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 yesterday’s learning. His efforts won the respect of experts across Europe and beyond.

Peter N. Miller began his studies of Peiresc by reconstructing his subject’s specialized work as an antiquarian and Orientalist. In his now classic Peiresc’s Europe (2000) and a long series of articles and monographs he showed, with learning and panache, why these apparently recondite pursuits won the admiring interest of Peiresc’s eminent biographer Pierre Gassendi and many others. Peiresc emerged as the exemplary practitioner of early modern Europe’s New History: a form of scholarship that preferred material to textual evidence, used it to reconstruct institutions and rituals rather than to narrate events, and extended to the Near and Far East as well as to Europe. His equable temperament, cosmopolitan curiosity, and Stoic commitment to sociability with all other genuinely learned men helped him attain this status. But so, above all, did his mastery of technical detail.

In his new book as well, Miller argues that the details matter deeply. Much of Peiresc’s originality as a thinker about past and present emerges only when the minutiae of his practices go under the scholar’s microscope. Miller is as tireless as Peiresc in his attention to them. Join Miller in watching Peiresc drawing up a genealogy, for example, and you see him lay out his diagrams in an unusual way: not as top-down trees that treat the descent of political and familial authority as fated and unavoidable, but as side-to-side flow charts. Does the new format make a difference? Yes, a radical one. It allows the genealogist to find space for the interruptions and contingencies that affect real people and their families. Like many contemporary historians, Peiresc believed that birth and ancestry were important facts. Unlike most of them, however, he also admitted that lines of descent were labile and easily broken—a crucial recognition in an age when dynastic principle still shaped the maps of states.


The Peiresc who emerges from Miller’s new study differs from the Peiresc of his previous works in two crucial ways. First, he is now portrayed not as a practitioner of any single intellectual craft—even the all-encompassing one of the antiquaries. The hero of Peiresc’s Mediterranean World was an intellectual omnivore who discovered new worlds wherever he looked. Three years before he died, Peiresc wrote a series of long letters to his friend the philosopher Marin Mersenne. In them he described how he had listened to a galley slave singing a song learned from “black Moors” in Africa. Peiresc not only paid close attention to this performance; he found a musician to help him transcribe the tune into musical notation, wrote out the Turkish words as the slave remembered them, and savored the song itself as “full of grace,” though it showed “a taste different from our usage in some manner.” Like Aby Warburg, Peiresc knew that you find God in the details.

Second, Miller’s Peiresc emerges as a hedgehog, as well as a fox. This passionate and scrupulous observer of little things also saw one big thing: the Mediterranean itself. As an astronomer and cartographer, he established the sea’s length and redrew its contours. As a virtuoso and connoisseur, he collected its natural and human antiquities, from fossils twisted in artful forms by nature to gems engraved in complex ways by men. As a philologist and antiquarian, he cataloged the records and recreated the rituals of its civilizations, from the Near East and Africa to his own southern France.

Those who traveled and worked in the Mediterranean of Peiresc’s own day interested him as deeply as their ancient counterparts. After his early voyages, Miller notes, he was “a landlocked orientalist.” Peiresc depended on the kindness of friends and strangers, whom he equipped with lists of things to find and questions to answer on their travels. The vast archive he created shows that he took as deep an interest in the strange, fascinating streams of traveling scholars and diplomats, sailors and artisans whom he turned into his informants and agents as he did in the ancient manuscripts and fresh citrus fruits that they brought him. He saved their letters and recorded their words as scrupulously as he excerpted documents.

Peiresc’s Mediterranean world was big. To the southeast it almost touched the Red Sea, and connected to the vast trading system of the premodern world in the Indian Ocean. Far to the west, it opened into the Atlantic, and allowed the expanding naval and mercantile powers of the north to enter it. All around it, empires and smaller states, independent cities and subject peoples, navies and pirates jostled and competed for space. Peiresc wanted to know it all. He followed politics, recording wars and rumors of wars, and studied naval affairs. But he also set himself to learn everything, however undramatic, that might affect the movement of people and ideas. He learned how long it took a ship to cast off from the dock and then to cross a given stretch of ocean; what paths sailors most often took across the sea, and why; how to pack goods for safe transport; how to send messages, to move money, and to retrieve valuable items from quarantine or after theft by pirates.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Fernand Braudel fascinated readers of his history of the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II by showing in graphic detail that “distances were not invariable, fixed once and for all. There might be ten or a hundred different distances, and one could never be sure, before setting out or making decisions, what timetable fate would impose.” The ocean was less a natural formation than a human one: human skill and human incompetence determined its size in any given case. Peiresc had read his Braudel—or rather, he had navigated, through his dozens of agents and friends, every difficulty that Braudel found attested in the records of travel and expeditions. And he recorded them.

