The Correspondence of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc

Primary Contributors:

Peter N. Miller and Cultures of Knowledge

Portrait of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, by Claude Mellan. 1636–37. Black chalk, 20 by 14.8cm. (The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, inv. no. OR-4635; photograph © The State Hermitage Museum, photo by Vladimir Terebenin.)

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637)

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, one of the greatest ‘intelligencers’ and polymaths of early modern Europe, was born in Belgentier or Beaugensiers, to the north of Toulon, in 1580. The Fabri family had come originally from Pisa to Provence in the 13th century, and had prospered as officials, magistrates, and minor landowners; ‘Peiresc’ was the name of one of Nicolas-Claude’s estates (inherited from his mother). Nicolas-Claude was educated by the Jesuits, acquiring interests in a wide range of humanistic and natural philosophical matters, including astronomy. On a tour of Italy in 1599–1601, which included a period of study at Padua, he met a wide range of scholars, including Galileo and the bibliophile and botanist Gian Vincenzo Pinelli in Padua, and both Cardinal Baronius and Cardinal Bellarmine in Rome. Thereafter, while pursuing law studies at Montpellier under the famous jurist Giulio Pace (Pacius) he was deepening his knowledge of history, languages, archaeology, medicine, and natural philosophy, and extending his network of correspondents. In 1604 he received his doctorate in law; an uncle passed on to him a position as ‘conseiller’ of the Parlement of Provence (which was primarily a judicial body), but he postponed taking it up. Travelling to England as part of a diplomatic mission in 1606, he became acquainted with the historian William Camden, before visiting the Netherlands, where he met Scaliger and Grotius.

Only in 1607 did Peiresc enter the Parlement as a ‘conseiller’. He would spend the next eight years exercising the functions of a magistrate, living in Aix-en-Provence. But when his patron there, Guillaume Du Vair, was summoned to high office in Paris, Peiresc went with him, and stayed in the capital until 1623. He became well acquainted with most of the leading intellectuals in the city, including the brothers Du Puy, La Mothe le Vayer, Naudé, Mersenne, and Saumaise. By the time Peiresc returned to Provence he had gained many new contacts through these and other friends, and had added to his European network of correspondence, taking advantage of the fact that Paris was an important communications hub. He had also been awarded an income-yielding benefice, the Benedictine abbey of Guîtres, near Bordeaux. That income would thereafter help to finance his non-stop collecting of books, manuscripts, and antiquities of all kinds, as well as his very active correspondence.

On his return to Provence Peiresc resumed his position at the Parlement. He divided his time between a town house in Aix and a country house at Belgentier. The latter, in particular, became a place of scientific experimentation and observation (in anatomy, botany, and astronomy); and he built up a huge collection of medals, coins, and archaeological items, as well as an important library. Through merchants in Marseille he conducted inquiries, made purchases, and wrote to correspondents in many parts of the Mediterranean, including Algiers, Egypt, and Syria. He exercised an avuncular influence over Mersenne’s development as an intelligencer and author, and encouraged many younger scholars, including Pierre Gassendi and Athanasius Kircher; he himself published almost nothing, though his huge archive of carefully filed notes contained the materials for many potential works of scholarship. In every field of learning to which he gave his attention — i.e. almost every field studied in that period, with the exception of doctrinal theology and some areas of scholastic philosophy — he corresponded with leading practitioners, applying to every topic his sharp critical intelligence, prodigious memory, and remarkable open-mindedness. He died in 1637.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for the correspondence, as it exists currently in EMLO, was collated from the Tamizey de Larroque edition by Professor Peter N. Miller in the course of his research, and metadata for the letters published in the de Waard Mersenne edition was supplied by the Cultures of Knowledge project.

Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank Sir Noel Malcolm for his contribution of the text for this introductory page. Thanks are due in addition to EMLO scholarly visitor Charlotte Marique for her work to check the letter metadata and insert links to the printed volumes where they may be consulted online, and to EMLO Digital Fellows Lucy Hennings, Katharina Herold, and Callum Seddon for their assistance prior to publication.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Lettres de Peiresc, ed. Philippe Tamizey de Larroque, 7 vols (Paris, 1888–98).

Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, Religieux Minime, ed. Cornelis De Waard, René Pintard, Bernard Rochot, and Armand Beaulieu, 17 vols (Paris: PUF and CNRS, 1933–88).


The majority of Peiresc’s surviving papers, including correspondence, are in the Bibliothèque Inguimbertine in Carpentras. The Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix possesses copies of the correspondence, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris contains a significant numbers of other letters.

Scope of Catalogue

Currently the metadata for this calendar in EMLO lists details of the letters published by Philippe Tamizey de Larroque in the Peiresc edidion and by Cornelis de Waard, et al., in the Mersenne edition, and includes links to the printed copies in the relevant volumes on The Internet Archive and Gallica. It is intended that the letter records will be enhanced with details of the manuscripts, and that the catalogue as a whole will be augmented with metadata for the correspondence that was not included in these editions.

Further resources

A large selection from Peiresc’s correspondence was published in seven volumes by Philippe Tamizey de Larroque as Lettres de Peiresc (Paris, 1888–98). Another series prepared by the same editor, Les Correspondants de Peiresc: lettres inédites, was issued in 21 parts (Paris, 1879–97; reprinted in 2 vols, Geneva, 1972). During that period some of Peiresc’s letters to Capuchin missionaries in North Africa and the Middle East were also published: P. Apollinaire de Valence, ed., Correspondance de Peiresc avec plusieurs missionnaires et religieux de l’Ordre des Capucins, 1631–1637 (Paris, 1892). The Correspondance de Marin Mersenne, ed. Cornelis de Waard et al., 17 vols (Paris, 1933–88) presented, in its first six volumes, all of Peiresc’s correspondence with Mersenne, and many fragments of related Peiresc correspondence with members of Mersenne’s circle. In 1985 Raymond Lebègue and Agnès Bresson published a supplement to Tamizey de Larroque’s edition: Peiresc, Lettres à divers (Paris, 1985). (Lebègue had previously written a study of Peiresc’s contacts with the Netherlands: Les Correspondants de Peiresc dans les anciens Pays-Bas (Brussels, 1943).) Bresson has also published a major edition of another body of his correspondence: Lettres à Claude Saumaise et à son entourage (1620–1637) (Florence, 1992). Jean-François Lhote and Danielle Joyal have published his letters to the antiquary Cassiano dal Pozzo (Lettres à Cassiano dal Pozzo (Clermont-Ferrand, 1989)) and his correspondence with the poet and classical scholar Girolamo Aleandro (Correspondance de Peiresc et Aleandro, 2 vols (Clermont-Ferrand, 1995)).

The classic biography of Peiresc was written by his friend Pierre Gassendi: Viri illustris Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc, senatoris Aquisextiensis, vita (Paris, 1641). This was translated by William Rand as The Mirrour of True Nobility and Gentility, being the Life of the Renowned Nicolaus Claudius Fabricius, Lord of Peiresk, Senator of the Parliament at Aix (London, 1657). There is also a modern French translation by Roger Lassalle and Agnès Bresson: Vie de l’illustre Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, conseiller au Parlement d’Aix (Paris, 1992).

A basic biography is supplied by Georges Cahen-Salvador, Un Grand Humaniste: Peiresc, 1580–1637 (Paris, 1951). Peiresc’s relations with Italian scholars are discussed in the valuable study by Cecilia Rizza, Peiresc e l’Italia (Turin, 1965). But the most important contributions to modern Peiresc scholarship have been made in a series of landmark publications by Peter N. Miller: Peiresc’s Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT, 2000); Peiresc’s History of Provence: Antiquarianism and the Discovery of a Medieval Mediterranean (Philadelphia, 2011); Peiresc’s Orient: Antiquarianism as Cultural History in the Seventeenth Century (Farnham, 2012); and Peiresc’s Mediterranean World (Cambridge, MA, 2015).

Images of manuscript letters in Carpentras and Aix may be consulted via the impressive virtual collection e-corpus (Bibliothèque virtuelle PEIRESC).

Letters in all EMLO catalogues from, to, and mentioning Peiresc

Letters in Tamizey de Larroque’s Peiresc edition

Letters in the
Jean-François Lhote and Danielle Joyal edition

Peiresc letters in Ruelens and Rooses’s Rubens edition

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