‘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…

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