In recent years, scholars have come back to the Mediterranean not single spies but in battalions. They have taught us how Ottomans and Greeks, Venetians and Genoese, Italians and northerners coexisted and competed on the sea in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They have shown how, even as the empires clashed, skilled information brokers transmitted news and rumors across the sea, while others slid with equal skill from identity to identity, religion to religion, and side to side in the conflict of empires.1

Peiresc’s archive—so Miller argues—adds another, distinctive historical version of the Mediterranean to the ones that his colleagues have crafted. It is based not in the center but in what now seems the periphery: Marseilles, a city poorly served by conventional economic records, though richly supplied, in its day, with ocean-going ships of every class. Looking through Peiresc’s eyes, we gain a vivid, three-dimensional vision of how French commerce and travel operated in his time—as well as of the sailors and merchants, priests of many religions and practitioners of many crafts who populated Peiresc’s Mediterranean.


Peiresc’s Mediterranean World is written, like Peiresc’s Europe, in energetic, eloquent prose. But this time Miller uses an experimental form of exposition to make his readers see with new eyes. He does not tell a single story, but moves to the tune of two steps forward, one step back, at times following chronological order, at times following thematic order. Blocks of primary material, translated (sometimes a little too literally) and explicated, occupy the center of the text.

Because Miller tracks the sources so closely, his narratives often end badly or simply fizzle out. Like all archives, that of Peiresc tells a lot of shaggy dog stories. Messages go out but answers don’t come back. Letters and books, payments and people disappear. Some of Peiresc’s most determined pursuits—such as his effort to obtain a copy of a Hexaglot Psalter—a manuscript of the Psalms with texts in different languages in parallel columns—end in defeat for Peiresc himself (though the manuscript in question ended up in the Vatican Library). Most histories omit or compress this side of the archive. Miller, by contrast, emphasizes it—and thus gives the reader the rare chance to share his own double vision: to see the Mediterranean as Peiresc did, and to see Peiresc at work as his devoted historian has.


Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource

Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc; portrait attributed to Ludovicus Finson, early seventeenth century

This approach has its disadvantages. Repetitions occur, not all of which serve an obvious function. Peiresc’s examinations of vases from the East appear so many times that they begin to seem like his (or Miller’s) hobbyhorse. Yet the advantages of Miller’s method far outweigh its defects. Peiresc’s most novel inquiries—his efforts to record and study the galley slave’s song, for example—were not easy to classify in his own time, and would have been difficult to publish in any recognizable form, then or now. His finished writings usually lacked the sprawling range and visionary curiosity that give his manuscripts their special quality: “When Peiresc actually wrote his History of Provence it came out looking like any other chronicle.” The only way to meet Peiresc at work on his full range of self-imposed tasks is to follow Miller on his plunge into the documents.

What then was Peiresc? A contemporary like Gassendi might have called him a virtuoso or a curieux. Miller, however, does not try to fix Peiresc’s position in one or another constellation of star academics and scholars. Instead, as he works through the archive, he lets a new view of how Peiresc made knowledge slowly emerge. Intellectual commerce, in his world, turns out to be closely related to commerce of the more conventional kind.

When Francis Bacon imagined his ideal society, the New Atlantis, he staffed its central experimental station, Salomon’s House, not only with thinkers and experimenters, but also with twelve fellows “that sail into foreign countries, under the names of other nations (for our own we conceal); who bring us the books, and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts.” He called them “Merchants of Light.” Peiresc, Miller argues, already employed merchants of light: the merchants who brought him collectibles and information, and on whom he depended for much more than that.

Merchants play very specific, limited roles in most histories of early modern European thought. They accept commissions to buy manuscripts or mummies as a modest part of their preparation, financial and practical, for voyages that were mostly dedicated to buying and selling normal commodities like fish and cloth. They head off into a world largely unknown to those they represent. Eventually they bring home the treasures on which Peiresc and other sedentary collectors have built up seductive dossiers—and reveal that many of them aren’t treasures after all. Or they produce baroque excuses for failing to do so. Or they simply disappear.

