Kircherian Museum

Engraved title-page.

The Kircherian Museum, thus named after its first curator, the Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher, was an encyclopedic collection established at the Roman College in 1651 as a requisite for receiving the legacy bequeathed by the patrician Alfonso Donnino.[1] The museum became relatively famous in its time [2] and is often mentioned in current literature as an example of Early Modern Wunderkammer or Curiosity Cabinet.[3]

Donnino’s endowment consisted of his personal galleria which was said to have occupied five large rooms in the Palazzo dei Conservatori at Campidoglio in Rome.[4] According to the donation documents, it included “statue, mascheroni, idoli, quadri, armi, pitture, tabula di marmo, vasi di vetro e cristallo, istromenti musicali, piatti pinti, tutte sorti di pietre e frammenti d’antichità”. [5]

Besides the articles from Donnino’s gallery, the Kircherian Museum incorporated other groups of objects already assembled at the Roman College, most notably a collection of instruments and manuscripts used for the advanced teaching of Mathematics known as musaeum mathematicum, initially organized by the Jesuit Christophorus Clavius, who had been a professor at the institution.[6] By the time of Donnino’s donation, the musaeum mathematicum was under the care of Athanasius Kircher, who had enlarged it with his own inventions and frequently made use of the devices in demonstrations to students, scholars and external visitors. The Kircherian Museum collection was complemented by other items of naturalia and artificialia, either sent by fellow Jesuits, from Europe and abroad, or gifted by patrons and contributors throughout its existence.

An overall picture of the collection can be grasped from the catalogue published in 1678, from the press of Joannes Jansson van Waesberghe in Amsterdam, written by an otherwise unknown Giorgio de Sepi, with the supervision of Kircher himself. The title of the catalogue was Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum Celeberrimum[7] and its fully readable on GATE at this link (with full-text search available). An Italian translation was edited by Eugenio Lo Sardo in Il museo del Collegio Romano di Athanasius Kircher (Napoli, 2005). More recently, a facsimile edition accompanied by an English translation was published in 2015 [8].

After Kircher death in 1680, the curation of the museum was left vacant for almost two decades. Accounts from the period suggest that this resulted in a decline and dispersion of the collection due to the lack of surveillance, maintenance, and organization. In 1698 another Jesuit, Filippo Bonanni, was appointed to take charge of the museum, enlarging the collection and rearranging the objects in a different site at the Roman College. This new conception of the collection was described in the Musaeum Kircherianum, a work by Bonanni printed in 1709.

Later, around 1716, Bonanni also wrote a report to his superiors in which he described all the actions taken in the previous two decades to save and reorganize the museum. The goal of the report was to obtain an annual income for the museum to avoid its decline, as had happened immediately after Kircher death. The transcription of the report, entitled Notizie circa la Galleria del Collegio Romano is also available on GATE at this link.

From the moment of the suppression of the Jesuit Society in 1773 the collection of the Kircherian Museum went through drastic transformation. It was eventually sequestered by the State in the 19th century, which incorporated different groups of objects into newly created, specialized museums, such as the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography organized by Luigi Pigorini in 1876. A group of scientific objects then known as the “Kircherian Physics Cabinet” was donated to the Liceo Ennio Quirino Visconti (located to this day in the building previously occupied by the Roman College), carrying the name of Kircherian Museum.

More information about the Kircherian Museum can be discovered looking at the Bibliographia Kircheriana, where Kircherian Museum is a keyword assigned to the following entries:

