Peirescs Europe

Peirescs Europe

by Peter N. Miller

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) was, during his lifetime, one of Europe's most famous men. This book is the first in English to portray this extraordinary man as well as his whole circle, including Pope Urban VIII, Galileo, Peter-Paul Rubens, and Hugo Grotius, and many others. Looking through the lens of Peiresc's life, Peter N. Miller brings into focus…  See more details below


Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) was, during his lifetime, one of Europe's most famous men. This book is the first in English to portray this extraordinary man as well as his whole circle, including Pope Urban VIII, Galileo, Peter-Paul Rubens, and Hugo Grotius, and many others. Looking through the lens of Peiresc's life, Peter N. Miller brings into focus the entire early seventeenth-century world of learning.

Editorial Reviews

Miller (University of Maryland, College Park) encircles his exploration of the history of antiquarianism, the relationship between philosophy and theology, and the meaning of civility and personal excellence around the life and letters of Peiresc (1580- 1637), whom Umberto Eco described as: a "local gentleman" from Aix-en-Provence who was "versed in every science, possessor of a library rich not only in books but in art objects, antiquities, and embalmed animals." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Chapter One


Free Mind and Friend

PEIRESC IS NOT AN ENTIRELY OBVIOUS CHOICE as a seventeenth-century hero of learning and letters. Unlike Bacon and Galileo he did not present himself as the founder of a new science nor, unlike Descartes and Hobbes, has he been claimed as a revolutionary ancestor by a grateful posterity. In a lifetime of reading and writing he published nothing (though, to be sure, there are many `finished' essays and memoranda in manuscript). There are scattered references to him in the published works of friends, generally acknowledgements for having made documentary material available to them. A full sense of his role in the learned world must, therefore, be reconstructed by the historian before his exemplary status can be grasped. There are two major sources on which to draw. The first, the remains of Peiresc's prodigious correspondence, enables us to survey his activities through the very instrument that he himself used to define the horizon of his interests and community. The second is the biography of Peiresc written by his close friend and occasional intellectual collaborator, the philosopher and astronomer Pierre Gassendi — Eco's real-life `Canon of Digne'. He had access to all of Peiresc's papers, an undetermined portion of which have since been lost, as well as the supreme advantage of having lived in his house and worked alongside him. Comparison with the documents on which he drew demonstrates Gassendi's fidelity; his desire to emphasize the exemplary gives us a contemporary's view of the virtues thought worth celebrating.

    Because his fame was earned by how he lived and by the letters that he wrote but which remained unpublished, Peiresc could not have served as an example beyond the, albeit wide, circle of that correspondence network had it not been for the publication of Gassendi's Viri illustris Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc senatoris aquisextiensis vita. He began work soon after Peiresc's death in 1637 and the book was published in Paris in 1641, and then reprinted in The Hague in 1651 and 1655 and translated into English in 1657 with the title The Mirrour of True Nobility and Gentility. The later editions included the funeral oration delivered by Jean-Jacques Bouchard at the memorial meeting held in Rome at the Academia degl' Umoristi in December 1637, the long letter of consolation sent by Gabriel Naudé to Gassendi upon hearing of their mutual friend's death, an anthology of references to Peiresc in texts published subsequent to 1641, and the catalogue of Peiresc's manuscripts prepared by Pierre Dupuy.

    Gassendi's Peiresc was a model of sound intellectual method and learned sociability. What is distinctive about this picture is the combination in one man of these two distinct kinds of virtue: there were greater scholars and greater patrons, but few who knew enough to talk to scholars as equals and few of these who possessed the broader ambition, let alone the wherewithal, to further the learning of others. Peiresc was exceptional in recognizing that in a collective enterprise like scholarship the virtues of sociability were essential. This unusual combination of learning and virtue is the ideal that Gassendi presented to the Republic of Letters.

