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