The First Description of Kircher’s Museum With the Engraved Frontispiece Showing the Museum’s Interior - Bound with Kircher's Final Work on Mummies & Hieroglyphics

Kircher, Athanasius (1602-1680); Sepi, Georgio de (fl. 1678)

Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum Celeberrimum, Cujus magnum Antiquariae rei, statuarum, imaginum, picturarumque partem Ex Legato Alphonsi Donini, S.P.Q.R. A Secretis, munifica Liberalitate relictum. P. Athanasius Kircherus Soc. Jesu, novis & raris inventis locupletatum, compluriumque Principum curiosis donariis magno rerum apparatu instruxit BOUND WITH Sphinx Mystagoga, sive, Diatribe hieroglyphica qua mumiae, ex Mempheticis pyramidum adytis erutae & non ita pridem in Galliam transmissae, iuxta veterum hieromystarum mentem, intentionemque, plena fide & exacta exhibetur interpretatio.

Amsterdam: Jansson-Waesberg, 1678 and 1676


Folio: 37 x 24.5 cm. Folio: 37 x 24.5 cm. I. *4 (*1 is the engraved title), A-I4. With an engraved title page, an added engraved portrait of Kircher, 17 engraved plates, 10 of which are folding, and 21 text engravings and woodcuts. II. II. *4, **4, A-I4, K3. With five engraved plates, two of which are double-paged, and numerous text illustrations.


Complete with all of the plates including the portrait of Kircher and the iconic view of his museum. A fine sammelband. Bound in attractive  17thc. calfskin. The "Sphinx" exhibits the usual browning. The "Musaeum" is in very fine condition with just some closed tears (no loss whatsoever) to some of the folding plates, a small rust blemish on I1, small spot on H4, and light spotting to leaves D3-4.

I. Kircher's "Most Celebrated Museum of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus"

The only description of Kircher’s museum in the Collegio Romano as it appeared in his lifetime, with the only extant depiction of the museum in all its fantastic glory.

The subjects of the engravings are as follows: a reproduction of the "Nestorian Stele", originally published in Kircher's "China Illustrata" (1667); ten engravings of Egyptian obelisks, the largest of which measures 462 x 746 mm; an illustration of Kircher's "magnetic dove" in flight; various optical devices; the famous "magic lantern"; three plates depicting hydraulic and magnetic clocks; and several perpetual motion machines. The small woodcuts feature a number of animal specimens including an armadillo, a crocodile, an American fox, a hippopotamus, and a rhinoceros. The famous title page, depicting the museum itself, is described below.

"A large group of Egyptian artifacts, presented to Kircher by the noted Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc formed the original nucleus of what became the Museo Kircheriano. To them Kircher gradually added mathematical instruments which he used in his research and teaching at the Collegio, thus forming his own "cabinet" which he eventually expanded with acquisitions of other scientific instruments, largely relating to physics and astronomy, as well as mechanisms and devices of his own invention. Each of his preoccupations was reflected in the additions he made to the collections. Peiresc later sent Kircher gifts of other materials that became part of the growing museum. From his Egyptian research he added models of obelisks and his investigations into music produced musical instruments and hydraulic organs. Clocks, scientific instruments, ethnographic materials, natural history specimens, all became the raw materials for his studies as he ventured into one new subject area after another. On each of his travels, such as his journey to Sicily and Malta, Kircher sought materials for study and eventual display as he continued to build the museum with skeletons and preserved examples of birds and animals, geological specimens, and works of art representing aspects of culture. Not the least of the collections were those relating to mechanics and other aspects of technology that captured his attention.

"Kircher first accommodated his "cabinet" with the College library in a relatively small hall made available to him for the purpose. When in 1651 the secretary of the Roman senate Alfonso Donnini died and bequeathed his collection of classical antiquities to the Collegio Romano, it was added to Kircher’s "cabinet" and additional space was required…

"An additional productive source of acquisitions for the Museo Kircheriano were materials which Jesuit missionaries sent back or brought back to their headquarters in Rome from all parts of the world and provided Kircher additional opportunities for his studies. One of his best informants was Martino Martini of Trent, from whom he obtained some of his finest Chinese artifacts. As he acquired more and more material from missionaries, the little museum in the Collegio emerged as the most extensive and celebrated private ethnographical collection of the seventeenth-century in Europe.

"In time it became necessary for Kircher to acquire specialized assistance for his scientific experiments, preserving specimens, constructing models and mechanisms, and organizing and displaying his collections. Best known was Georgio de Sepi, described by Kircher as "custos musaei et in machinis elaborandis artifex." Another who assisted Kircher in the museum was the former student Francesco Terzi Lana, who later developed his own small museum at the college at Brescia where he taught.