Peiresc, Miller holds, worked with merchants in a very different way. It’s not just that he learned his way around his sea, the biggest thing he knew, through the eyes, minds, and mouths of the Marseilles merchants. His own practices strikingly resembled theirs. Mandarins of the Republic of Letters often composed their letters in formal Latin. Peiresc wrote his letters, as the merchants did, in French or Italian. Mandarins generally concentrated on the source materials they wanted and their interpretation. Peiresc, however, paid as much attention to the ways and means by which objects could be obtained as he did to the objects themselves. He cared about using the right sort of barrel for books and the right sort of ship for a particular route. Merchants wrote how-to manuals, which instructed their sons on the ways of souks in North Africa and caravans on the Golden Road to Samarkand. Peiresc made his great paper machine into a how-to manual for the homebound scholar seeking everything from precise astronomical observations to specific texts.

More unexpectedly still, Peiresc treated the merchants he worked with not as agents but as colleagues. He often felt more confidence in their accounts of what they had seen than in what he read in supposedly authoritative books. And he sometimes took their historical arguments as seriously as their factual observations. When Peiresc discussed vessels from the Orient with Jean Magy of Marseilles, he felt that he was dealing with an expert. Magy, after all, had lived for years in Cairo, where he had married an Egyptian woman, socialized with local merchants, and mastered all the details of the city’s trading life. Peiresc, accordingly, reported what Magy told him with apparent approval—even when Magy not only described the material objects he had seen, but argued that they included many survivals from much more ancient times—a form of comparative conjecture that one might have expected Peiresc to reserve for himself:

Jean Magy of Marseille, who has been for a long time in Egypt, up to 20-odd years, says he has seen there diverse vases and utensils in common usage, of a form very similar or close to those of the ancients….

Merchants did much more for Peiresc than fetch—or fail to fetch—the objects he wanted. They were his trusted colleagues in interpretation, and Peiresc drew something of his own intellectual style—his marvelous ability to make chronological jumps from antiquity to his own time, to connect what he could learn about the ancient Mediterranean with the present—from them.

More than forty years ago, Michael Baxandall brilliantly evoked the formidable skills that every merchant in fifteenth-century Tuscany had to master: arithmetic and accounting, gauging the size of barrels and other containers, judging horseflesh—and, ideally, showing a neat leg when called on to dance. Peiresc’s merchants recognizably belong to the same stable as Baxandall’s, and Miller makes a strong case for taking them seriously as thinkers with wide interests and multiple competences—an argument that enriches, from another angle, the vision of mercantile culture in early modern Marseilles that Junko Thérèse Takada put forward a few years ago.2

Questions arise. At times—as when Miller treats Peiresc’s measurements of the Mediterranean or his efforts to survey the resources and customs of the Mediterranean lands—he takes care to place his hero in his setting, to show how he built on the enterprises and methods of others. At other times, though, he assumes, rather than argues, that Peiresc’s approach to a problem both marked a radical innovation and opened the road to still-greater ones. In thinking about fossils, for example, Peiresc insisted that the different layers of earth in which fossils appeared represented different periods in the planet’s development. Miller emphasizes the novelty of this geological “history of time”: Peiresc, he tells us, adumbrated and may have inspired the more famous views of Robert Hooke. Perhaps. But an interest in distinct strata and the fossils they preserve hardly began with Peiresc. Ivano Dal Prete has shown that as early as the fifteenth century, Italian natural philosophers and artists read the earth’s history much as Peiresc did.3 So did the most famous of all writers on underground treasure, the sixteenth-century scholar Georgius Agricola, whose heavily illustrated treatise on metals and mining inspired many of the learned to explore underground realms.

More generally, Miller doesn’t directly address the largest questions of all. Was Peiresc’s enterprise unique? Or distinctive? Or did it share vital features with the projects of his contemporaries? Recent work on British virtuosi of the seventeenth century has revealed that they too cocooned themselves in vast archives. Richard Yeo and Elizabeth Yale have made clear that the urge to record every observation—as well as excerpts from reading and material from letters—infected many members of the early Royal Society.4 William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and others have recovered treasures of empirical observation and experiment from the “chymical” notebooks of Boyle, Locke, and Newton, as well as less canonical figures like George Starkey (better known by his pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes).5

