Musurgia Universalis

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library Panorama de Constantinople
October 1, 2010

Athanasius Kircher was a true Renaissance man, a polymath. A biography of him, published in 2004, was subtitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Kircher, a Jesuit scholar who was born in Geisa in what is now Germany, lived from 1602 to 1680 and made important contributions to a wide range of fields. He wrote pioneering studies of Egyptian hieroglyphics and China; had himself lowered into the crater of Mount Vesuvius to better understand volcanoes; used a microscope—one of the first to do so—and suspected the link between microorganisms and disease; taught mathematics and physics; and built a magnetic clock, projection devices, and other technological marvels of his age.

The library, which holds many of Kircher’s eclectic writings, recently acquired a copy of the first edition of his Musurgia Universalis, the first comprehensive encyclopedia of music. Published in 1650, the work contains a wealth of information on music theory and composition in the Baroque period and influenced the work of Bach, Beethoven, and many other composers and musicologists.

The Musurgia also contains music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, at the time, had not appeared elsewhere, along with musical notations of birdsong and one of Kircher’s own musical compositions. In keeping with Kircher’s wide-ranging interests, the work also focuses on the technology of music. It includes illustrations of ancient instruments and discussions of acoustics and hearing, along with plans for musicmaking machines, many of them Kircher’s own invention.

A masterpiece of bibliographic beauty as well as musicology, the Musurgia contains more than twenty large engraved plates and many tables, diagrams, and pages of musical notation. Kircher’s works often benefited from, and even required, such complicated presentations of image and text to explain his ideas, making them beautiful objects as well as repositories of research and knowledge.