52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 42: Athanasius Kircher’s beautiful Musurgia Universalis (1650)

An engraved portrait of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria (left, to whom the work is dedicated to) and the added engraved title page depicting seated Musica holding a lyre and panpipes and with Pythagoras pointing to blacksmiths

An engraved portrait of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria (left, to whom the work is dedicated to) and the added engraved title page (right, depicting seated Musica holding a lyre and panpipes and with Pythagoras pointing to blacksmiths) from Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis, St Andrews copy at r17f ML3805.K5M8.

This week’s selection for the ‘Inspiring Illustrations’ thread speaks for itself and needs very little introduction. We have selected the 1650 printing of Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis, printed in two volumes and illustrated with over 30 leaves of plates and hundreds of in-text engravings.

One of the most famous plates from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis is this engraving depicting musical notation of bird songs. The nightingale's song is first, then the cock, the hen laying eggs and calling her chicks, the cuckoo, the quail and the parrot (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

One of the most famous plates from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis is this engraving depicting musical notation of bird songs. The nightingale’s song is first, then the cock, the hen laying eggs and calling her chicks, the cuckoo, the quail and the parrot (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A depiction of Kircher's ideal of musical harmony: 'The Harmony of the Birth of the World' (Harmonia Nascentis Mundi), represented by a cosmic organ with six registers corresponding to the days of creation. The legend "Sic ludit in orbe terrarum aeterna Dei Sapientia"  (thus plays the wisdom of the everlasting God in the earthly orb) appears under the keyboard. (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A depiction of Kircher’s ideal of musical harmony from Musurgia Universalis: ‘The Harmony of the Birth of the World’ (Harmonia Nascentis Mundi), represented by a cosmic organ with six registers corresponding to the days of creation. The legend “Sic ludit in orbe terrarum aeterna Dei Sapientia” (thus plays the wisdom of the everlasting God in the earthly orb) appears under the keyboard. (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Kircher was a German Jesuit scholar and a true Renaissance man. He published over 40 works during his life in widely varying fields such as medicine, optics, geology, natural philosophy and music. Musurgia Universalis is a combination of a scholarly study of the history of music and musical instruments and an attempt at a scientific explanation of musical harmony and sound theory. Kircher also theorized that the harmony of music reflected the divine proportions of the Universe (as embodied in the plate Harmonia Nascentis Mundi (above).

An anatomical dissection of the human ear, along with an inset comparing the anatomy of the ears of (from left to right) men, cows, horses, dogs, leopard, cat, sheep, goose, rat and pig from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

An anatomical dissection of the human ear, along with an inset comparing the anatomy of the ears of (from left to right) men, cows, horses, dogs, leopard, cat, sheep, goose, rat and pig from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Illustration from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis depicting various voice or noise producing organs in men, frogs, bees, grasshoppers and other insects (St Andrews copy at r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Illustration from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis depicting various voice or noise producing organs in men, frogs, bees, grasshoppers and other insects (St Andrews copy at r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Kircher’s works benefitted from his ability to tap into the wide Jesuit network of the 17th century. By the middle of the 17th century the Jesuit missions had spread as far abroad as China, the Americas and Japan, and Kircher regularly communicated with these missions to add to his knowledge of the subject he was writing on. In Musurgia Universalis, Kircher applies his scientific method to almost every aspect of music and noise. The two plates above illustrate his anatomical descriptions of the music receiving and music producing organs found in humans and other animals.

Descriptions and illustrations of various cellos and other stringed instruments from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Descriptions and illustrations of various cellos and other stringed instruments from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Various clavichords from

Various clavichords from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A diagram of one of Kircher's inventions: a hydraulic organ, from his Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A diagram of one of Kircher’s inventions: a hydraulic organ, from his Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A description and depiction of a Hebrew "minagnghinim" from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis.

A description and depiction of a Hebrew “minagnghinim” from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis.

Much of Musurgia is given over to the description of contemporary and historic musical instruments from various parts of the world. The illustrations above show the cello and clavichord in all of their variations, and to the left is the Hebrew “minagnghinim”, a pulsatile instrument which was housed in a wooden box. Kircher also described many experiments that he had attempted, as well as new instruments which he had witnessed or constructed. Above is perhaps his most famous musical invention: his hydraulic organ which he constructed at the Palazzo del Quirinale in 1647-1648.

A plate showing Kircher's various experiments on acoustic spaces and echo theory, from Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A plate showing Kircher’s various experiments on acoustic spaces and echo theory, from Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

An in-text illustration of the acoustic dynamics of an elliptical ceiling, as well as an echoing device (right), from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

An in-text illustration of the acoustic dynamics of an elliptical ceiling, as well as an echoing device (right), from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A small acoustic experiment on a spider's web, from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis.

A small acoustic experiment on a spider’s web, from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis.

Kircher, in this work, also describes various experiments with acoustic spaces and sound theory. The two illustrations above show his findings of voice and musical echo in a galleried space versus a round space, and where best to place a singer or performer in such spaces. The small in-text illustration below depicts Kircher’s findings of the ability to project voices or sounds across various types of ceilings (the elliptical ceiling is displayed above). This type of sound and space theory was of keen interest to him, and led to his Phonurgia nova published in 1673. He also experimented with the acoustic resonance of various elements of nature: depicted left is a small experiment carried out on a spider’s web.

A plan for a piazza-listening device: the clamor from the piazza below are taken by the horn up through the mouth of the statue in the room above. From Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

A plan for a piazza-listening device: the clamor from the piazza below are taken by the horn up through the mouth of the statue in the room above. From Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (St Andrews copy r17f ML3805.K5M8)

Musurgia Universalis was widely influential largely because of Kircher’s influence and ability to distribute his book widely. This large, two volume set was printed in 1500 copies by the Heirs of Francesco Corbelletti and Lodovico Grignani and 300 copies were given to a large group of visiting Jesuits in 1652 who came to Rome from all over the world to elect a new Superior General. Many copies, including the University of Glasgow’s, are hand-coloured. A full digital edition of this book can be viewed on the Hathi Trust database.

-DG

9 responses to “52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 42: Athanasius Kircher’s beautiful Musurgia Universalis (1650)

  1. This series is endlessly revealing of the richness of the St Andrews Collections, but what I often want to know is how did such and such a book come into St Andrews’ possession. This book is a case in point. Julia Melv

    • Hi Julia,
      Thank you for the lovely comment. It’s quite hard to say when and why this book came into St Andrews’ possession. It’s not recorded in the 1687 catalogue, and it does have later 18th century pressmarks on the title page. There is no bookplate or marks of provenance, and very little sign of usage. This one, I’m afraid, will remain a mystery for now. We do have another work by Kircher, his 1673 work on sound theory, which came in with the JD Forbes library.

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