    Biography, the vehicle chosen by Gassendi, was perfectly suited to this task. Because of the rhetorical injunction to teach by example, so potent in an age whose pedagogy and even organization of knowledge was shaped by rhetorical norms, Lives were conceived of as extended exemplary presentations. From the Renaissance onwards, the `illustrious' subjects of Lives were heroes whose story was to provide matter for inspiration and imitation. E. R. Curtius identified the hero as the embodiment of the `basic value' of nobility and therefore the `model for emulation'. The hero was `distinguished by an abundance of intellectual will and its concentration against the instincts'. The typical manifestation of this strength was martial and some theorists of history, like Francesco Patrizi, doubted if private life could provide appropriate subjects. The seventeenth-century idealization of the scholar as hero reflects, therefore, a changed view of the social importance of the trained mind and its accomplishments. For an `abundance of intellectual will' was here the result of strengthening the mind through study rather than the body through drill. Seneca's image of the great man as the phoenix, which was adapted as praise of Peiresc and also of his older friend Paolo Sarpi, makes the connection between reason and heroism and helped redefine the older ideal of nobility.

    But it is Francis Bacon, in The Advancement of Learning (1605) [trans. and expanded as De dignitate & augmentis scientiarum (1623)] who supplied the decisive argument in transforming the hero. He conceded that though his age had few rulers to compare with antiquity, `yet there are many worthy personages (even living under kings) that deserve better than dispersed report or dry and barren eulogy'. All that was wanting were the `silver swans' described by Ariosto which Bacon adopted as a metaphor for the biographer. Gassendi's biography takes Bacon's point of view and documents a widening horizon of cultural ideals — itself a lagging indicator of the social transformation that had begun to make a civil out of an aristocratic society (see Chapter Two).

    To those who objected to the choice of such an unconventional subject, a scholar rather than a general, Gassendi replied, in an echo of Bacon, that `those men deserve abundantly to be commended, whom though fortune has not raised to the greatest Wealth and Dignities; yet bear the greater minds, are of a more generous Virtue, and undertake far greater Designs, than any man could expect from men of their Condition. And such an one', Gassendi pronounced, `was Peireskius'. But because Peiresc was not a public figure like `a Scipio or a Maximus' the biographer had to have recourse to different sources — private correspondence instead of public inscriptions, and the history of scholarship rather than warfare. Because it was, in part, the life of a mind that he narrated, Gassendi's access to the private man — `far from witnesses' and `without any Mask or Vizard' — allowed him to `discover a man, and shew his inside'. But Gassendi made a further observation. This intimate vantage point better served the cause of imitation since in it we also `find some tokens of our Infirmitie' that make us feel that the great figure was human, and therefore within reach of our own feeble efforts at emulation. Gassendi's declared intent was to paint the picture of a life worth emulating.

    This was not lost on the work's first reader. Jean Chapelain, in a letter to his friend Guez de Balzac in January 1640, explained that he had spent the previous eight days reading Gassendi's manuscript as a favour to the author before it went to the printer. He had not seen a work `so clear, so pure, so varied, and of such great edification' in a long time. Balzac himself, he commented, would be lucky to have such a biographer (he wasn't). Not long after, Chapelain passed along his final comments to the author himself. He praised Gassendi's choice and disposition of material, his candour, and his style. `You have given in this work the perfect idea of a hero of letters', he wrote, `and, in doing justice to your friend, you have instructed the world in a thousand curiosities'. The `century to come will partake of this utility and bless this good work'. But `the principal fruit' will be that

such a glorious example proposed to all time will not leave the virtue of this great person without imitators, and will be like the seed of new Mécenes of Letters, and future promoters of the Sciences; in this way one could say that you will do more than Mr de Peyresc himself, who could only excite to this enterprise those who saw him or lived in his time, while in prolonging his life through the effort that you have made to write it, you could call yourself the author of all the good inspiration that will come to great men to favour the Muses by his example.

    But Chapelain's esteem for the example of Peiresc and for Gassendi's prodigious labour did not blind him to the work's greatest drawback. In an earlier letter to Balzac he praised a narrative that did not collapse under the weight of material that was rarely of an exalted nature. But in another Chapelain reported that he shared the view of their — and also Gassendi's — mutual friend Francois Luillier who wanted to meet with Gassendi and `cut out many things that he found too extended, if not superfluous' (`trop estendues, pour ne pas dire superflues').

