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A Modern Socrates’

In his day, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637) was one of the most celebrated men in Europe. With the exception of Francis Bacon, whom he admired but never met, he was on close terms with virtually all the leading intellectuals of the time. He intervened with the Pope on behalf of his friend Galileo; he urged the great Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius to write the epoch-making book De jure belli ac pacis, which laid the foundations of international law; and he gave shelter to Tommaso Campanella, whose visionary work La città del sole portrayed an ideal commonwealth. He entertained Peter-Paul Rubens, who gave him a self-portrait, and he was painted by Van Dyck.

For much of his life, he maintained a vast scholarly correspondence throughout Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, writing or dictating at least 40,000 letters. At his house in Aix-en-Provence and his country estate at Belgentier, near Toulon, he accumulated an astonishing collection of books, manuscripts, coins, medals, gems, busts, statues, inscriptions, paintings, drawings, fossils, shells, minerals, Egyptian mummies, and rarities of every kind. He had a huge garden, in which he acclimatized exotic plants; an observatory, from which he observed comets and eclipses; and a menagerie, in which he bred chameleons and exhibited a crocodile and an elephant. When he died, he was mourned throughout Europe; and his intimate friend Pierre Gassendi, the celebrated scientist, mathematician, and Epicurean philosopher, wrote a five-hundred-page biography, which remains one of the most remarkable tributes ever paid by one scholar to another.

Peiresc’s intellectual interests were universal. They embraced chronol-ogy, Egyptology, biblical studies, the civilizations of Greece and Rome, medieval history, especially that of France and Provence, Oriental studies, linguistics and comparative philology, numismatics, paleography, ethnography, law, economics, comparative politics, music, poetry, and painting. On the scientific side, he was passionately interested in mathematics, astronomy, optics, geology, geography, cartography, botany, zoology, physiology, and anatomy. He enjoyed investigating rarities and freaks: centenarians, mermen, monsters, or people with trees growing out of their stomach. He also took a keen interest in the skills and technical secrets of craftsmen.

Anyone today who admitted to a comparable range of interests would be dismissed as a hopeless dilettante. Yet although Peiresc made few great advances himself, he managed to be at the cutting edge of many of these multifarious disciplines. He was a good linguist and an excellent paleographer. In classical archaeology, he pioneered the practice of precise measurement, devised a method of reading half-obliterated inscriptions, and was responsible for the discovery and excavation of the collection of antique statuary known as the Arundel Marbles, housed today in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. As a historian, he was notable for urging that historical evidence was to be found not just in documents and literary texts, but in buildings, statues, tombs, inscriptions, coins, seals, medals, and stained glass. As an Egyptologist, he took a keen interest in the study of the Coptic language and contemporary attempts to decipher hieroglyphics. As an eco-nomist, he understood the causes of inflation and offered advice on monetary policy. As a prolific letter-writer, he successfully agitated for improvements in the postal service.

His major achievement as a scientist was to recognize the importance of the work done by his brilliant contemporaries Galileo and William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood. Much of the work done in his name was carried out by assistants. But he was a good enough astronomer to be the first to see the nebula in the belt of Orion, and it was he who commissioned the first map of the moon. By coordinating observations of an eclipse of the moon from various points in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, he successfully recalculated the longitude of those places and thereby arrived at more accurate dimensions for the Mediterranean Sea. He also disposed of much popular mythology, showing that a mysterious “red rain” was merely excrement from the chrysalises of butterflies, that the bones attributed to a “giant” were really those of an elephant, and that armies in the sky were visual illusions.

Above all, Peiresc was outstanding for the indefatigable assistance and encouragement which he lavished on other scholars, whatever their branch of learning. He lent them books and manuscripts, found them patrons and publishers, arranged introductions, gave them prolonged hospitality, and assisted them with money. His incessant letters urged them to greater efforts and disseminated news of their activities to others in the field.

His house at Aix-en-Provence became a nodal point in the great Republic of Letters, the international community of learning of which Peiresc was the acknowledged general secretary. He was an indefatigable patron, animator, and facilitator: library, museum, academy, research institute, and learned journal all in one.

Such an achievement is inconceivable today. What made it possible in the early seventeenth century? And how did Peiresc come to occupy so focal a position in the intellectual life of the time? He had the advantages of wealth and social position. As a member of an old Provençal family, he had been sent to study law in Padua before taking up an influential position in 1604 as a member (conseiller) of the Parlement of Provence. He had traveled extensively in Italy, where he made many well-connected friends, and, as secretary to the celebrated Provençal philosopher, magistrate, and politician Guillaume du Vair, Louis XIII’s Keeper of the Seals, he would spend some years moving among intellectual circles in Paris. His home in Provence was ideally situated as the link between France and Italy. Travelers kept passing through, some of them highly influential ones, like Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII. Close to the ports of Marseilles and Toulon, he could dispatch his agents on the merchant vessels which plied across the Mediterranean to the Levant, the great source for classical antiquities and early Christian manuscripts.