Similar developments took place closer to Peiresc as well. Gianna Pomata and Andrew Mendelsohn have traced a history of close observation of particulars—sometimes published as “observations,” sometimes buried in masses of notebooks and bureaucratic documents—in which Continental medical men play the central part.6 Generations of scholars have reconstructed the paper universes constructed by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the sixteenth century and Cassiano dal Pozzo, whom Peiresc knew, in the seventeenth.7 More generally, scholars have shown that many Europeans of Peiresc’s time—including astute merchants and eager customers—thought hard about the rich materials, strange objects, and exotic plants with which a burgeoning economy and expanding trade filled their houses. You didn’t have to be a virtuoso to be fascinated by silk, tulips, or artifacts of every kind.8 Which of these figures resemble Peiresc? Which do not?

Miller’s greatest achievement—and it is remarkable—is to portray Peiresc as a figure in a period landscape: someone who shared skills and interests with contemporaries. But his work would have gained by looking away from the microscope even more often. Many of the steps that Peiresc executed, and that Miller describes in absorbing detail, belong to a period choreography—one that was known and practiced not only on Peiresc’s coast of the Mediterranean, but more widely.

Consider just one case—one well known to Peiresc himself. In 1633 Peiresc heard a report that the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucaris, had just sent the king of England “a book obtained from Egypt, a Greek Old and New Testament written by a woman about the time of the Council of Nicea [AD 325].” Cyril had in fact just given King Charles what is known as the Codex Alexandrinus: a Bible containing the Old and New Testaments in Greek, which is now one of the treasures of the British Library. It is a distinctive manuscript: a massive parchment codex written in the fifth century in majuscule letters, and heavily corrected. Cyril not only sent it, he added a note about its origins:

This book of the Scriptures of the New and Old Testament, as our tradition has it, was written by the hand of Thecla, a noble Egyptian woman, around 1300 years ago, a little after the Council of Nicea. The name of Thecla was written at the end. But once the Muslims had put an end to Christianity in Egypt, the books of the Christians were reduced to a similar condition. Hence the name of Thecla was erased and mutilated. But memory and modern tradition preserve it.9

An earlier note toward the beginning of the manuscript, written in Arabic, ascribes it to “Thecla the martyr,” a Christian woman of the first century, about whom many legends bloomed in later centuries.10 This was very likely the modern “tradition” that Cyril recorded and hoped to preserve. In 1625 he told Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, that the manuscript had been “written by the hand of Tecla the protomartyr of the Greeks, that liued in the tyme of St. Paul.” Yet he clearly also looked at the manuscript itself, as a striking material object, while he weighed the probability of this tradition. Roe, by his own confession no scholar, described its script as “very fayre, a character that I haue neuer seene.” Eventually, Cyril reached a compromise. He was willing to believe that the manuscript was the work of a female scribe named Thecla. But by 1627 he redated both her and her codex to the time “of the councell of Nice”—that is, to the fourth century, when, as was widely known, Greek and Latin were still written in majuscule letters.11 This judicious synthesis of ancient and modern, oral and material evidence was worthy of Peiresc himself.

The two men had more in common than an interest in biblical manuscripts. Peiresc found inspiration in the polyglot scholars and information brokers of the generation before his own: Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon, and Gian Vincenzo Pinelli. Cyril found inspiration in the erudite and independent-minded Cretan scholar Maximus Margounius, who taught him in Venice and coached him when he entered the University of Padua. Peiresc took a deep interest in transporting texts across the Mediterranean. So did Cyril: in his case, printed Greek texts, for the use of his fellow Greeks under Ottoman rule.12 Peiresc collected both ancient objects and modern traditions about them, moved with comfort and ease from the one to the other, and connected them when he could. So, as we have seen, did Cyril.

From Istanbul, where Cyril lived and died, to Peiresc’s Provence, and across Europe from Prague to Paris and beyond, centers of learning abounded. Many of them were also inhabited by virtuosi of this period type—mute inglorious ones, whose papers remain tied up in their bundles or bound in volumes unopened for decades, or who left none, so that their tastes and ideas must be conjured from their possessions. Peter Miller’s reanimation of Peiresc, the master of the Mediterranean, is the best kind of case study. It not only makes us appreciate the range and richness of one man’s experience and the originality of his thought, but also suggests that he had many colleagues in his deepest and most imaginative inquiries. Most important, it gives us hope that their archives too will be opened up by scholars skillful and imaginative enough to make them speak to us.