A Hero of the European Mind

Liechtenstein Princely Collections/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
‘Landscape with Roman Ruins’; detail of a painting by Herman Posthumus, 1536

Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637) was the exemplary polymath of an age that swarmed with them. His curiosity embraced everything: the deep past and the immediate present, exact sciences and applied ones, philology and philosophy, fossils and antiquities. He collected manuscripts and printed books, curious vessels and engraved gems. His files burst with data on the movements of the planets and the currents of the oceans; on the arts and customs of Muslims, Samaritans, and Eastern Christians; on the texts of the scriptures and the fragments of the ancient philosophers.

Peiresc was never satisfied with what his own dark, heavy-lidded eyes could take in directly. So he reached out from his house in Provence, as remote from the world of books as “if we were amidst the sands of Libya,” and spun webs of correspondence across Europe and beyond. Letters arrived unpredictably, since Europe’s postal system was still under construction in his lifetime. But they came from everywhere—from Constantinople and Beirut to Leiden and London. When a batch of fresh ones arrived together, especially if they were not soaked with vinegar to prevent the spread of plague and were accompanied by “beautiful books” and “such a good part of news of the world,” they filled Peiresc with excitement. He felt transported “back to the middle of the Louvre”—or across the Seine in the rue des Poitevins with his friends in the Cabinet Dupuy, the information crossroads of Paris. He not only answered his mail punctiliously, but also annotated his letters as systematically as his other files and reports, and integrated them into his vast apparatus.

Peiresc kept all of his working papers in loose bundles, organized by subject, and added to and changed them when new information became available. After his death in 1637, collectors eagerly bought up and scattered his collections of books and manuscripts, coins and other antiquities. But the papers endured, to be fixed and bound: frozen parts that had once moved inside a vast paper machine. One hundred and nineteen volumes remain in the Bibliothèque Inguimbertine, the erudite glory of the small Provençal city of Carpentras.

It’s a spectacle to deter the cowardly, or even the prudent: 70,000 closely written pages, which record the day-by-day work of someone who crossed every border on the continent of early modern erudition. Tracking Peiresc’s work in any one of his chosen fields—learning how he mastered the history of Provence, for example, or how he orchestrated observations around the Mediterranean of the lunar eclipse of August 28, 1635—is demanding. It requires the historian both to cut paths through the great paper forests that Peiresc raised and to master the lost disciplines that he practiced, at his own high level. For Peiresc was no Mr. Casaubon, eternally soaking himself in the suds of…

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