Peiresc was also a man of great personal charm: affable, courteous, sensitive, and delighting in conversation, provided it was not about trivialities. He was naturally generous: if he borrowed books from other people, he would return them handsomely rebound. He was immensely industrious, seldom wasting time and virtually never taking any recreation; a young man who stayed with him for eight months saw him only once go for a walk. He was celibate, deliberately rejecting the marriage his father had planned for him, so as to concentrate on the life of the mind, and thereafter leading what was apparently a wholly asexual life. He was also rich enough to be lavish in his acquisition of scholarly materials, and generous in his patronage. He usually had some scholars in residence, plus a large staff of secretaries, artists, engravers, and gardeners, all working on his collections. Modern scholars have given little attention to the material basis of these activities, but Jean-Jacques Bouchard remarked in his funeral oration that Peiresc enjoyed an annual income of 36,000 livres tournois. This was an enormous sum, which presumably came from his ancestral estates. It would be good to know whether this was so.

Peiresc published nothing in his lifetime, but left a vast mass of papers behind him, which were at first treated with some indifference. As Dr. Samuel Johnson later observed, Peiresc’s death was lamented in forty languages, and his papers supplied his heirs with a whole winter’s fuel. Local patriotism kept Peiresc’s memory alive in Provence, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that serious attempts were made to recreate Peiresc’s intellectual activities and to establish their importance. Between 1888 and 1898 Philippe Tamizey de Larroque published seven huge volumes of Peiresc’s correspondence. Much more recently, other scholars have edited further selections from his correspondence, along with some of his unpublished papers. There have been numerous short lives and appreciative essays and some valuable monographs on aspects of Peiresc’s career. But we still await an adequate modern biography to pull together the different dimensions of Peiresc’s many-faceted life.1

Peter Miller’s exceptionally intelligent and stimulating book, Peiresc’s Europe, is not intended to fill that gap. His concern is not so much Peiresc himself as his role as an exemplar of a particular kind of scholarly culture. He identifies Peiresc’s lifetime as a crucial moment in the intellectual history of Europe. It overlapped with an era of relative peace, between the end of the French Wars of Religion (1598) and French intervention in the Thirty Years’ War (1635). It was an age when intellectual cooperation was still possible between scholars of different religions and nationalities; and when there were many irenic schemes for the reunion of the churches. Knowledge had not yet fragmented and the division between the humanities and the sciences was still unknown. A common Latin culture facilitated communication on a European basis (though Peiresc was notable for preferring to write in the vernacular) and scholars could move freely from one country to another. The support of rich intellectuals like Peiresc was crucial to this world of learning. He was not alone as a patron and collector; and there were other sociable, scholarly circles similar to his. In particular, he saw himself as the successor to Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (1535–1601), who had given scholars free access to his fine library and collection of rarities at Padua.

Miller’s book comprises a series of essays on aspects of Peiresc’s work and outlook, each of them designed to locate him in a wider setting. An excellent chapter on Peiresc as an antiquarian stresses that even the most abstruse investigations into the past could have an immediate contemporary application. In an age when political argument often took the form of disputes about legal and historical rights, it was inevitable that antiquarian scholarship should have a political dimension. Inquiries into Hebrew or Roman forms of government contained obvious lessons for contemporary politics. The study of the Roman army underpinned the military innovations of the Dutch commander Maurice of Nassau. Work on ancient numismatics made Peiresc sensitive to current financial issues; after studying the debasement of the Roman coinage, he recommended that French taxes should be related not to monetary values but to the value of grain. Great collections of historical documents, like those amassed by Peiresc or his English counterpart, Sir Robert Cotton, were arsenals of power, containing vital weapons which could be employed in the political or diplomatic conflicts of the day.

As a conscientious member of the Parlement of Provence, Peiresc was a strong local patriot. An important objective of his work was to demonstrate the antiquity and authority of local liberties and privileges. He drafted an essay on the origin of the Parlements and embarked upon an ambitious history of Provence. Miller compares Peiresc’s work on this subject to the studies of the English Parliament conducted by his friend Sir Henry Spelman. But as secretary to the royal Keeper of the Seals, Peiresc was also a bureaucrat in the service of the French state. In 1628 Louis XIII commissioned him to draw up a history of French relations with the principality of Orange, which, though a largely Catholic district in the south of France, belonged to the Dutch Protestant stadholders of the House of Nassau. Peiresc’s elaborate archival inquiries predictably vindicated the French King’s claims to suzerainty. His tragedy, says Miller, was his dual sense of patria as both nation and region; he “was compelled to work for a triumph of the former that could come only at the expense of the latter.”

  1. 1

    There is a very good bibliography in Jacqueline Hellin, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc 1580–1637 (Brussels: R. Lielens, 1980), but a great deal has been published on Peiresc since that date. Many scholarly additions of parts of Peiresc’s correspondence were published in France in the 1970s and 1980s. The more recent include his letters to Cassiano dal Pozzo (1626–1637, edited by Jean-Françoise Lhote and Danielle Joyal (Clermont-Ferrand: Adosa, 1989); to Claude Saumaise (1620–1637), edited by Agnes Bresson (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1992); and to Girolamo Aleandro, edited by Jean-Françoise Lhote and Danielle Joyal (Clermont-Ferrand: Adosa, Vol. 1, 1995).

    An annotated selection of Peiresc’s letters in English translation would be an attractive publishing venture. So indeed would a modern edition of Gassendi’s Life, which remains one of the most interesting and valuable works on the subject.

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