    What makes detail `superfluous'? The difficulty that these well-disposed and well-educated readers had with Gassendi's text alerts us to the fraying of the shared assumptions about the ends and means of historical narrative, a precise indication of a changing taste in the style of scholarship. For these same criticisms, prolixity, interminable digressiveness and the inclusion of irrelevant material, would be levelled at the antiquarian. The biographer, like the antiquarian, shared the goal of reconstructing a lost world in its entirety and thus was equally vulnerable to the charge of failing to discriminate between useful and superfluous facts. Chapelain's discomfort with Gassendi's style reflects an increasing discomfort with antiquarian explanation more generally in that circle of men whose intellectual and social loyalties were to the new worlds of the salon and Cartesianism.

    Daniel Morhof acknowledged that Lives of scholars was a new intellectual genre by including a chapter entitled `On the Writers of Lives' [De vitarum scriptoribus] in his mighty Polyhistor (1688), an encyclopedia that doubled as a how-to guide for would-be members of the Republic of Letters. He acknowledged the fundamental — and by the end of the century deeply problematic — link between antiquarianism and biography by beginning the chapter with a defence against the charge — shared, as we have just seen, in Gassendi's own circle — that biographies of scholars were marvels of disorganization and superficiality because of their profusion of micro-histoires. Morhof saw inclusiveness and even digressiveness as the genre's great virtue since it provided even more matter for exemplarity. From the arcana of a scholar's life Morhof believed that one could learn a general prudence valuable `in all affairs'. In the lives of rulers it was understood that little things and `unexpected circumstances' often had disproportionate importance. These quotidian details were not `indecent', in the words of Agostino Mascardi quoted by Morhof, but rather necessary for the reconstruction of `time, mode, occasion and other circumstances'. `It is for this reason', Morhof concluded, `that I value the Life of the great Peiresc written by Gassendi, which in all parts digresses and branches out, that our man [Maresius] condemned as a micrologion'.

    For Morhof, Gassendi's Vita held pride of place among all the modern biographies of scholars. The book was well written and contained `varia memorabilia' on a wide range of subjects as if heaped together. He thought it unlikely to be surpassed because of its combination of fascinating subject and brilliant biographer. The other Lives that he singled out as influential were Paulo Gualdo's of Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (1609) and Fulgenzio Micanzio's of Paolo Sarpi (1646). Peiresc was a fixture in Pinelli's academy during his stay in Padua in 1600-01. It was there that he met Galileo and Sarpi and established lifelong friendships with Pignoria, Gualdo, and Aleandro. Peiresc's `heroism' was even likened to Sarpi's by Chapelain.

    But it was Pinelli who provided the closer model. His biography, written by Peiresc's friend Gualdo, and explicitly intended as exemplary, named Peiresc as Pinelli's successor and delineated the three tasks that were to be his inheritance: the restoration of letters, the collection of valuable books, and the support and encouragement of scholars. Peiresc's praise of the Life of Pinelli for having succeeded in `bringing to life [his] merits, heroic virtues and other qualities and perfections' and exciting readers to admire and imitate them could also apply to his own Life, written thirty years later. Gassendi himself linked the two men and, by extension, the two biographies. Pinelli had `delivered his Lampe to Peireskius' who had, in any event, `so moulded himself according to the manners of Pinellus ... that he might justly be thought to have inherited his heroicall virtues'. As if to stress that this was not his retrospective view only, Gassendi proceeded to cite in his book some passages in Gualdo's that proclaimed Peiresc Pinelli's successor.

    The problem facing the biographer was the inverse of that facing the antiquarian: he could not sacrifice chronology to achieve thematic coherence but had to find a way of accommodating synchronic observations into an inexorably diachronic structure. Gassendi addressed this problem by writing the life (bks 1-5) in chronological order. He acknowledged that this was an `imperfect' form of history similar to `antiquities' and described his work as `Commentaries' organized `as loose materials, after the way of Annals'. Others, if they wished, could `polish' it into a `history'. Book 6, however, was organized synchronically, enabling Gassendi to paint a portrait of the scholar as man, or, as he describes it, `the habit of his Body, the manners of his mind, and the studies in which he exercised his Wits' (`corporis habitum, animi mores, & ingenii studia'). It is here that Gassendi surveyed Peiresc's intellectual activities and described in detail his reading practices, note-taking technique, and filing system, as well as his moral persona. It was this part that `principally touched' Chapelain and which he thought would be `the most useful and the most esteemed'.