"In 1678 the first published catalogue of the Museo Kircheriano was produced by Sepi. It was arranged in accordance with the physical disposition of the collections and it described and illustrated Egyptian and classical artifacts, early lighting devices, musical instruments, plants and grasses, insects, and scientific apparatus. The frontispiece provides a rare view, and in fact a unique one, of the interior of the Museo Kircheriano when it had achieved its greatest period of development. Situated at intervals along the center of the long hall housing the collections were freestanding statuary and models of obelisks, with shelving on the walls to accommodate pottery and other artifacts. Glass-enclosed display cases containing smaller or fragile specimens were placed somewhat at random along the opposite wall. The walls above the shelves were hung with paintings, preserved animals, weapons, and scientific instruments. The vaulted ceiling was decorated with paintings of the signs of the zodiac and the constellations, and from it a lone, preserved crocodile was suspended. A human skeleton suspended near the entrance appeared to be prepared to greet visitors.

"Distinguished visitors who came from abroad to see the famous museum included the English diarist John Evelyn who saw it during its early period in 1644. He reported that Kircher had conducted him through various parts of the Collegio including his own study, "where, with Dutch patience, he shew’d his perpetual motions, catoptrics, magnetical experiments, models, and a thousand other crochets and devices."

"The years immediately following Kircher’s death in 1680 witnessed the beginning of the decline of the museum which had reached its apogee shortly before. With no one to attend them, the collections were grossly neglected for a considerable period, during which many objects were stolen, and others were destroyed or lost… The museum remained in total chaos until 1698, when the Jesuit Filippo Bonanni was assigned responsibility for it and began the slow process of reorganization and cataloguing… In time the museum began to prosper again under the deft management of Bonanni. [The collections were ultimately dispersed by the Italian government, in 1870, after the unification of Italy] (Silvio Bedini, "Citadels of Learning" in "Enciclopedismo in Roma Barocca : Athanasius Kircher e il Museo del Collegio Romano tra Wunderkammer e museo scientifico", pp. 258-262)

II. "Sphinx Mystagoga"

The "Sphinx Mystagoga", Kircher’s final work on the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the mysteries of ancient Egypt, was inspired by inscriptions on the sarcophagus of a mummy "discovered in a pyramid and brought to France". The investigation of this sarcophagus leads Kircher to a comprehensive discussion of Egyptian funerary culture and religion. Kircher discusses the preparation of mummies (and their preservation), the tombs of Egypt and their contents, the rites of ancient Egyptian burials, and, of course, the interpretation of numerous inscriptions.

The illustrations include: a full-paged view of the pyramids of Egypt, a full-paged image of the sarcophagus, a double-paged view of a labyrinthine, subterranean burial chamber, and two folding hieroglyphic inscriptions. There are also a number of woodcut and engraved text illustrations including a detailed image of the mummy -in a wrapped and partially unwrapped state-, and several sarcophagi.

In Kircher’s view, "hieroglyphic doctrine (in a scheme loosely following traditional biblical exegesis) has four levels of meaning, appropriate to four types of men. The first level belongs to the unlettered and ignorant, who take the fables of the gods for real history, and leads to superstition and idolatry. Those men who begin to seek wisdom progress from the literal to the mystical meaning and arrive at the second level, which is natural theology or philosophy.  The third level is tropological and finds in the stories of the gods an ethical meaning, yielding ‘moral theology.’ Finally, the wisest of men, who know how to interpret the symbols, comprehend the sublime, anagogical sense of the stories of the gods, which concerns the intelligible world of archetypes. […]

"Early on, Kircher arrived at the insight that modern Coptic was closely related to the language of pharaonic Egypt. He was among the first to draw this connection, and he even assigned an alphabetic function to the hieroglyphs. Most of the results were pure works of the imagination; but in one case, the sign based on the image of water and corresponding to the sound ‘m’, Kircher was spectacularly right, the first correct assignment of the phonetic value of a hieroglyph. But Kircher never applied these insights to his interpretation of the hieroglyphs. He dismissed the alphabetic function as a secondary development, for he was firmly convinced that there was no relationship between the spoken vernacular of ancient Egypt and the sacred meanings of the hieroglyphs." (Daniel Stolzenberg, "Kircher’s Egypt")

DeBacker Sommervogel IV, 1076; Wellcome III, 396; Cicognara, 3399; Caillet 5784 Not in Merrill; Wm. Schupach, "Cabinets of Curiosities in Academic Institutions," in Impey/MacGregor, The Origins of Museums (Oxford 1985), pp. 174-5; J. Browne, The Secular Ark (Yale 1983); Kangro, DSB VII. II. DeBacker Sommervogel IV, 1069, no. 34; Merrill 27.