Entry IDAuthorTitleYearLanguageBibliographic level
AKC Bibliography 0010Findlen, PaulaPossessing nature : Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy1994engMonography
AKC Bibliography 0024Garrucci, RaffaeleOrigini e vicende del Museo Kircheriano dal 1651 al 17731879itaPaper in journal
AKC Bibliography 0030Secchi, Giampietro (S.I.)Campione d'antica bilibra romana in piombo conservato nel Museo Kircheriano: con greca inscrizione inedita1835itaMonography
AKC Bibliography 0032Marchi, GiuseppeLa cista atletica del Museo Kircheriano1848itaMonography
AKC Bibliography 0035De Ruggiero, EttoreGuida del Museo Kircheriano1879itaMonography
AKC Bibliography 0037Marchi, Giuseppe
Tessieri, Pietro
L'aes grave del Museo Kircheriano, ovvero, Le monete primitive dei popoli dell'Italia media, ordinate e descritte, aggiuntovi un ragionamento per tentarne l'illustrazione1839itaMonography
AKC Bibliography 0049Findlen, PaulaScientific spectacle in Baroque Rome: Athanasius Kircher and the Roman College Museum2003engBook chapter
AKC Bibliography 0053Westerhoff, Jan C.A World of Signs: Baroque Pansemioticism, the Polyhistor and the Early Modern Wunderkammer2001engPaper in journal
AKC Bibliography 0062Leinkauf, ThomasMundus combinatus und ars combinatoria als geistesgeschichtlicher Hintergrund des Museum Kircherianum in Rom1994gerBook chapter
AKC Bibliography 0067Seipel, Wilfried (ed.)Ägyptomanie. Europäische Ägypten Imagination von der Antike bis heute. Schriften des Kunsthistorischen Museums Vol. 3 - Symposium Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 30. und 31. Oktober 19942000gerConference proceedings
AKC Bibliography 0068Gilly, CarlosErmetismo per turisti, ovvero come fare di Ermete un pezzo da museo: Athanasius Kircher2002ita
Exhibition catalogue contribution
AKC Bibliography 0069Avellino, Francesco MariaDell'aes grave del Museo kircheriano: articoli due1839itaMonography
AKC Bibliography 0070Bartola, AlbertoAlle origini del Museo del Collegio Romano: documenti e testimonianze2004itaPaper in journal
AKC Bibliography 0072Asmussen, Tina
Burkart, Lucas
Rößler, Hole
Schleier des Wissens. Athanasius Kirchers Strategien der Sichtbarmachung in Stadt, Museum und Buch2011gerPaper in journal
AKC Bibliography 0082Lafaye, G.Le Musée Kircher1879frePaper in journal
AKC Bibliography 0088Battarra, Giovanni AntonioRerum naturalium historia nempe quadrupedum insectorum piscium variorumque marinorum corporum fossilium plantarum exoticarum ac præsertim testaceorum existentium in Museo Kircheriano edita iam a P. Philippo Bonannio nunc vero nova methodo distributa notis illustrata in tabulis reformata novisque observationibus locupletata a Iohanne Antonio Battarra Ariminensi1773-1782latPrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0093Contucci, ContuccioMusaei Kircheriani aerea notis illustrata1763-1765latPrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0100De Ruggiero, EttoreCatalogo del Museo Kircheriano1878itaMonography
AKC Bibliography 0106Findlen, Paula,Science, History, and Erudition: Athanasius Kircher's museum et the Collegio Romano2001engExhibition catalogue contribution
AKC Bibliography 0113Mayer-Deutsch, AngelaDas Musaeum Kircherianum. Kontemplative Momente, historische Rekonstruktion, Bildrhetorik2010gerMonography
AKC Bibliography 0397Hunter, MichaelJohn Ray in Italy: lost manuscripts rediscovered2014engPaper in journal
AKC Bibliography 0399Baronio
Ciaconio, Alfonso
Bosio, D’Antonio
Panciroli, Ottavio.
Descrizione di Roma moderna, formata nuovamente ...1697itaPrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0400Bellori, Giovanni Pietro Nota delli Musei, Librerie, Galerie & ornamenti di Statue, e Pitture, ne’ Palazzi, nelle Case, e ne’ Giardini di Roma 1664itaPrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0401Evelyn, JohnThe diary of John Evelyn1901eng
AKC Bibliography 0402Misson, MaximilianNouveau voyage d'Italie, avec un memoire contenant des avis utiles a ceux qui voudront faire le mesme voyage1702frePrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0403Piazza, Carlo BartolomeoEusebologion. Euseuologio romano, ouero Delle opere pie di Roma, accresciuto, & ampliato secondo lo stato presente. Con due trattati delle accademie, e librerie celebri di Roma ... 1698itaPrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0404Priorat, Galeazzo Gualdo Historia della sacra real maestà di Christina Alessandra regina di Suetia, &c 1656itaPrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0405Spon, Jacob
Wheler, George
Voyage d'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grece et du Levant fait aux annies 1675 & 1676 ...1678frePrinted (pre-1830)
AKC Bibliography 0406Mochizuki, Mia M.Connected Worlds—The World, the Worldly, and the Otherworldly: An Introduction 2018engBook chapter
  1. AKC Bibliography 0070
  2. Mentions to Athanasius Kircher and his museum can be found in several published guides to Rome, travel journals and other visit accounts. Some examples are: Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0399; Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0400 ; Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0401; Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0402; Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0403; Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0404; Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0405
  3. This accessment can be traced back, in most cases, to the fundamental work by Julius von Schlosser, Bibliography:AKC Bibliography 0195
  4. Bibliography:AHSI_150_1057 , p. 16.
  5. APUG 558, f. 142r-v, Alfonso Donnino lascia in eredità ai Gesuiti del Collegio Romano la sua collezione antiquaria e chiede di essere tumulato nella chiesa di S. Ignazio. 07/may/1651. In: AKC Bibliography 0070, p. 324.
  6. Bibliography:AHSI 156 665 , p.240.
  7. Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum celeberrimum on Internet Archive.
  8. The celebrated Museum of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus : a facsimile of the 1678 Amsterdam edition of Giorgio de Sepi's description of Athanasius Kircher's Museum "Musæum celeberrimum Collegii Romani Societatis Jesu". Translation by Anastasi Callinicos and Daniel Höhr; annotations by Jane Stevenson; editions and afterword by Peter Davidson. Published by St Omers Press, Stonyhurst and Saint Joseph's University Press, Philadelphia.