KIRCHER, Athanasius.


Ars magna lucis et umbrae.

Rome, sumptibus Hermanni Scheus, 1646


FIRST EDITION, second issue. Folio. 2 parts in 1, continuous pagination, separate t-ps, pp. (xl) 494; (ii) 495-935 [i.e., 937] (xv). Roman letter, some Italic, little Greek or Hebrew. Remarkable engraved t-p by Petrus Miotto Burgundus with allegorical personifications, a view of the heavens and a portrait of Archduke Ferdinand; 36 leaves of plates (12 folding) with stunning astronomical and geometrical diagrams, folding universal horoscope of the Company of Jesus, and map of the northern hemisphere including America; 4 full-page engraved tables; over 400 half-page or smaller woodcut geometrical or optical diagrams; decorated initials and ornaments. Fore-edge and last verso a little foxed, light age browning, slight marginal water or finger-soiling in places, lower outer blank corner of 4Y3 torn, small clean tear to lower blank margin of pl. XXIV. A good copy in contemporary vellum over boards, raised bands, a.e.r., title inked to spine, C17 ms. ‘FF Min: Reform: Bulsanensium’ [Franciscans of Bolzano] and casemark(?) ‘[illegible] in fol: min:’ to first t-p.

A good copy, often heavily browned, of the first edition (second issue), lavishly illustrated with engravings in fine impression—‘a fascinating work on optics filled with spectacular demonstrations of the properties of light’ (Findlen, 21). Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) was a German Jesuit and perhaps the greatest polymath, author of works on linguistics, medicine, geology, biology, magnetism, visual perception and music. ‘Ars magna lucis et umbrae’ is the first work entirely devoted to the science of image projection, and the ‘magical’ effects it could produce, based on the physical properties of light, shade and colours as apprehended by sight. The work is grounded in the Aristotelian distinction between ‘contemplative’ (natural philosophy) and ‘effective’ (or practical) magic. Kircher identified the latter as a mathematical art and as ‘the production of unusual effects that one could not explain easily without a sufficient knowledge of natural mysteries’; such effects could be understood as ‘magical’ by an audience who did not have the necessary knowledge (Waddell). By 1646, Kircher’s study at the Collegio Romano had become the focus of unusual experiments, which, though often criticised, attracted the attention of intellectuals like Torricelli and John Evelyn. ‘Ars magna’ begins with a section on ‘photosophia’ (planets, plants, stones and animals that emanate or reflect light, e.g., by phosphorescence), followed by others on the nature of shade and colours (on the surfaces of stones, herbs and animals; divination by colour). Most important is the discussion, in Book 3, of ‘Actinobolismus’ (the emanation of rays)—a word invented by Kircher. It examines the radiation of light as applied to optics, and the use of shade in pictorial representation and ‘sciagraphica’ (a technique to render shade in drawing). Books 4 and 5 are entirely devoted to ‘horographia’, the science of sundials, and its astronomical calculation to measure time through shade. Book 6 discusses the ‘Horologium Catholicum’, invented by Kircher, i.e., a universal clock which allowed to tell the time anywhere in the world from ‘Calefornia’ and New Mexico to China and Japan (especially useful for Jesuit missions). This section features a sumptuous folding engraved plate with the a tree-shaped ‘Horoscopum Catholicum’ of the Society of Jesus, which plans out the diffusion of the Order in the world and the time of day at each location. (Kircher quotes Charles L’Ecluse on the properties of the American larch, and adds a map of the northern hemisphere including America.) Books 7 and 8 are devoted to the geometry and physics of reflexion and refraction, and Book 9 to ‘Geometria Sciatherica’, or the geometry of shade. Book 10—on the magic of light and shade—is the most enticing, as it explains a variety of weird physical phenomena (‘res prodigiosae’) including the multiple reflection of one object, pyrotechnic tricks, the projections of prisms and lenses (telescopes, pantoscopes, microscopes), all kinds of mirrors, and metamorphic optical effects. The outstanding plates include depictions of varieties of’ iconismus’ (the representation of images) through reflexion or refraction, using machinery or architecture (e.g., the camera obscura), and an ‘alphabetum catoptricum’ (reversed), using Roman, Hebrew and Greek letter shown (and printed) in specular fashion. This last, from a section on the use of sun light to project images into the distance, includes references to a simple projection machine with a lens and images painted on a concave mirror which reflects light. This was revised in the 1671 edition to include a full account of this early ‘lanterna magica’. A leaf at the end is devoted to cryptography and the reading of cyphers through candle light. On the last verso is the first of several publisher’s advertisements of Kircher’s books, also comprising several works-in-progress. An outstanding scholarly and printing feat. 

The present may be called the second issue of the first edition. The only difference appears to be that, whilst bearing the date 1646 in the colophon as here, the first issue (often overlooked in bibliographies given its scarcity) has 1645 on the t-p.

Brunet III, 666; BL STC It. C17, p.461; Ferguson, Bib. Chem., I, 466; Alden 646/87. M.A. Waddell, Jesuit Science (2015); P. Findlen, ‘Introduction’, in Athanasius Kircher, ed. P. Findlen (London, 2004), 1-48.
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