    Earlier humanists had written res gestae — the `life and times' — of political and military heroes. Gassendi did this for a scholar ruling an intellectual republic. The `times' of Peiresc amounted to nothing less than an intellectual history of Europe in the first four decades of the seventeenth century. A few years later Gassendi wrote a biography of Tycho Brahe in the same six-book format. A reader who began with the life of Brahe and kept reading through that of Peiresc would have been exposed to a history of the new thinking in Europe from Brahe's maturity in the mid-1560s to Peiresc's death in 1637. Was this intentional? We cannot be sure, but in 1655 the publisher of these Lives, Adriaan Vlacq in The Hague, brought them out in identical quarto formats and at least one set was bound together, creating this continuous history. We tend not to associate antiquarians with astronomers, and they now seem almost antithetical figures, the one an emblem of the ancients and the other of the moderns. Yet, from Gassendi's point of view they both stood as worthy representatives of the new thinking.

    In the first part of the chapter we will try and understand how it was that an antiquary could have seemed like a hero of the New Science. In the second, we will turn to the scholar as an example of learned sociability and to Gassendi's Life as an important source for understanding the ideal of individual excellence that developed in the learned world and then spread to other civil societies later in the century.


If the antiquary could be paired with the astronomer as heroes of the New Science it is because both were closely identified with observation. `No man', Gassendi wrote of Peiresc, `made more observations, or procured more to be made, to the end that at last some Notions of natural things more sound and pure, than the vulgarly received, might be collected'. His `care in the observation of the Heavenly Bodies, was of all others most remarkable, and his Discourses which he had thereof with Mathematicians and other Learned Men. Whence it came to passe, that no man was better acquainted with the new Phaenomena, no man laboured with greater ardency and constancie [ardentius & constantius.] to know the same'. An almanac for the year 1629, almost certainly drawn up by Peiresc, preserves his observations on memorable meteorological conditions (plate 3). At the end of such careful investigation Peiresc `knew as much thereof, as it was possible for any mortal man to know'. This was necessary because, Peiresc wrote, it was `certain that two or three really exact observations are able to change a good part of the old foundations of astronomy and, consequently, of geography'. Peiresc's own observations were responsible for the discovery and naming of the first nebula in the constellation Orion and the first map of the moon. His effort to mobilize friends from Paris to Tunis to Alexandria to Aleppo for a simultaneous eclipse observation in the hope of establishing longitudes and using this information to correct maps of the Mediterranean is a monument to his commitment to observation and collaborative scholarship. To ensure the reliability of observations made by many people with different kinds of training Peiresc, along with Gassendi, formulated a common protocol which they circulated among the observers in order to standardize practices and, therefore, results. He had earlier overcome this problem in his own household, training his domestics to be astronomers, from `the simple gardeners, to the simple librarians, bookbinders, to the masons and other artisans less amenable, it might seem, to such tasks'. Peiresc had no doubt that of all the remains of antiquity the most noble were the astronomical observations of Hipparchus of Samos `which have given us the steps for climbing, if one could say it, into the heavens'.

    Gassendi could hardly have more clearly linked Peiresc to the New Science than by suggesting that Francis Bacon was his inspiration. Peiresc `admired the Genius, and approved the design of the great Chancellour of England Sir Francis Bacon, often grieving that he never had the happinesse to speak with him'. Peiresc was, actually, instrumental in the French translation of Bacon's History of Henry VII. He also possessed copies of the Instauratio Magna, De augmentis scientiarum (which he referred to as Bacon's `libro del progresso'), and the essays on `Religion' and `Superstition' that were suppressed in the Italian edition of the Essays. Peiresc's English translator recognized this kinship and repeatedly used the phrase `Advancement of Learning' to describe Peiresc's motivation.

