Treasures Unveiled (5): A 17th century polymath’s tribute to music

Our fifth feature in this Treasures Unveiled series is an illustration from a folio on musicology, published in Rome in 1650 by the printer and bookseller Francesco Corbelletti (1584?-1637).

Musurgia universalis is the creation of Athanasisus Kircher (1602-1680), German Jesuit man of letters, and combined two of the many passions of this polymath author – music and science.  He wrote over forty books during his scholarly residence in Rome, which lasted more than four decades until his death.  Rome was the cradle of the Baroque movement in art, architecture and music, and must have glowed with an atmosphere of learning, a cultural fever.

Musurgia universalis was Kircher’s attempt to offer a traditional scholarly account of the history of music and the mechanics of musical instruments; he experimented with different acoustic spaces and started to demonstrate that sound flowed differently through different mediums.  He also fine-tuned the æolian harp, an instrument first developed in Ancient Greece.  In Musurgia universalis Kircher also included prototypes of some of the instruments he had invented himself – including the “hydraulic organ”.

One of the more quirky and interesting plates, this image demonstrates Kircher’s attempt to plot the songs of the cuckoo, quail, parrot, hen and nightingale both on musical staves, and in word form. (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Musurgia universalis is kept amongst the Cathedral’s collection of manuscript music, much of it dating, like this volume, from the 17th century.

A Jesuit scholar as well as a polymath, Kircher published around forty major works on a series of subjects, including Orientalism, medicine, geology and disease.  His books were richly illustrated, designed to edify and entertain Baroque princes.  Compared to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) during his lifetime owing to his large range of interests, Kircher has even been credited with founding the study of Egyptology (although his claims to have been the first person to successfully translate Egyptian hieroglyphics later turned out to be nonsense); establishing the links between disease and microorganisms after studying bacteria under a microscope; and inventing the megaphone and the magic lantern.

Further reading:

  • Glassie, David.  A man of misconceptions: the life of an eccentric in an age of change.  Riverhead, 2012

Please join us again as we journey further through the international landscape of our collections…

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