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Athanasius Kircher and his Cabinet of Curiosities

In Early Modern Europe, well-connected individuals with the collecting bug assembled eclectic collections of natural and man-made objects known as kunstkammer or cabinets of curiosities. These collections could be small enough to fill a bookcase or large enough to fill an exhibit hall.

collegiiOne prominent collector of the 17th century was Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who established a cabinet of curiosities at the Collegio Romano in Rome, Italy. Kircher had wide interests in science and technology — he published books on such topics as geology, Egyptology, musicology, medicine, and Biblical and classical antiquities. Kircher’s museum contained natural and man-made marvels, including items sent to him by Jesuit missionaries as they traveled around the world.

Special Collections recently acquired the famous printed description of Kircher’s museum, Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum celeberrimum, published in 1678. The work features numerous illustrations of items in the museum, such as replicas of Egyptian obelisks, fossils, animal specimens, and a magic lantern apparatus. The library also owns a 1709 description of the museum, Filippo Buonnani’s Musaeum Kircherianum, which documents the museum’s holdings as well as its decline nearly three decades after Kircher’s death.

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