    In The Advancement of Learning Bacon had insisted that men `have withdrawn themselves too much from the contemplation of nature and the observations of experience'. Bacon had condemnend those who `disdain to spell and so by degrees to read in the volume of God's works'. Montaigne, thinking about `Educating Childrens had proclaimed `I want it' — what he called `this great world of ours' — `to be the book which our pupil studies'. It was Galileo, most famously, who explained that this book of nature was written in the symbolic language of geometry. Peiresc also relied on this metaphor. He urged Father Célestin de Sainte-Lidivine in Aleppo, the brother of the great Leiden orientalist Golius, to pay close attention to the natural landscape since `the book of nature is the book of books'. Peiresc proclaimed to Cassiano dal Pozzo his great love `for the knowledge of the true natural philosophy which can be discerned in the book of nature sooner than in any other one'. Their mutual acquaintance, Tommaso Campanella, offered some of the most precise uses of the term; it was he who declared that `I learn more from the anatomy of a plant than from all the books in world'. Peiresc acknowledged learning this lesson from Campanella himself: `Because this [nature] is the true book of philosophy, as old man Campanella reiterated to us at every moment'. Peiresc thought that men would be condemned to a condition of `perpetual ignorance' if they did not `research the causes, or at least the most exact effects, in experience and in the book of books, which is that of nature itself, where is found many things different from those seen in more ordinary books'. He used the word `mortification' to describe his feelings about discussions of natural phenomena that were not based on observation.

    `This same course he took, touching all the wonderful things of Nature.' Peiresc studied human as he did natural antiquities. So did many others, like the later seventeenth-century English antiquary John Aubrey, who explained that he was always `mixing Antiquities and natural things together', and all those late eighteenth-century Englishmen whose Fellowships in both the Royal and Antiquarian Societies led to the coining of the acronym `FRAS'. What Peiresc insisted upon, in all cases, was careful observation and close attention to detail: where were things found? in what climate? at what time? what did they look like? what was their age? Nor are his questions so unusual; his great contemporary, Ole Worm, asked the same sort in a letter to the Bishop of Stavanger in 1638. Gassendi was sure that there was `no wonder of art, nor rare worke of nature which he heard of, which he did not carefully view, as Aedificies, Rare works, Engins, Plants, Animals, Metals, and other things dug out of the Earth. In a word, all things which were worthy of observation.' Peiresc's surviving archive documents this fascination with looking closely and describing carefully. He supplemented literary accounts with detailed drawings of animals and objects of human manufacture. Many of these were produced by the artists who dwelt under his roof for longer or shorter stretches. His letters include many requests for sketches and casts and Peiresc even provided the instructions as to how these could be made so as to ensure the greatest fidelity at the least risk to the original.

    Travel was part of this education in looking. On his trip to Italy he kept a journal `and was resolved', so Gassendi informs us, `not so to travaile right on from City to City, but if he heard of anything worthy observation here or there, he would turn out of his rode and go thither'. One of these side trips, when visiting Naples, was remembered by John Evelyn in his Discourse of Sallets (1699). He cited Gassendi's account of how `the curious and noble Peiresky [sic]' investigated the local custom of cultivating mushrooms in wine cellars. Many of Peiresc's manuscripts include drawings of objects or copies of inscriptions that he encountered en route. More than twenty years later, when returning from Paris to Provence, he kept in readiness `pen, paper, ruler, compasse, wax, brimstone, and such like implements; to draw, exscribe, adumbrate, in Seals and Transcripts, whatever they should meet with, worthy of observation'. Peiresc viewed travel as an integral component of scholarship and asked his correspondents `to see with your eyes all kinds of things that I can not go and see for myself'. In an echo of Scaliger's assertion that if he were wealthy he would travel rather than buy books, Peiresc explained that it was from travelling that `I have drawn my greatest and principal advantages'.

