricerca nelle lettere di G.B. Riccioli ad A. Kircher, (Genoa: Quaderni del Centro di studio sulla storia della tecnica del Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, 15, 1989).

On Kircher’s relationship with his disciple Kaspar Schott, see:
Kaspar Schott, La technica curiosa; saggio introduttivo di Michael John Gorman e Nick Wilding; con uno studio linguistico e traduzioni annotate dal latino a cura di Maurizio Sonnino; prefazione di Paolo Galluzzi (Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 2000).


Museum Catalogues
Eugenio Lo Sardo, ed., Athanasius Kircher: il museo del mondo (Roma: De Luca, 2001). A catalogue of the exhibition on Kircher’s museum held at the Palazzo Venezia, Rome, 28 February–22 April 2001.

Ingrid Rowland, The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 2000). A catalogue of the exhibition on Kircher held at the Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Libraries, 2000.

Daniel Stolzenberg, ed., The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher (Stanford, California: Stanford University Libraries, 2001). A catalogue of the exhibition on Kircher held at the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, April to July 2001.

The curator of the Rome exhibition, Eugenio Lo Sardo, has also published a separate volume on Kircher including Italian translations of excerpts from some of Kircher’s works:
Eugenio Lo Sardo, ed., Iconismi & Mirabilia da Athanasius Kircher (Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1999).


Kircher’s Museum
M. Casciato, M. Ianniello, and M. Vitale, eds, Enciclopedismo in Roma barocca: Athanasius Kircher e il museo del Collegio Romano tra Wunderkammer e museo scientifico (Venice: Marsilio, 1986).

Paula Findlen, ‘Scientific Spectacle in Baroque Rome: Athanasius Kircher and the Roman College Museum’, Roma Moderna e Contemporanea, 3 (1995), pp. 625–65.

——, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1994.

Aldagisa Lugli, ‘Inquiry as Collection: The Athanasius Kircher Museum in Rome’, RES, 12, 1986, pp. 109–24.


Kircher’s instruments and machines
Apart from the works dealing with Kircher’s instruments in the context of his Museum, studies include:
Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman, Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), chapters 2 and 3.

Mara Miniati, ‘Les “cistae mathematicae” et l’organisation des connaissances au XVIIe siècle’, in Cristine Blondel, et al., eds, Studies in the History of Scientific Instruments, (London: Roger Turner Books, 1989), pp. 43–51.


Kircher’s Cultural Context
A study which places the work of Kircher and his disciples in the context of the cultural and political interests of the Habsburg monarchy is:
R. J. W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy: An Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), chapters 9–12.


Specific Studies
Apart from the studies included in the collective works listed above, the following is a very small selection of studies with relevance to particular areas of Kircher’s activity:
Martha Baldwin, ‘The Snakestone Experiments: An Early Modern Medical Debate’, Isis, 86 (3) 1995, pp. 394–418; on Kircher’s polemic with Francesco Redi about the efficacy of magnetic medicine.

Carlos Ziller Camenietzki, ‘L’Extase interplanetaire d’Athanasius Kircher: philosophie, cosmologie et discipline dans la Compagnie de Jésus au XVIIe siècle’, Nuncius, X (1) 1995, pp. 3–32; on Kircher’s Itinerarium Exstaticum, 1656.

Catherine Chevalley, ‘L’Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae d’Athanase Kircher. Néoplatonisme, hermétisme et “nouvelle philosophie”’, Baroque, 12, (1987), pp. 95–109; on Kircher’s optical encyclopedia, the Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae [1646].

George E. McCracken, ‘Athanasius Kircher’s universal polygraphy’, Isis, 39 (1948), pp. 215–28; on Kircher’s universal language, described in his 1663 Polygraphia nova.

Luca Nocenti, ‘Vedere Mirabilia: Kircher, Redi, Anatre Settentrionali, Rarità Orientali e Mosche nel Miele’, Rivista di estetica, XLII (2002), pp. 26–60.

Dino Pastine, Lanascita dell’idolatria: l’Oriente religioso di Athanasius Kircher (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1978); on Kircher’s religious syncretism and sinology.

Ulf Scharlau, Athanasius Kircher, 1601–1680, als Musikschriftsteller. Ein Beitrag zur Musikanschauung des Barock (Marburg: Studien zur hessischen Musikgeschichte, 1969); on Kircher as a music theorist and composer.

Gerhard F. Strasser, ‘Science and Pseudoscience: Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus and his Scrutinum … Pestis’, in G. Scholz Williams and Stephan K. Schindler, eds, Knowledge, Science, and Literature in Early Modern Germany (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 219–40.

Boleslaw Szczesniak, ‘Athanasius Kircher’s “China Illustrata”’, Osiris, 10 (1952), pp. 385–411.

Kircher catalogue


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