University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.


Book of the Month

November 2002

Athanasius Kircher

Musurgia Universalis

 Rome: 1650
Sp Coll Ferguson Af-x.9 & Af-x.10

The quater-centenary of the birth of the Jesuit polymath, Father Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), seemed an appropriate moment to examine one of the most famous volumes of his works in Special Collections - the Musurgia Universalis published in two volumes in Rome in 1650. Our copy is outstanding for its finely hand coloured illustrations. 

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): plate between pages 486 & 487

The book is one of the seminal works of musicology and was hugely influential in the development of Western music - in particular on J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and Beethoven (1770-1827). 

Its author lived and worked at the Collegio Romano in Rome for most of his life and his position at the hub of a huge international organisation - the 40,000 or so strong Society of Jesus - had two very important effects: first of all he received thousands of letters from Jesuits and others in places as far apart and little-known as China and Mexico, giving him access to unparalleled sources of knowledge mostly unknown to the western world.

The second effect was the converse of this: Kircher's books were printed in large numbers - there were 1500 copies printed in 1650 of the Musurgia Universalis alone - and widely distributed through Jesuit channels. In 1652, for example, more than 300 Jesuits came to Rome from all over the world to elect a new Superior General: every one of them took back one of these sumptuous volumes, which explains the astonishing diaspora of these books even today.

The Musurgia Universalis then is hugely famous and has been since it appeared in 1650. Its most famous image is probably that of the birds with their songs written out in musical notation beside their pictures. Rameau and Beethoven may well have been influenced by this picture which still appears in musical textbooks used in the United Kingdom for 8-9 year-olds. 

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): detail from plate between pages 30 & 31

The nightingale's song is given first, followed by those of the cock, the hen laying eggs and calling her chicks, the cuckoo, quail and parrot; the latter says "Hello" in Greek. The cockerel's music has the familiar portamento at the end of each phrase; as usual the cuckoo's call is notated as a falling minor third.

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): plate between pages 30 & 31

Vol. 1 (Af.x.9): detail from p.115

The rest of the content of the book, however, is much less well-known, although a small number of the same restricted group of bitonal images from it regularly appears on websites. The German publishing house of Olm produced a facsimile edition of it in 1990 but it is already out of print.

Perhaps most strangely of all, apart from a nineteenth century translation of the work into German, there are no translations of the book, which is written in rather ponderous Latin with occasional excursions into Greek and Hebrew. Some of the musical scores printed in the book are found in no other form, despite the fame of some of the composers.

The frontispiece to the first volume was engraved by Baronius of Rome after a drawing by John Paul Schor. It makes reference to similar pages in some of Kircher's other volumes, particularly the triangle and globe symbols. The colouring of this page by an unknown artist, (perhaps a previous owner) is one of the more successful attempts at the art in the two volumes of the work held by the University of Glasgow.

The triangle at the top is the symbol of the Holy Trinity and sheds its rays over the whole of the top of the picture. Kircher held to the medieval idea that music is a reflection of the essential mathematics and proportions inherent in all Creation so the Trinity was not only a symbol but a real dogma. Under the Trinity we find the nine angelic, four-voice choirs, singing a 36-part canon by Romano Micheli. The canon is properly described as "canoni sopra le vocali di piu parole" ("on the vowels of a few words") although in the present case the words ascribed are those of the angelic choirs in the Trishagion - "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus", as described in Revelation. The strip of text reads: "Angelic choir of 36 voices" (then the Sanctus music notated in staff notation) "distributed in 9 choirs". 

The middle section is dominated by a globe of the World, on which is seated Musica, holding the lyre of Apollo and the panpipes of Marsyas. The globe is encircled by the Zodiac, and Musica holds also a streamer bearing the legend "Of Athanasius Kircher of the Society of Jesus, Universal Musicmaking or the Art ..." (being the beginning of the full title of the work). Round the last part of the streamer is displayed the dedication "To His Serene Highness Leopold William, Archduke of Austria." Other symbols in this section include rings of dancing mermaids on the shore, a shepherd trying out the echo and the winged horse of the Muses, Pegasus.

The lowest part of the picture shows blacksmiths in a cave: the sound of blacksmiths hammering had led Pythagoras to important conclusions about the nature of pitch and the blacksmiths are acknowledged in the picture by being pointed out by Pythagoras, who also holds an illustration of his theorem, also using triangles, and hence referring obliquely once again to the top of the picture. The muse on the right may be Polymnia who appears in standard pose surrounded by musical instruments of various kinds.

Volume 1 (Af-x.9): frontispiece

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): plate between pages 366 & 367

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): plate between pages 500 & 501

The plate shown above to the left depicts 'The Harmony of the Birth of the World' (Harmonia Nascentis Mundi), represented by a cosmic organ with six registers corresponding to the days of creation. The legend "Sic ludit in orbe terrarum aeterna Dei Sapientia"  (thus plays the wisdom of the everlasting God in the earthly orb) appears under the keyboard. The six scenes follow Genesis as drawn by Robert Fludd, showing seas, earth, plants, planets, animals and man.

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): plate between pages 346 & 347

 Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): detail from plate between pages 346 & 347

This is a wonderful illustration of the hydraulic organ's mechanism; it is shown driving several automata simultaneously, like the Pythagorean blacksmiths on the left and the creatures dancing round the skeleton on the right. A closer inspection of the cylinder shows how it works - the perforations allowing poles to slip through, hence opening the pipe above. The names of the notes are clearly visible. An actual example of Kircher's design is still on display in the Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome.