    For Peiresc not only travelled himself, he organized, sponsored, and promoted the travels of other scholars. Here, too, Scaliger's model was crucial. His forays into Europe's most ancient history had led him to observe that Greek and Roman history began in Phoenicia and Egypt and to try and glean as much information as possible about the ancient Near East from the contemporary one. Peiresc followed Scaliger's lead on both points and, characteristically for a period in which philology broadened into archaeology and anthropology, they ran together in his practice. Peiresc's central role in the European rediscovery of the Samaritans and the discovery of Coptic — the birth of a scientific Egyptology after a couple of centuries of Egyptomania had still not entirely run its course — reflects his recognition that Scaliger's insight into the origins of European civilization needed to be followed up. But in this as in his other scholarly ventures, Peiresc believed that no single person's work was adequate to the Herculean labours needed to advance learning. And so, he turned the existing network of Provençal merchants who dominated French commercial and diplomatic establishments in the Ottoman East into his personal procurement service. Through them manuscripts and artifacts documenting the region's ancient and living inhabitants found their way back to Aix-en-Provence and, thence, thanks to Peiresc's extraordinary generosity, to those scholars elsewhere in Europe who could derive greater benefit from these materials. For special tasks, when he preferred not to rely on others, he twice sent to the Levant his own agent, Théophile Minuti, a monk of the order of Minims, who would later administer Peiresc's last rites, with lists of things to buy, questions to ask, and people to see. It is in this labour, piecing together a history not yet written from materials that were themselves often unwritten, that we can see why Gassendi thought Peiresc such a hero of the advancement of learning.

    Over and against the new thinking lay the old, which Peiresc rejected `as being too obscure and imaginary, built more upon tricks of Wit, than experiments of Nature'. The contrast between knowledge based on observation and experiment and what was produced by purely verbal analysis runs through Gassendi's account. Peiresc was `wont to frown, and look with a very discontented countenance' when reading books that had more `subtilty than solidity' and engaged more with `words and trivial distinctions, than employed in penetrating into the nature of the things themselves, whose very surface was still unknown'. We can catch here echoes of the `degenerate learning' of the schoolmen that Bacon condemned. `Logical and Metaphysical niceties' (`Dialecticas illas meta-physicasve argutias') were said to preoccupy fine minds at the expense of knowledge about the world. Gassendi commented that Peiresc `could not endure, that men should seek out subtilties, to establish the old opinions of the Schools, contrary to evident demonstrations and observations, as if that time could teach nothing, and that experiments were not to be preferred before dark and cloudy reasonings'. Peiresc loved mathematics precisely because it could not be made into a weapon of ideological or personal warfare. It had, moreover, a therapeutic utility since it `so accustomed the mind that being used to such truths as were made clear by demonstration, it could not easily be deceived with the bare appearance of truth'.

    Like many of his elder colleagues, but unlike some of his younger ones, Peiresc's love of mathematics did not displace his historical framework and commitment to observation. An exchange of views with Marin Mersenne, Descartes' collaborator, makes clear Peiresc's priorities and sets in stark relief the differences between two different versions — or generations — of the new thinking. In a letter acknowledging receipt of Mersenne's Harmonie universelle, one of whose parts was dedicated to him, Peiresc declared, `but all my studies have had a very different purpose than yours'. In 1634, Peiresc had turned to Mersenne for help in decoding the meaning of a triangle inscribed within a circle. Mersenne proclaimed it a musical symbol. Peiresc replied that the ancients used symbols like this to represent philosophical concepts. Mersenne repeated that the triangle was a musical figure, representing chords. `I do not at all know', he added, `what other mystery one could find there'. Perhaps exasperated by their miscommunication, Peiresc made explicit what lay behind his query. `I seek there only to learn what the Ancients believed about it, in order to judge the foundation of their beliefs and superstitions' which, in turn, `could aid in the understanding of the mysteries of pagan religion'. What mattered was understanding what had been taken seriously in the past — not whether the ancients ought to have taken such matters seriously. He was guided by what he had learned in decades of close looking. `I have found, I say, occasions to greatly admire the precision of the Ancients that is much greater than is believed by those who race post-haste, so to speak, and don't want to look that closely.'


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Deeply erudite . . . tells us something about the value of learning in an earlier age.--(Tamara Griggs, American Scholar)

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