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): detail from plate between pages 302 & 303

The illustration below depicts a piazza-listening device: the voices from the piazza are taken by the horn up through the mouth of the statue in the room on the piano nobile above, allowing both espionage and the appearance of a miraculous event.

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): plate between pages 302 & 303

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): plate between pages 476 & 477

Of the plucked instruments displayed here: II is a TESTUDO or tortoise, clearly a twelve-string lute; III is a THEORBO or bass lute; IV is labelled COMMON GUITAR but most uncommonly it appears to have 17 strings; V is another puzzler - labelled GERMAN OR ITALIAN GUITAR, it has five courses, or pairs of strings, but only four notes are given in the tuning chart; VI is labelled TYPE OF SPANISH GUITAR and has five courses; VII is advertised as a combination of TORTOISE and MANDORA, and is perhaps a kind of mandolin; VIII is said to be a type of TURKISH TRICHORD, vulgarly known as a COLACHON.

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): detail from page 48

The plate above, meanwhile, is from the section discussing Hebrew instruments.


Kircher's keen interest in anatomy is shown in the cut-away style of these anatomical drawings of the human head and ear, designed to show how the ear actually hears and responds to music. The panel below bears a legend which translates as: "The aural organs of various animals."

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): detail from plate between pages 14 & 15

The various earbones are laid out for comparison: reading along the top row: MAN, COW, HORSE, DOG, and then LEOPARD and CAT above RAT and PIG, followed by SHEEP and GOOSE.

Vol. 1 (Af-x.9): plate between pages 14 & 15

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): detail of plate between pages 184 & 185

The arca musarythmica is a device by which a non-musician could compose a piece of four-part music using prearranged musical fragments inscribed in wands arranged in columns inside the box. Each type of wand corresponded to a particular metrical unit e.g. 4, 5, or 6 syllables, and on each wand there were examples of florid counterpoint on one side and more simple note-against-note settings on the other. Once the phrase to be set had been analyzed into its fundamental syllabic units, each of these could be set to an example taken from a wand of the appropriate type. There are many arcas still extant, including one in the Pepys Library of Magdalene College Cambridge.

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): fold-out plate between pages 184 & 185

Vol. 2 (Af-x.10): detail of music from page 167

The Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project, between the Universities of Stanford and Milan, shows us something of the quality and variety of Kircher's eight hundred-plus regular correspondents: from queens and emperors to the insane Mexican nun who gave herself a make-over in the style of Osiris to keep up with Kircher's descriptions in his Oedipus Egypticus. Others sent him chocolate and other presents to keep his interest in them from flagging.

A man of obviously vast erudition and incredibly wide ranging interests, Kircher wrote more than forty books while he lived and worked in Rome; many of these astonishing volumes are available for consultation in Special Collections.

Other copies of the 1650 edition of the Musurgia Universalis: Sp Coll E.x.42-42bis (with an additional double-page engraved title page and one handpainted plate inserted) and Sp Coll Bk4-d.5
A copy of the 1988 German facsimile is available at: Medicine CV15 1988-P

Some other works by Kircher in Special Collections:
Arca Noe, in tres libros digesta ... Amsterdam, 1675: Sp Coll Bk8-b.8; ... Ars magna lucis et umbrae in decem libros digesta ... Rome, 1646: Sp Coll Bl1-d.6 and Amsterdam, 1671 Sp Coll Ea5-x.13 & Sp Coll Bm1-a.13; Ars magna sciendi, in XII libros digesta Amsterdam, 1669: Sp Coll Bh8-a.6-7; China monumentis ... necnon variis naturae et artis spectaculis ... illustrata ... Amsterdam, 1667: Sp Coll Bm1-d.10; Latium. Id est, nova et parallela Latii tum veteris tum novi descriptio ... Amsterdam, 1671: Sp Coll Bk8-b.12; Magnes sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum... Rome, 1641: Sp Coll Bl8-f.11 and Koln, 1643: Sp Coll Bk2-h.18 and Rome, 1654: Sp Coll Ea8-x.2; Mundus subterranaeus, in XII libros digestus ... Amsterdam 1665-1668: Sp Coll Bm6-a.7 and Amsterdam, 1678: Sp Coll Bk8-b.9-10; Neue Hall- und Thon-Kunst, oder mechanische Gehaim-Verbindung der Kunst und Natur ...  Nordlingen, 1684: Sp Coll E.x.7; Obeliscus Pamphilius Rome, 1650: Sp Coll Bk5-d.12; Phonurgia nova sive conjugium mechanico-physicum artis et naturae
paranympha phonosophia concinnatum...
Kempten, 1673: Sp Coll E.x.43; Principis Christiani archetypon politicum sive sapienta regnatrix; quam regiis instructam documentis ex antiquo numismate Honorati Joannii ... Amsterdam, 1672: Sp Coll Bn3-h.12; Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacvs ... Rome, 1636: Sp Coll Bn3-f.4; Turris Babel sive archontologia qua primo priscorum post-diluvium hominum vita ... Amsterdam, 1679: Sp Coll Bk8-b.11.
The books shelved at Ferguson Af-x.1-21 are a set of the works of Kircher (including these volumes) from the library of John Ferguson.

See the Athanasius Kircher on the web site for further biographical details and other links of interest.


This month's feature was compiled by Liam Devlin (Director of Music, St Aloysius College) following a project completed as part of the HATII MSc in IT course.


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Liam Devlin November 2002